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September 1, 2014 | 6th Elul 5774

Israel in the Torah III

Galilee Diary #266
January 1, 2006
Marc J. Rosenstein

While we tend to see the Joseph narrative, from Chapter 37 to the end of Genesis, as a family drama and a case study of how divine providence works through the events of history, it is also possible to read this story as a historical fable, as a sort of archetype for many experiences that would befall the Jewish people over the centuries. As such, it becomes less about brothers and parents, and more about power, powerlessness, rootedness and exile. Consider:

Joseph leaves Eretz Yisrael for Egypt involuntarily. Exactly who is responsible is not clear, as the actual story is a bit garbled (37:18-36). The bottom line is that due to a family conflict, Joseph is exiled, in chains.

In Chapter 39 he quickly rises to a position of some power, due to his skills – but just as quickly falls from power and ends up in the dungeon, having been accused of being a sexual predator (a familiar motif in just about every ethnic and racial conflict: “You want to let Jews/Blacks/Arabs/Hispanics into this neighborhood? You must not have daughters…”).

In Chapters 40-41, Joseph’s wisdom again lifts him from the depths, and he becomes second only to Pharaoh - and marries the daughter of an Egyptian priest (kids, don’t try this at home!). Indeed he not only controls the Egyptian and world economy (41:57), but uses his power in time of famine to purchase all the farmland in Egypt and convert the entire population to sharecroppers (47:13-26) – except, of course for his own people, who get an allowance from him. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out how this is going to play with the Egyptian masses later on. Pharaoh reaps the benefit, the Jew takes the rap; watch for the remake in 17th century Poland (for example).

But meanwhile, there is the issue of Joseph’s identity. Who is he? What is he? Enough of an Egyptian to “make it.” Enough of an Egyptian that his brothers don’t recognize him. Enough of an Egyptian not to have bothered to write to his father all these years. And when his brothers show up, and he spends three chapters (42-44) playing with (emotionally torturing) them, it is fair to wonder: What is he thinking? What is he going to do? He could leave the break in place. He owes them nothing. Maybe he’ll just walk away from them and be remembered by history as the Semitic stranger who feudalized Egypt. Ah, no, our Jewish Diaspora fantasy comes true, of course: “Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, ‘Have everyone withdraw from me!’ So there was no one else about when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. His sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear…” Like Esther, Joseph has his moment of truth, when he finds he cannot escape his roots. We have certainly known other heroic examples like these two through our history, but I suspect a larger number of Jews who “made it” did indeed succeed in controlling their emotions and just kept on walking away.

What do we learn from this? Perhaps that while initially traumatic, exile has its temptations. Perhaps that we always seem to admire and envy those Jews who “make it” as tycoons, senators, baseball stars – and they make us proud – but we always harbor a nagging doubt: where does their true loyalty lie? What price are they prepared to pay for their Jewishness? How much do they care about us? Will the Egyptians hear them sob?

Perhaps we learn that no matter how high we rise in exile, our power is illusory. The dungeon awaits us. For our power is borrowed power, derivative power, power granted to us by our “hosts.” It’s bad enough how Joseph bounced from pit to authority to dungeon to high station – but note how the same instability was passed on to the entire people:
Gen. 47:12: Joseph sustained his father and his brothers and all his father’s household with bread, down to the little ones.
47:27: Thus Israel settled in the country of Egypt, in the region of Goshen; they acquired holdings in it, and were fertile and increased greatly.
But then, of course - Exodus 1:8: A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph…

And we know what happened next.

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