“And there was famine in the country, and Abraham descended to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was very heavy in the land.” (Genesis 12:10).

“And there was a famine in the land, besides the famine, that had been in the days of Abraham lived, so Isaac went to Abimelech, King of the Philistines, to Gerar. And G‑d came to him and said: ‘Do not descend to Egypt. Stay in the land which I shall tell you. Sojourn in this land and I will bless you.” (Genesis 26:1-3).

“And Jacob exclaimed:

“My son Joseph is still alive! I’m going to see him before I die. ‘And he travelled with all he had and came to Beersheba, and offered sacrifices to the G‑d of his father Isaac.

... And God said:

“‘I am the G‑d of your father, the Almighty G‑d. Do not be afraid to descend to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation. I will go down with you to Egypt and I will surely bring you up from there’.”

While the subject of Isaac and his plans to travel to Egypt is stated clearly in the Torah, and Jacob's trip to Egypt will be considered further, Abraham’s descent into Egypt is worthy of special attention.

The sages’ comments on Abraham’s descent into Egypt differ. Rashi says the following: “The famine came to that country alone in order to test Abraham and see if he would question the words of the Holy One Blessed is He, Who told him to set out for the land of Canaan but was now forcing him to leave it.” The same is implied in Ibn Ezra’s commentary and in the midrashic compilation Bereishit Rabbah.

According to the above-cited commentaries it is clear that Abraham did not sin and was not punished for descending to Egypt.

However, Ramban’s opinion, (as indeed the sacred Zohar), differs significantly from the opinions of the above-mentioned commentators. Ramban says: “Know that our patriarch Abraham unwittingly committed a great sin, for he brought his righteous wife to potentially stumble and sin because of his fear that the Egyptians may kill him. Rather, he should have trusted in G‑d that he would save him and his wife and all that belonged to him, for G‑d has the power to help him and save him. Moreover, his leaving the land that he was originally commanded to move to due to the famine was a sin for he should have known that in famine G‑d would deliver him from death and it was on account of this act of Abraham that exile in the Land of Egypt under Pharaohs hand was decreed upon his descendants.

Yet no blame is imputed upon Abraham, by Rashi, Ibn Ezra or Bereshit Rabbah.

Thus, we may ascertain that the sages were divided on this matter. While the rabbis whose views are documented in Bereshit Rabbah, Ibn Ezra and Rashi, were of the opinion that Abraham sinned when he descended to Egypt, Ramban speaks of two sins that Abraham committed: the first is when he called Sarai his sister, and the second is when he travelled to Egypt without the Almighty’s permission.

It is not for us to decide who of above-mentioned sages is correct in his opinion. Yet, we will try to carry out a logical analysis ex contrario. If in Abraham’s family and in the further Jewish destiny, adverse events occurred as a result of Abraham’s descent into Egypt, this may well indicate that Ramban is correct that Abraham did in deed sin albeit unwittingly. Let us consider the situation in detail.

Pharaoh is a king of the most powerful empire of the time. A small group headed by a ‘shepherd’ comes to his country. The shepherd has a beautiful sister. What does Pharaoh do? He takes the sister to his palace and gives her brother extreme wealth. Practically speaking, he ‘buys’ her. From the vantage point of Pharaoh, he did a lawful thing and did not harm anyone. And then it transpires that the shepherd had lied to him; the woman he had takenis not his sister, but his wife. Moreover, the Almighty strikes Pharaoh and his family with great plagues on Sarai’s word.

[Bereshit Rabbah cited by Rashi states: “Rabbi Levi said: ‘All that night the angel stood with a staff in his hand and hit. If she said hit, he hit, if she said leave he left’.”].

What could the pharaoh feel? First of all, great humiliation, which, perhaps, was undeserved (from his perspective). In turn, it caused fear and hatred. Fear, because Pharaoh understood that Abraham was assisted by divine power. And hatred, as a response to the humiliation that Pharaoh deemed undeserved. Arguably and understandably, Pharaoh would seek vengeance. Yet fearing the Almighty, even Pharaoh could not allow himself to take revenge overtly. Pharaoh did it another way, with trickery. He gave Sarai an Egyptian, Hagar, as her slave.

