Two Ways of Dealing with Society

  • Harav Yaakov Medan






Two Ways of Dealing with Society

Translated by Kaeren Fish



Our parasha concludes the lengthy story of Yosef and his brothers: Yaakov’s entire family joins Yosef in Egypt, where Yosef will take care of them during the years of famine, and the process that will eventually lead to the Egyptian exile will be set in motion.


When the brothers ascend to Yosef, he tells them: “I shall go up and tell Pharaoh: My brothers and my father’s household, who were in the land of Canaan, have come to me” (Bereishit 46:31). If it were up to us to write the story of Yosef and his brothers, we would probably want to conclude with some sort of happy ending: the brothers come to Egypt, to Yosef – the viceroy – where they are warmly welcomed and integrated into the Egyptian royal household.


It is thus somewhat surprising to read the instructions that Yosef issues to his family: “And it shall be, if Pharaoh summons you and asks, ‘What is your occupation?’ then you shall say, ‘Your servants have been herdsmen from our youth until now – both we and our ancestors’ – in order that you may dwell in the land of Goshen, for any shepherd is an abomination to Egypt” (46:33-34).


When I read these verses I am overcome with a most uncomfortable feeling.  The brothers are presented here as a group of unskilled immigrants – nothing more than shepherds; they’re simple, unfortunate people who are really not needed.  The Torah emphasizes this feeling by noting the fact that “any shepherd is an abomination to Egypt.”  In addition, Yosef chooses to take “some of his brothers” to Pharaoh (47:2).  Rashi (ad loc.) understands this to mean that he took the less impressive, less successful brothers.  Why does he do this? Why does he not present his brothers as they really are: a flourishing clan with considerable abilities? Why does he try so hard to prevent his family from finding their place within Egyptian society, also refraining from co-opting them into key positions in running the country? Why does he present them to the Egyptian people in such an unflattering light?


It would seem that all of this is quite intentional: Yosef indeed has no wish for them to fit into Egyptian society.  Having undergone so many trials and tribulations in Egypt, Yosef knows only too well what it means to “fit in” to Egyptian culture.  He knows that if his brothers and their extended family settle in, it will take less than a generation for them to become part of the local culture – and he wishes to prevent this.  He is willing to pay the price for presenting Yaakov and his sons as a group of useless paupers, people who cannot become useful in any way, in order to save them from mixing with Egyptian society, entering it as community leaders – which would ultimately harm Am Yisrael and cause them to become intermingled among the nations.


It seems that the way Yosef sees things is quite accurate.  At the beginning of Sefer Shemot, as we encounter Am Yisrael altogether mired in the “forty-nine levels of impurity” of Egyptian culture, it is quite reasonable to suppose that the reason for this state of affairs may be traced back to the opening words of the parasha: “And the children of Israel were fruitful and swarmed and multiplied and grew exceedingly mighty” (Shemot 1:7).  When Am Yisrael begin to grow, multiplying throughout the land of Egypt, it does not take long before they start mingling within Egyptian culture.  In contrast, throughout all of Yosef’s life, while Am Yisrael kept separate and isolated in the land of Goshen, with everyone regarding them as an unwanted, unsuccessful group, their spiritual situation was far healthier.  Yosef is prepared to give up much in the way of the family’s material comfort, so long as he can maintain their spiritual standards.


All of this is highly reminiscent of the Jewish people’s situation in exile.  So long as Jews lived in their own villages, separate from the local population and not even sharing their language, their spiritual situation was good.  The French Revolution, when it became mandatory for everyone to learn local languages, marked the beginning of assimilation.  The power of isolation to preserve a closed society is considerable.  The moment that the doors are opened to the surrounding society and culture, problems are likely to arise, and it is only a matter of time until the formerly isolated society loses its identifying features.


Still, isolation is not the only way of addressing the challenge of negative assimilation.  There is another way.


In many respects, the character who most closely parallels Yosef is Daniel.  Both experience dreams, both find their place as viceroys, etc.  Once I counted and arrived at a list of no less than forty-two parallels between the two narratives – and if I had invested more effort I could most likely have found more.


In the story of Daniel, too, we read of a test that Daniel faces: Nebuchadnezzar takes some children with a view to teaching them to serve as the king’s chamberlains.  The verses at the beginning of the Sefer describe how, before being brought before the king, these children would be given some of the king’s bread to eat.  Daniel, Chanania and Azaria refuse to eat the bread.  The Gemara explains that although there is no explicit law in the Torah forbidding one to eat bread prepared by gentiles, Daniel deduces that “their bread [is forbidden] – because of their wine; and their wine – because of their daughters; [and their daughters in turn are forbidden] – because of something else.” It is enough that we look at a parallel narrative – Megillat Esther – to understand that Daniel’s way of thinking makes much sense.  The catastrophic decree of annihilation in the Megilla can be traced back to the banquet held by Achashverosh; it is “because they enjoyed the banquet of that evil man” that the terrifying threat of Haman’s decree comes to hang over them.


However, despite the problems inherent in mingling within Babylonian society, Daniel does not opt for the path of isolationism.  On the contrary – he becomes deeply involved in this pagan society and succeeds in influencing it from within.  Unquestionably, this is also an option: guarding yourself from sin while still remaining within society.


I believe that these two approaches are still being implemented today.  There is a group of people who consciously choose to present themselves to the public as a useless group of parasites who live at the public expense, performing unskilled labor and living in their own, separate neighborhoods – all so that they will not come to intermingle in the surrounding society and thereby become corrupted.  This was the approach of Yosef with his family.


On the other hand, there is a group that chooses to try to stand up to the challenge presented by society and to become part of it.  We are well acquainted with the advantages and disadvantages of this approach. 


These are two possible ways of dealing with the surrounding culture.  We must understand the verses as describing the approach preferred by Yosef, and we must know that this, too, is a possible strategy – one with great power to keep the community far from the problems that beset society at large.


(This sicha was delivered on Shabbat parashat Vayigash 5765 [2005].)