Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s ‘Unlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Bereishit’ co-published by OU Press and Gefen
After the descent of Yaakov’s family to Egypt, Yosef prepares a delegation of his brothers for an interview with the Egyptian king.
He counsels them to specify that they are shepherds so that Pharaoh will settle them separately in the region of Goshen, “since all shepherds are abhorrent to the Egyptians.”
Why does Yosef specifically counsel his brothers to identify themselves with a profession that the Egyptians find repulsive?
Some commentaries believe that Yosef is simply trying to ensure that his brothers will be able to continue practicing a beneficial profession.
The Abravanel, for example, maintains that Yosef could well have appointed his brothers to positions of authority and power. He desires, however, that they eschew such leadership in favor of a simple, humble, “sacred” livelihood.
According to Rabbeinu Bachya, shepherding was an intrinsically advantageous profession with clear physical and spiritual benefits. Producing a number of profitable materials (meat, milk and wool) for relatively little physical effort, shepherding also provided the opportunity for periodic isolation from civilization and its influence. Through seclusion the shepherd found time for self-examination and spiritual growth. Not coincidentally, continues Rabbeinu Bachya, many great figures of Jewish history, including Moshe, Shmuel, Shaul and David, were shepherds at some point in their lives.
Numerous other commentaries, however, see Yosef’s efforts in a totally different light.
Yosef, they claim, deliberately instructs his brothers to identify with a profession that will distance them from Egyptian society. Forced to live separately, the members of Yosef’s family and their progeny will have a greater chance of maintaining their own identity.
In the words of the Netziv: “Yosef’s intent was to ensure that his family would dwell apart from the Egyptians. Although [Yosef’s plan] would cause his father and brothers to be degraded in Pharaoh’s eyes, nonetheless, all was worth sacrificing to guarantee the preservation of Israel’s sanctity.”
Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch adds: “The disgust of the Egyptians for their [the brothers’] profession…was the first means of preservation of that race which was destined for an isolated path through the ages…. That is why Joseph acted with the express purpose of obtaining a separate province within which his family would settle.”
Yosef, the cosmopolitan Hebrew, the paradigm of success in an alien culture, becomes the architect of our people’s first ghetto.
Why is Yosef, viceroy of all of Egypt, accomplished beyond measure in a foreign world, so determined that the members of his family not follow his winning path?
What motivates him to personally construct a plan for their isolation?
Perhaps he is driven by the recognition of the price that he has had to pay for his own success. The years in Egypt have taken their toll. By the time he meets his brothers after their long separation, the Torah states: “Yosef recognized his brothers but they did not recognize him.” Yosef is no longer recognizable as a Hebrew, even to his family. Moved by this knowledge, and apprehending the devastation that would be caused if generation after generation of Hebrews paid this same price, Yosef acts to preserve his family’s identity.
Or, perhaps, Yosef is motivated by the pain of his personal isolation in the face of his rise to power (see Vayechi 2, Approaches b) and tries to spare his family from similar disappointment and loneliness.
Or, finally, perhaps this cosmopolitan Hebrew simply understands that what he has accomplished as an individual cannot be duplicated by his family as a whole. Talents are not uniform. Yosef’s enormous success could only be paralleled by a select few. Fewer still would be able to maintain the spiritual balance that had sustained him throughout his turbulent personal odyssey.
One way or the other, as Yosef orchestrates the descent of his family to Egypt, he clearly does everything he can to ensure their separation from the Egyptians. As will be the case throughout Jewish history, the delicate balance struck during Avraham’s lifetime (see Chayei Sara 1) is front and center, decades later, in the thoughts and planning of his great-grandson. Yosef realizes that for the members of his family to retain their status as “strangers and citizens” over generations and in the face of an overwhelming Egyptian culture, they will have to live in our people’s first ghetto.
Yosef’s careful plans are ultimately put to the test.
While the sojourn in Egypt should have been viewed by Yaakov’s family as temporary, the Torah testifies that: “Israel settled in the land of Egypt, in the region of Goshen, and they secured a permanent foothold and they were fruitful and multiplied greatly.”
And, although the Jews were meant to remain in Goshen, the text continues: “And the children of Israel were fruitful, multiplied, increased, and became strong…and the land became filled with them.”
Building upon an earlier Midrashic tradition, the Netziv comments: “They filled not only the land of Goshen which had been especially assigned to them, but the whole land of Egypt…. Wherever they could purchase a dwelling, there the Israelites went…. They wished to be like the Egyptians.”
Given the opportunity, in spite of Yosef’s careful planning, the Israelites begin to assimilate into Egyptian culture and society. A tragic pattern, however, emerges – a pattern that is destined to be repeated over and over again across our long national journey. The harder the Israelites try to fit in, the more assiduously they try to be like those around them, the more they incur the enmity of their neighbors and set the stage for their own persecution. They are soon enslaved and pushed back into Goshen.
Yosef’s implicit urgings are ignored by later generations. His efforts, however, may well have saved his people from oblivion. First by choice, than by force, the Israelites remain a population separate within Egypt. Within the “ghetto” of Goshen they remain identifiable and, therefore, redeemable when the moment of the Exodus arrives.