Two Approaches to Foreign Cultures

  • Harav Yehuda Amital





Sicha of Harav Rav Yehuda Amital shlit”a


Two Approaches to Foreign Cultures

Translated by Kaeren Fish



Commenting on the second verse of our parasha, “These are the generations of Yaakov: Yosef,” Rashi writes:


After the Torah lists the dwelling places of Esav and his descendants, in brief form – since they are not worthy of elaboration as to how they settled there and [a description] of their wars by which they took possession of [the land of] the Chorites – [the Torah] now goes on to set down the dwelling places of Yaakov and his descendants, [describing] at length how they came about, since God considers them worthy of elaboration. Likewise we find in the ten generations from Adam until Noach [that the text states simply] that “So-and-so bore so-and-so,” but when [the text] reaches Noach, it elaborates in greater detail. Likewise, the ten generations from Noach until Avraham are listed briefly, but when [the text] reaches Avraham, it elaborates concerning him. This may be compared to a jewel that falls into some sand: a person will grope about in the sand and sift it with a sieve until he finds the jewel; once he has found it, he drops the accumulated sand and takes up the jewel.


Thus, after briefly listing the captains and kings of Esav, at the end of last week’s parasha, the Torah now starts its lengthy and elaborate documentation of Yaakov’s actions and his descendants. According to Rashi, the reason for the lengthy and detailed description of the history of Am Yisrael arises from their importance: “This may be compared to a jewel that falls into some sand.”


However, the reason for the discrepancy in the length and detail of the respective textual units also arises from another reason. Quite simply, Am Yisrael experience many more trials and tribulations! Those processes that occur easily and naturally among the other nations, follow a most complicated route amongst Am Yisrael. For this reason, while the nation of Esav lives an uneventful existence under the rule of eight successive kings, Am Yisrael experiences problems, goes down to Egypt, emerges from Egypt, sins with the golden calf and again with the spies, wanders in the wilderness for forty years, and so on, until eventually establishing a monarchy, centuries later than Esav.


This reason leads us to the continuation of the Rashi cited above:


Another explanation: “And Yaakov sojourned” – A flax merchant’s camels appeared, loaded with flax. The coal merchant exclaimed, “How can all that flax fit in [the storehouse]?” A sharp-witted onlooker replied, “One spark from your bellows is enough to burn all of it up!” Likewise, when Yaakov beheld all of the captains [of Esav] listed above, he wondered, “Who can conquer all of them?” The text then goes on to say: “These are the generations of Yaakov: Yosef…,” as it is written, “The house of Yaakov will be fire, and the house of Yosef – a flame, and the house of Esav – straw” (Ovadia 1:18). One spark emerging from Yosef will consume and burn all of them.


To my mind, the Midrash is not describing Yaakov’s physical fear of Esav, for at this point Yaakov faces no such danger. What Yaakov fears is the cultural, spiritual threat. When Am Yisrael see that for Esav everything goes smoothly while for them everything is long and complicated, they may well be led to think that there is something wrong with their own culture. Yaakov fears that due to Esav’s early success, Am Yisrael will try to imitate them and their culture.


This problem is a familiar one, addressed in many different midrashim, and the Midrash also offers a solution:


Earlier on it is written, “And these are the kings…,” and here it says, “And Yaakov sojourned….” Rabbi Chunia said: This may be compared to a person walking on the way who sees a pack of dogs, and he is fearful of them, and sits down in the midst of them. Likewise, when Yaakov saw Esav and his captains, he was fearful of them – and he dwelled in their midst. (Bereishit Rabba 84:5)


This parable proposes dwelling among the nations as a way of confronting the dangers that they present to us. According to this approach, it is specifically through self-confidence and faith in our beliefs that we will succeed in prevailing over their culture. The midrash is saying that there is no need to fear an alien culture; therefore we can become familiar with it and dwell in its midst. This appears to have been the approach of Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch during the period of the Haskala (Enlightenment): he called upon Jews everywhere to get to know modern culture, to adopt its positive elements, and to see for themselves which parts of it were worthless.


This approach enjoyed some success, but also met with some failure. Sometimes we have to keep our distance and not become too familiar with other cultures. Indeed, this would seem to be precisely the message that Rashi’s parable of the coal-merchant is teaching us. Sometimes we need to fight single-mindedly against other cultures, not to try to get to know them. Sometimes the proper response is to set off just one spark and thereby to burn down the straw mountain of foreign culture.


Rashi’s parable speaks of two sparks, one emerging from Yaakov and the other from Yosef: “The house of Yaakov will be fire, and the house of Yosef – a flame.” Apparently, Yosef and Yaakov represent two different models, corresponding to the two approaches outlined above.


Yaakov dwells in the land of Canaan, far from Egyptian culture. Yosef, in contrast, lives in Egypt and serves as the king’s viceroy. Yosef imbibes Egyptian culture and all the mores of its monarchy – yet remains faithful to his own tradition. Yosef therefore represents the approach favoring familiarity with foreign cultures, while Yaakov represents distancing from them. These are two different ways of addressing the same threat, and we need to know when to adopt each of them.



(This sicha was delivered on Shabbat parashat Vayeshev 5755 [1994].)