Bereshit Rabbah states reads: “Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai said: ‘Hagar was Pharaoh’s daughter. When Pharaoh saw what was done for Sarai in his home, he gave her his daughter. He said: ‘It would be better for my daughter to be a slave in this house, than a mistress in another house.’

Yet there may have been another reason. As we have suggested, Pharaoh must have craved revenge, but he could not allow himself to do so overtly. That is why he gives Sarai his daughter, Hagar, as a slave. For Pharaoh understood that Hagar, who herself was a mistress with many slaves, would never resign herself to the position of a slave, and this would sooner or later become manifest. In fact, Pharaoh provoked a potential extended conflict in the family of Abraham and Sarai. The basis for this idea are the later events described in Torah.

Sarah does not bear children and decides to give Hagar in marriage to Abraham. Once Hagar becomes pregnant, her “non-resignation” comes out and she begins “to despise her mistress.”

Bereshit Rabbah states: “Rabbi Huna and Rabbi Yirmiyah on behalf of Rabbi Hiya Bar Aba say: ‘And Hagar told them: Sarai, my mistress, the secret one is not such as in the explicit one; she looks pious, but she is not such; if she were pious – look for how long she does not get pregnant, while I managed to get pregnant in one night.” Wounded, Sarah calls for the Almighty to judge between her and Abraham. She says: “Let God be judge between me and you.”

Bereshit Rabbah also states: Rabbi Tanhuma, on behalf of Rabbi Hiyah the Great, and Rabbi Berechya, on behalf of Rabbi Elazar, say: “He who wakens the inclination toward judgment, will not go untouched. Sarah was supposed to reach Abraham’s age, but as she said ‘Let God be judge for me and you!’, forty-eight years were taken away from her life.”

As a result of Sarah’s oppression, Hagar flees, but the angel of the Almighty sends her back announcing the birth of a son who will become the progenitor of an innumerable people. Hagar comes back and gives birth to Ishmael.

Let us summarize the intermediate conclusions. First, to carry out his promise to make of Abraham a powerful people, G‑d initially generates the great people, although not from Sarah, but from Abraham and Hagar. Thus, this people is descendant not only of Abraham, but also of Pharaoh. Considering that Ishmael then married an Egyptian, the Egyptian blood prevailed in this people. Second, as a result of conflict with Hagar, Sarah’s lifetime was reduced by forty-eight years. Third, Ishmael was a wild person and a man of war as he is described in the Torah. Rashi and other commentators suggest that by the end of his life he repented and died a pious man. Nevertheless, Ishmael’s descendants will persecute Sarah’s progeny till the end of time, a theme on which numerous Midrashic teachings and comments have been written.

In his commentary, Ramban says the following: “When G‑d decided to save the dying Ishmael from thirst, the ministering angels came forth with an accusation saying: ‘Lord of the Universe, Do you want to save those who are going to kill Your people’s sons in the future?!’ Rabbeinu Bechaye writes: ‘Perhaps, Abraham saw in his prophetic insight that in the future his descendants would be subdued to Ishmael’s sons who would hate them with a passion; , there would not be other people in the world who would hate Israel so much as Ishmael’s sons’.”

Bereshit Rabbah cites Rabbi Simeon’s words: “The ministering angels arose to accuse him; and they told Him: ‘Lord of all the worlds! You are opening a well to him who will make your sons die of thirst!’”

The reference here is to an aggadic tradition that reads that such was a deed of Ishmael’s descendants towards the sons of Israel who left for Babel exile after the First Temple was destroyed.

The abovementioned events that took place in Abraham’s family as a result of the descent into Egypt. This in my opinion corroborates the rectitude of Ramban’s opinion, according to which Abraham sinned when he presented Sarah as his sister.

If Ramban’s conclusion that Abraham came to Egypt without the permission of the Almighty is true, the question of what was Abraham’s punishment for that needs further analysis.

