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Vayigash. The Secret of Jewish Survival

In Parashat Vayigash, the family of Jacob move to Egypt; the very first “diaspora community”. And here, our midrashim and commentaries give us pause to think about how Jews retain their identity as a minority in a majority culture.

Here I would like to refer to two very different sources:

1. Positive Identity: Torah Study

“He sent Judah ahead of him to Joseph, to direct him to Goshen…” (46:28)

Why is Judah sent ahead of the family? Rashi explains:

“The Aggadic interpretation of [לְהוֹרֹת] is [that there should be teaching of Torah]: to establish for him a house of study, from which teaching would emanate.” [Tanhuma]

In the mind of the Midrash, Jacob wants a Beit Midrash set up even before the family arrives. That is the most pressing need for the family when it settles in Egypt.

The Midrash expresses the idea that the most critical ingredient in the founding of a Jewish community is its Torah base, its continued engagement in Torah study.

the most critical ingredient of a Jewish community is its continued engagement in Torah study.

2. Negative Identity. An “Abhorrent” Profession

When Joseph introduces his brothers to Pharaoh, he instructs them of the precise language with which to address the great leader.

"When Pharaoh summons you and asks, 'What is your occupation?' you shall answer, 'Your servants have been breeders of livestock from the start until now, both we and our fathers'- so that you may stay in the region of Goshen. For all shepherds are abhorrent to Egypt." (46:34)

But this seems rather counter-intuitive. Why inform Pharaoh that you are in the shepherding trade if that very profession is abhorrent to the Egyptians? What was Joseph trying to achieve? (Many commentators translate the verse differently due to this difficulty!)

The Netziv - Rabbi Naftali Zvi Berlin (1816-1893) – Rosh Yeshiva of Volozhin comments:

"Abhorrent to the Egyptians: And therefore, he will not want you to reside in the main population centre. This was Joseph's plan, to arrange things to the desired aim - of cultural seclusion. Even if it were to mean that Pharaoh would see his father and brothers in a negative light, it was certainly worth the cost so that the family preserve and protect 'the holiness of Israel'."

In this interpretation, Joseph is willing to suffer “antisemitism”, to have the family of Israel seen in a negative light, as an “abhorrent” shepherding clan rather than holding a more dignified Egyptian occupation, so that they would live in a secluded enclave and preserve their identity. Their unsavoury status would serve to limit cultural intermingling.

And this is remarkable if it is true. But certainly, a rule of diaspora living. We live, Thank God, in one of the most tolerant eras that Jews have ever experiences, however, assimilation is one of the heavy prices we pay for the open and equal societies in which Jews mostly live. The Pew Report of 2013 put US Jewish intermarriage at 58%. The Netziv suggests that the hostility of Egyptian society towards Jacob’s family ensured that they remain apart!

assimilation is one of the heavy prices we pay for the open and equal societies in which Jews mostly live

So, here is our discussion for this week:

  • How can we retain our robust identity as a minority group?

  • How have Jews survived as a minority over the centuries and millennia?

  • Is assimilation inevitable?

  • How did the Jews retain their identity in Egypt for 400 years?

  • What is the most critical ingredient for Jewish survival: a “positive” identity – Torah study and a distinct way of life – or a “negative” identity – the animosity of the majority culture?

3. A Third Option. Integration with Limits

Halakha has devised a system whereby Jews can retain their own Goshen - in Nehama Leibowitz's wonderful moniker, our "Ghetto of Choice" - but at the same time to be integrated. No need for anti-semitism, no need for withdrawal.

Halakha has some strict laws about Jews mixing with Gentiles. Much like Isaac and Jacob, Intermarriage is outlawed, but so is some other cultural mixing: Even if the food is 100% kosher, Halakha restricts Jews from eating eating home-cooked food cooked by a gentile,restricts gentile wine, and even bread baked in a non-Jewish bakery. Halakha will advise at times keep distance from their religious houses of worship, and occasionally some cultural practices with religious overtones; and in the positive sense, Jewish life envelopes a person in a community, through daily communal prayer, and other celebrations and rites.

These laws are sometimes inconvenient, sometimes, bizarre and inconsistent (-why can I share a beer but not wine?-) but they stand as a constant reminder of our difference.

In this way, a Jew grows a protective layer, understanding that whereas he or she can freely interact with the wider society in study or work, in societal involvement and national service, at a deep layer, Jews are to stand apart.

In this reading, survival does not rest merely on study nor on generating animosity. Rather a community sub-culture is created that ensures Jewish community and continuity.

  • Could something like this have existed for Jews in Egypt?

  • Do you find this a source of stress and tension or a practice of development of a special Jewish environment centered around home, synagogue and community?

  • In what ways do you set yourself apart from the gentile population around you?

  • Is this a positive concept to you, or an off-putting one?

Shabbat Shalom!

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