There was a Famine in the Land: Descent—a Need of Ascent

It came to pass after these things that God נִסָּה (nissah), tested, Abraham (Genesis 22:1). It is written: You have given נֵּס (nes), a banner, to those in awe of You לְהִתְנוֹסֵס (le-hitnoses), to be unfurled (Psalms 60:6)—trial upon trial, elevation above elevation, to test them in the world, to elevate them in the world like a ship’s banner” (Bereshit Rabbah 55:1).

“Once Abraham was crowned with his rungs in the Holy Land and entered the holy rung, what is written? There was a famine in the land (Genesis 12:10), for no one knew how to draw near the blessed Holy One [cf. Amos 8:10]. There was a famine in the land, for until now the power [of Shekhinah] over the land had not vitalized or nourished the land, for it was still unsanctified, unstable. As soon as Abraham saw that the power appointed over the land had not vitalized it fittingly with holy energy, Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there (ibid.). How did Abraham know? As is written: To your seed I give this land (ibid., 7). Then Abraham knew that the land would be arrayed in holy arrayal only through certain rungs issuing from him. He discovered a mystery of wisdom: only so would the land be arrayed in holiness [i.e., it is impossible to reach the height of perfection unless one has first descended into the realm of evil and risen from there, see Rabbi Avraham Galanté, Zahorei Ḥammah on Zohar 1:81b].

Abram went down to Egypt. Why Egypt? Because it is equivalent to the Garden of YHWH, as is written: Like the garden of YHWH, like the land of Egypt (ibid. 13:10) [cf. Deuteronomy 11:10]. For there one river on the right plunges, as is written: The name of the first is Pishon, the one winding through the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold (ibid. 2:11). Once Abraham knew and entered perfect faith, he sought to know all those rungs linked below, and since Egypt drew from the right, he went down to Egypt. 

Come and see: Famine prevails only when compassion withdraws from justice. 

When he drew near to Egypt (ibid. 12:11).

Rabbi El’azar said, כַּאֲשֶׁר הִקְרִיב (Ka’asher hiqriv), When he drew [someone] near. The verse should read: כַּאֲשֶׁר קָרַב (Ka’asher qarav), When he came near. Why Ka’asher hiqriv, when he drew [someone] near? As is written, Pharaoh hiqriv, drew [someone] near (Exodus 14:10), for he drew Israel back to God [see Shemot Rabbah 21:5]. Here too, hiqriv, for he drew himself near to the blessed Holy One fittingly. 

To enter Egypt (Genesis, ibid.)—to scrutinize those rungs, and shun them, to shun the ways of the Egyptians. 

Rabbi Yehudah said, ‘Come and see: Because Abraham went down to Egypt without permission, his descendants were enslaved there for four hundred years. For look at what is written: Abram went down to Egypt, and not: Go down to Egypt! ” (Zohar 1:81a–b).

“Come and see the mystery of the matter: If Abram had not gone down to Egypt and been refined there first, he would not have become the share of the blessed Holy One. Similarly with his children, when the blessed Holy One wanted to make them a unique and perfect people, to draw them close to Him: If they had not first gone down to Egypt and been refined there, they would not have become His unique nation. Similarly, if the Holy Land had not been given first to Canaan to rule, it would not have become the portion and share of the blessed Holy One [see Zohar 1:73b]. It is all one mystery….

Come and see: When Abraham entered the land the blessed Holy One appeared to him, as has been said, for it is written: to YHWH who had appeared to him (Genesis 12:7). There he received nefesh and built an altar for that rung. Afterward, continually journeying (ibid., 9), receiving ruaḥ. Finally he ascended to cleave to neshamah, and then he built an altar there to YHWH (ibid., 8)—uncharacterized, referring to neshamah, concealed of all concealed. 

Then he knew he had to be refined and crowned with rungs, so immediately Abram went down to Egypt (ibid., 10). He was delivered from there, not seduced by those dazzling demons. Refined, he returned to his domain. Having descended and been refined, immediately Abram went up from Egypt (ibid. 13:1)—went up, literally, returning to his domain, cleaving to supernal faith, as is written: to the Negev. From now one Abraham knew supernal wisdom, cleaving to the blessed Holy One, becoming the right hand of the world. Then Abram was very heavily laden with cattle, with silver, and with gold (ibid., 2). Very heavily laden—on the side of the East; with cattle—on the side of the West; with silver—on the side of the South; and with gold—on the side of the North” (Zohar 1:82b–83b).

“Come and see: When the blessed Holy One created Adam, He commanded him for his own good and endowed him with wisdom, whose rungs he climbed. Descending below, he rediscovered the craving of the evil impulse and clung to it, forgetting all he had attained of the supernal glory of his Lord.

Then came Noah. At first is written: Noah was a completely righteous man (Genesis 6:9). Later he descended below and saw strong wine, unclassified, one day old. He drank some of it, became drunk, and exposed himself.

Then came Abraham. He ascended in wisdom, contemplating the glory of his Lord. Afterwards, there was a famine in the land and Abram went down to Egypt… (ibid. 12:10). Subsequently what is written? Abram went up from Egypt… (ibid. 13:1), ascending to the rung he had attained at first. He entered in peace and emerged in peace.

Then came Isaac. What is written? There was a famine in the land… and Isaac went (ibid. 26:1). Isaac went and later ascended from there in peace.

Every single one of the righteous is tested by the blessed Holy One, to elevate them in this world and in the world that is coming” (Zohar 1:140b).