The term exile implies the forceful removal from a native country to a foreign one. But Jacob left for Egypt by his own choice to see his son Joseph, (as well as because of the prevailing famine), for which he had the permission of the Almighty. Neither the Torah nor the sages' comments say that Jacob was sent to Egypt as a retribution for sins. The question is: was Jacob’s and his family’s descent to Egypt really a punishment?

We know from the Torah that the Almighty promised to give Canaan to Abraham and his descendants. This was likewise promised to Isaac and Jacob. It is difficult to imagine how sixty-six Hebrews (Jacob and his family) who led a nomadic way of life, might have conquered the land of Canaan. The chapter of Mishpatim (Exodus, 23.28-30) reads: “And I will send hornets before you, and they will chase away Hittites and Canaanites and Hivites. But I will not chase them from you in one year, otherwise the land would become deserted and wild animals grow more. I will chase them one by one, until you multiply and inherit this land.”

To make the Hebrews grow in number in two hundred and ten years from seventy to several millions, a base (incubator) was required with abundant natural resources. Canaan could not be such a base. First, because there was often famine in Canaan. Second, Canaan’s fertile lands belonged to the local kings and the Hebrews could not use them. But the land of Goshen in Egypt, rich with pastures and fertile fields, could serve as such a base. Thus, the exodus of Jacob and his family to Egypt did not have to be a punishment or exile, but rather a necessity to grow significantly the number of Hebrew people and thus make it prepare for the conquest of the land of Canaan.

So, Jacob’s decent to Egypt did not have to be a punishment. The punishment was the ultimate enslavement of the Hebrews, which took place decades after Jacob’s descent to Egypt.

The firstborns

In the history of patriarchs one can see a special destiny of their firstborns. Thus, Ishmael, Abraham’s firstborn was deprived of the primogeniture by his father. Jacob’s firstborn Esau sold his primogeniture. Jacob’s Reuben was also deprived of his primogeniture by his father. Before he died, Jacob blessed first not his firstborn Joseph Manasseh, but Ephraim.

We should consider especially the story of Esau and Jacob. If Ishmael and Reuben were deprived of the primogeniture by their fathers, Esau gave it away of his own free will. The question is: why?

In my opinion, one possible explanation may be the description of Esau and Jacob’s birth given in the Torah: “First to come out was a red one, and hair covered him like a cloak. He was named Esau. Then came out his brother, and he held Esau by the heel. He was named Jacob.”

Rashi and Bereshit Rabba give the following comment: “Jacob was right to seize him and hold him, to prevent him from coming out first, for in fact Jacob was conceived first and Esau second.” While agreeing fully with the first part of this affirmation, we will give another explanation. Jacob and Esau were hetero-ovular twins. According to modern-day gynecological studies, the conception of hetero-ovular twins may differ from several minutes to seven days and it is impossible to define who was conceived first. At the same time, between the emergence of hetero-ovular twins from the womb there is always an interval, from fifteen minutes to one hour. The fact that there is no interval in the birth description in the Torah, is evidence of a miracle. And this miraculous birth, unseen in ordinary life, is evidence that Jacob was supposed to come out first.

In my opinion, Esau gave away his primogeniture willfully, as it was not his by right.

We can also remember the fact that Cain was firstborn; there is an opinion that Ham was also firstborn; David’s firstborn was Absalom who rose against his father; after the sin of the golden calf the Almighty substituted firstborns with Levites. What is the message of the Torah? I think, by showing the firstborns’ adverse destiny and their malicious deeds, the Torah expresses a really important life concept, that is: the more power and privileges are given to a person, the more he is susceptible to the influence of an evil inclination (yetzer hara) who induces him to abuse these privileges and power, which happened to many of these firstborns. For the firstborns get power and privileges purely for the fact of their primogeniture, without any effort. At the same time, using the example of a firstborn like Abraham, the Torah shows that a man bearing power and privileges is bound to develop responsibility, love for people and virtue, and only in this case the power and privileges given to him will make this world better and help to realize God’s purpose.