By moving to Mitzrayim, Yaakov and his following introduce a new lifestyle to the Jewish nation: the lifestyle of Galus. While this is clearly the largest scale on which Yeridah had ever taken place thus far in the Torah, both in terms of the number of people involved, as well as the length of time for which the exile was to last, there were other occasions on which Jews, including Yaakov himself, left Eretz Yisrael. It is particularly interesting to note the similarities and contrasts between Yaakov's personal exile to the house of Lavan, and the national Galus described in this week's Parsha.
There are numerous parallels between the two. Both are entered into because of impending doom, in the form of either enemy agression or enduring famine. During both, the Jews are hoodwinked into working for employers who, although they initially seem like reasonable men, end up being extremely abusive. Both oppressors repeatedly violate promises to set the Jews free, and chase after them when they finally escape.
However, there are two striking distinctions between the Galus of the individual Yisrael and that of the nation Yisrael. First, while Rashi in Parshas Vayishlach (בראשית ל"ג:ה') suggests that Yaakov managed to avoid the influence of Lavan (עם לבן גרתי ותרי"ג מצות שמרתי ולא למדתי ממעשיו הרעים), there is no such suggestion about the Jews in Egypt. In fact, Chazal even suggest that the Jews came dangerously close to achieving the dubious distinction of being on the same level of Tumah, spiritual defilement, as the Egyptians. Apparently, during the exile in Egypt, the Jews were less successful than Yaakov at maintaining their unique identity.
The second difference involves the return to Israel from the two exiles. While Yaakov, on his return, is able to maintain civil (though distant) relations between himself and Eisav, this is certainly not true of the legions of Yehoshua who return from Egypt. Quite to the contrary, they systematically eradicate the Canaanim. This difference between Yaakov and his descendants in the mode of interaction with the local population is clearly endorsed by Hashem; while He never suggests that He might destroy Eisav to protect Yaakov, He stresses throughout the later portion of the Torah that He will assist in the conquest of Canaan.
There is one principle which underlies both these differences. While it may have been possible for Yaakov to avoid the influence of one individual, be he Lavan or Eisav, for a limited period of time, it is impossible for the Jewish community to properly maintain Torah standards in the face of an overwhelmingly hostile outside culture over an extended period of time. Dwelling in Egypt for 210 years, the Jews underwent massive assimilation, and Rashi in Parshas Beshalach (שמות י"ג:י"ח) suggests that in fact only a miniscule percentage of the Bnai Yisrael actually participated in the Exodus. To prevent such a tragedy from occuring again, Hashem took drastic measures when He set up the Jewish society in Eretz Yisrael. He insisted that the Jews, despite the fact that they would now be the majority, could not share their country with any other nation, and guaranteed that He would provide any assitance needed to ensure that the Canaanim were evicted or eliminated.
While we as individuals may at times be able to ignore the lessons which others would like us to learn, it is impossible for people not to absorb the messages with which the larger society costantly bombards them. Therefore, if we choose to live in a society which embraces values which are not endorsed by Torah, we can hardly expect to avoid severe consequences. However, if we choose to make our society one where Torah values are emphasized, we will be hard pressed to find people who are not influenced by this. May we all merit to assimilate into a Torah society.