Two Ways of Dealing with Society
STUDENT SUMMARIES OF SICHOT OF THE ROSHEI YESHIVA
SICHA OF HARAV YAAKOV MEDAN SHLIT"A
Two Ways of Dealing with Society
parasha concludes the lengthy story of Yosef and his brothers: Yaakovs
entire family joins Yosef in
the brothers ascend to Yosef, he tells them: I shall go up and tell Pharaoh: My
brothers and my fathers household, who were in the
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).
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; theyre simple,
unfortunate people who are really not needed. The Torah emphasizes this feeling by
noting the fact that any shepherd is an abomination to
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
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
All of this is highly reminiscent of the Jewish peoples 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 kings 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 kings 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 Daniels 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 Hamans 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 .)