The Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn of blessed memory, related:1 When the Tzemach Tzedek was a young child and learned the passage, “Ya’akov lived in the land of Egypt for 17 years,”2 his teacher translated it according to the Baal HaTurim commentary: “Our father Ya’akov lived his 17 best years in Egypt.”

Upon his return from cheder, he asked his grandfather, the Alter Rebbe: How can it be that our father Ya’akov, the elect of the Patriarchs, had his best years in Egypt, the land of corruption?3

The Alter Rebbe answered: It is written, “And Yehudah sent before him to Yosef to give instruction for Goshen.”4 The Midrash states, and Rashi quotes this: “R. Nechemya said: to establish a house of study so Torah would be there and the tribes would learn Torah.”

“To give instructions for Goshen” means (in a deeper sense), that when one learns Torah, he becomes closer to G‑d, may He be blessed. So, even in Egypt, it is possible to say vayechi — Ya’akov truly lived.

At first glance, it is not hard to understand why Ya’akov’s best years were the last 17 of his life, which he spent with his beloved Yosef. As the select of the Patriarchs, Ya’akov’s primary delight was in seeing that Yosef was not only alive, but conducting himself as befitted Ya’akov’s son, remaining wholly righteous, notwithstanding the fact that he had lived in a corrupt land for so many years.5

This is also to be understood from what Ya’akov said to Yosef when he saw him in Egypt: “After I have seen your face, that you are still alive.”6 This passage is puzzling: Was it only by actually seeing Yosef’s face that Ya’akov could know that he was alive?

The verse informs us that, by gazing into Yosef’s face, Ya’akov was able to see that Yosef was alive spiritually as well as physically. Yosef’s righteousness had not waned; indeed, it had grown while he was in Egypt. And this was the main reason for Ya’akov’s extreme joy.7

It is thus understandable that Ya’akov’s tremendous joy8 in seeing Yosef resulted from the latter’s ability to transform the gloom of Egypt into a blaze of holiness.

This being so, both the Tzemach Tzedek’s question and the Alter Rebbe’s answer require an explanation.

The Hebrew word for Egypt, mitzrayim, is related to the words “straits” and “limitations”9 — it is a land that does not allow the infinite revelation of G‑dliness. Indeed, as “the land of corruption,” it did not readily allow for any degree of Divine revelation.

The goal of man’s spiritual service is to achieve a state of exodus from all limitations, so that he can serve G‑d without constraints.10

This, then, was the point of the Tzemach Tzedek’s question: While during these 17 years, Ya’akov achieved a measure of spiritual joy that he had not attained until then, his descent into such a land had to have a limiting effect on his spiritual service. How then could these years be considered the best of his life?

The Alter Rebbe answered by noting that Ya’akov “established a house of Torah study”: Torah study can raise an individual above all limitations, so that one can be truly alive in a spiritual sense, even while in Egypt.

The reason for this is that the Torah is rooted in G‑d’s essence.11 Just as G‑d defies all limitations, so too with Torah; even though it descends within the physical, it remains essentially limitless.12 Therefore, by cleaving to Torah, one can withstand even the spiritual trials and tribulations of Egypt.

By establishing a Torah center in Egypt, Ya’akov was assured that his going there would not involve a descent in spiritual service, for the study of Torah placed him beyond the nation’s spiritual concealment. This enabled Ya’akov to live the best spiritual years of his life, even while in Egypt.

Based on Likkutei Sichos, Vol. X, pp. 160-162