Assimilation into a Foreign Culture

  • Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein
Adapted by Binyamin Fraenkel
Translated by Kaeren Fish
“To Establish a Place of Learning”
The Torah introduces the description of Yaakov’s emotional descent to Egypt by noting a seemingly superfluous detail:
And he sent Yehuda ahead of him to Yosef, to show the way before him to Goshen, and they came to the land of Goshen. (Bereishit 46:28)
Rashi cites the midrash:
A midrash aggada teaches: To show the way – to establish a place of learning, that instruction might emerge from there.
According to the midrash, the Torah is describing how, as he heads for Goshen, Yaakov makes immediate plans to open a “kollel,” a beit midrash, so as to preserve the Jewish spark in the midst of the impurity of Egypt, and he appoints Yehuda as the “Rosh Yeshiva.”
We can only imagine the tears in Yosef’s eyes, the crack in his voice, and his feeling of profound disappointment upon hearing that Yehuda, rather than he himself, will head Yaakov’s yeshiva. What does Yehuda know about preserving a Jewish spark in the heart of Egypt and its impurity? Has Yosef himself not succeeded in achieving honor and respect for the Hebrews right there in Egypt, and specifically at such a time of crisis?!
More than once, Yosef’s faith had been put to the test, and each time he stood firm and remains faithful to his tradition and his heritage. Potifar’s wife tried to tempt him into a forbidden sexual liaison, but the image of Yaakov appeared to Yosef in the window and he fled rather than succumbing.
In interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams, Yosef repeated over and over that he was merely God’s agent, rather than taking the credit himself, although he could presumably have advanced his personal ambitions by doing so. In addition, Yosef was not ashamed of his identity; he presented himself as a Hebrew – in contrast to many other figures, including Moshe.
Why, then, does Yaakov appoint Yehuda as the Rosh Yeshiva, rather than choosing the seemingly obvious candidate?
“And Yosef Bought all the Land of Egypt for Pharaoh”
Let us imagine Yosef racing towards Yaakov in his private limousine, a splendid luxury vehicle driven by his personal chauffeur – but still part of Pharaoh’s royal fleet, and therefore adorned with a symbol of idolatry. Yosef is not troubled by the symbol; he is used to it and it no longer matters to him. But Yaakov feels a stab of pain at the sight of his son, ruler of Egypt, riding in a car bearing such a symbol.
It is reasonable to assume that Yosef tried, in his official capacity, to help the Egyptians during the harsh years of famine, but he nevertheless represents a tyrannical and avaricious regime:
And Yosef gathered up all the money that was found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, for the corn which they bought. And Yosef brought the money to Pharaoh’s house. And when money failed in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, all of Egypt came to Yosef and said, “Give us bread, for why should we die in your presence? For the money fails.” And Yosef said, “Give your cattle, and I will give you for your cattle, if money fails.” And they brought their cattle to Yosef, and Yosef gave them bread in exchange for horses, and for the flocks, and for the herds, and for the donkeys, and he fed them with bread in exchange for all their cattle for that year. When that year was ended, they came to him in the second year, and said to him, “We will not hide from my lord, how that our money is spent; my lord also has our herds of cattle; there is nothing left in the sight of my lord, but our bodies and our lands. Why shall we die before your eyes, both we and our land? Buy us and our land for bread, and we and our land will be servants to Pharaoh, and give us grain, that we may live and not die, that the land may not be desolate.” And Yosef bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh, for Egypt sold every man his field, because the famine prevailed over them, so the land before Pharaoh’s. And as for the people, he removed them to the cities from one end of the borders of Egypt, to the other end. (Bereishit 47:14-26)
This shrewd strategy gives Pharaoh control over every piece of land in Egypt, over the cattle and property of the Egyptians, and over the people themselves. We can only imagine their bitter resentment – which, of course, is directed towards Yosef, who is the interface representing Pharaoh’s regime. Yosef’s likely good intentions are of no interest to the people. He is stuck between a rock and a hard place.
“Daughter of Poti-Fera, Priest of On”
Moreover, not only do Yosef’s actions create a harsh reality for the simple people, but he awards a tax exemption specifically to the priests of idolatrous worship:
Only the land of the priests he did not purchase, for a portion was assigned to the priests by Pharaoh, and they ate their portion which Pharaoh gave them; therefore, they did not sell their land. (Bereishit 47:22)
This rather dismal picture of Yosef the Hebrew, who subjugates the people and enslaves them to Pharaoh, on one hand, while showing favor to idolatrous priests on the other, casts a shadow over his good intentions and casts him into the mold of an Egyptian despot just like Pharaoh.
Yosef’s mingling in society is not limited to the responsibilities and commitments of his political appointment. He is also married to the daughter of a priest:
And two sons were born to Yosef before the years of famine came, whom Osnat, daughter of Poti-Fera, priest of On, bore to him. (Bereishit 41:50)
Yosef the Hebrew, son of Yaakov, is a regular guest in the home of the leader of the priests of idolatry; he eats at his table, his children receive his teachings, they listen to pagan Egyptian pop music, watch the latest movies, and have pagan bedtime stories read to them. While Moshe, too, had a father-in-law who was a priest for idolatry, it would seem that in the case of Yosef the idolatrous influence was present within his own home.
No Longer a Boy in “Cheder
Amidst the excitement of the reunion between Yosef and his brothers, he instructs them to describe his great status and power:
Hurry and go up to my father, and say to him, “So says your son, Yosef: God has made me lord of all of Egypt; come down to me, do not delay.” (Bereishit 45:9-10)
Yosef is certain that his words and the awe of his status will be a matter of great pride and satisfaction to his father; he is, after all, ruler over all of Egypt. However, Ramban suggests that Yaakov’s reaction to Yosef’s status was quite different:
It seems to me that Yisrael’s eyes were already somewhat dim from age, and when Yosef arrived in the chariot of the second-to-the-king, wearing the turban in the manner of the kings of Egypt, he was not recognizable to his father, and even his brothers did not recognize him. For this reason the text notes that when his father finally perceived and recognized him, he fell upon his neck and wept over him further, as he had wept over him all the time up until now, when he had not seen him. (Ramban, Bereishit 46:29)
Yaakov, despite his age and his poor vision, sees deeply and understands the profound significance of lengthy processes. He notes the slight but significant changes in Yosef, and understands that despite Yosef’s struggle to retain his identity and his integrity, he is not the same person that he once was. He is no longer the sweet boy studying Torah with great fervor in “cheder.” He is a world-class businessman who wears a turban in the style of the kings of Egypt.
When Yosef brings his sons before Yaakov, he places Menashe, his firstborn, at Yaakov’s right side, but Yaakov chooses, for some reason, to cross his hands; he places his right hand on the head of Efraim, the younger son.
The midrashim describe Menashe as a successful “mover and shaker,” while Efraim is a man of spiritual and moral stature. Yaakov hints to Yosef that while Yosef’s greatness is indeed inspiring and wonderful, the center of Jewish life is not material action, but rather spiritual pursuits.
Life in the Diaspora entails unavoidable foreign influences. School vacations reflect Christian holidays, the day of rest is Sunday, and parties are held at workplaces to celebrate occasions that are of no significance to us. The greater the degree of our activity in the Diaspora, the deeper the foreign culture seeps within us, leaving a profound mark that might never be erased. Even in Israel this danger exists, but it is far more limited in scope.
We must be on our guard at all times to ensure that our lifestyles and perspectives are shaped and guided by Jewish culture and spirit, and not, heaven forfend, by foreign ways.
(This sicha was delivered on leil Shabbat parashat Vayigash 5775 [2014].)