By Rabbi Avraham
Fischer. A publication of the Orthodox Union in cooperation with the Seymour
J. Abrams Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center
December 22, 2001
When Yaakov and his family, now known openly to be Ivrim (Hebrews), settle in Egypt, Yosef is aware of the potential for trouble. As a minority without support systems, they could be exploited; in times of trouble, they could become scapegoats. They must demonstrate that they will be good citizens; but should they excel in business, warfare and politics, or should they call less attention to themselves, and just blend in?
Yosef is thoroughly familiar with Egyptian society and the Pharaonic court. He wants to protect his family - foreigners in the dominant world-culture - from an assault on their identity, something that he had to endure. He, therefore, adopts the strategy of downplaying their accomplishments:
And Yosef said to his brothers and to his father's household: "I will go up and tell Pharaoh, and I will say to him, 'My brothers and my father's household who are from the land of Canaan have come to me; and the men are shepherds, for men of livestock have they been, and they have brought their flocks and their cattle and all that is theirs.' And it will be, when Pharaoh will summon you, and say, 'What is your occupation?' You shall say, 'Men of livestock have your servants been, from our youth until now, both we and our forefathers,' so that you will live in the land of Goshen; because every shepherd is an abomination of Egypt" (46:31-34).
Haamek Davar (R. Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, 1817-1893) explains that Yosef is trying to preserve his family's sanctity through segregation. By "keeping a low profile," living apart as lowly shepherds in Goshen, they will not be a threat. They also can be overlooked and thereby remain untainted by Egypt, and less influenced by Egyptian idolatry.
Yosef here imitates his father Yaakov's self-effacing tone in dealing with
And I have acquired an ox and a donkey, sheep and a servant and a maid-servant, and I have sent to tell my lord, that I might find favor in your eyes (Bereishit 32:6).
Yosef's strategy will prove to be of limited effectiveness, because the next Pharaohs will view the Hebrews' lowliness as repulsive, their very isolation as threatening, and will enslave and oppress them. But, for Yosef's generation, it works.
Yosef has an audience with Pharaoh and brings some of his brothers with him:
And from some of (U'MIKTZEI) his brothers he took five men, and he presented them before Pharaoh (47:2).
Rashi explains that U'MIKTZEI means
"From the least among them in strength, so they did not appear strong; for if he would show them as strong, [Pharaoh] would make them his soldiers."
By having the five weaker brothers represent the family, Yosef hopes to save them. But, who are the five weaker brothers?
Rashi finds the key in the blessings Moshe gives the tribes before he dies (Devarim, chapter 33), which encapsulates their characteristics. In those blessings, the repetition of certain names seems to be a clue to the brothers' strength: Five names - Reuven, Shimon, Levi, Yissachar, Binyamin - are not repeated, while five names - Gad, Naftali, Dan, Zevulun, Asher - are repeated. (Yehudah's name is repeated, but, as pointed out in Bava Kamma 92a, this was to allay his disquiet caused by his self-imposed ostracism after failing to bring Binyamin back to Yaakov.)
Rashi finds two solutions among the Sages:
1. The repeated names are stronger
"This is the language of Bereishit Rabbah (95:4), which is the aggadah of the land of Israel;"
2. The repeated ones are weaker,
"which we find in our Babylonian Talmud" (loc. cit.).
Gur Aryeh (R. Yehudah Loew ben Betzalel, the Maharal of Prague, c. 1525-1609) explains these two views:
1. Repetition is a reflection of character;
2. Repetition is a compensation for deficiencies.
This is not the only instance where Rashi cites two equally reasonable views among the Sages. But, why does Rashi emphasize that the crux of the difference lies in the origin of the Sages - the land of Israel and our Babylonian Talmud?
What is the difference between the sages of Babylon and the sages of Eretz Yisrael? In Sanhedrin 24a and Bava Metzia 85a (as explained by the Maharsha, R. Shmuel Eliezer ben Judah HaLevi Edels, 1555-1631), the Talmud says that the sages of Eretz Yisrael would work together so as to arrive at their conclusions with less strife. On the other hand, the sages of Bavel would contend with each other and often would not come to a final halachic decision.
It would seem that there are two approaches to teamwork:
- Babylon - teamwork highlights the deficiencies in others: if you work with me, it is because you need me, because of what you lack;
- Eretz Yisrael - teamwork is a combining of strengths: together we can do more, because the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
These two approaches are reflected in the ways the Sages understand the "teamwork" in the repetitions in Moshe's blessings:
- Babylon: names are repeated as compensation for deficiencies;
- Eretz Yisrael: names are repeated as a reflection of strength.
Rashi here calls attention to the fundamental difference between Jewish existence in exile - even a "golden exile" like Babylon - and in Eretz Yisrael. Jewish life in exile is fragmented, disorienting, enfeebling. Life in Eretz Yisrael is unifying, focused, empowering. In exile, Jews are aware of their weaknesses; in Eretz Yisrael, they are conscious of their strengths.
Paradoxically, this difference tends to lead to more cooperation within Jewish communities in exile and to more factionalism among Jewish communities in Eretz Yisrael. However, in the pursuit of Torah understanding, this difference translates into the respective approaches of "the sages of Babylon" and "the sages of Eretz Yisrael."
Yosef wants to protect his family in exile, to stave off hatred and to shield them from Egyptian influences. Consequently, he presents an outward image of weakness. Internally, however, through commitment to Torah values, they will draw from the strength of their family unity.