Sunday, December 23, 2007

Derashah: Vayyichi 5768: Yosef and the Jewish-American Citizen

The chamber is beautifully appointed, a fittingly luxurious bedroom for the viceroy’s father… but illness burdens its sole occupant. Yaakov, knowing he is near the end of his storied life, calls for his son.
This son rarely visits, as evidenced by the fact that a special courier must inform him that Yaakov is ill… but, at last, the son enters. The viceroy of Egypt, Tzafnat Paneach to his Egyptian court, Yosef ben Rachel to his father, enters the room.
Yaakov speaks. He pleads with his son, “Please, grant me this one request: When I die, return my body to Canaan, to the cemetery of my ancestors.” What son could refuse such a plea from his father? And yet, Yaakov feels the need to twice demand an oath from Tzafnat Paneach, viceroy of Egypt: “Swear to me. Swear you will fulfill my last wish." And then the bedridden Yaakov bows in gratitude to his son.

What happened?! In a Torah filled with dysfunctional family relationships, Yaakov and Yosef were an island of love, a model for their descendants!
Yaakov gave Yosef a ktonet pasim, a special tunic, to mark Yosef’s favor!
Yaakov sent his other children to herd sheep, but sheltered Yosef at home!
Yaakov mourned Yosef’s absence every day for 22 years; contrast that with his utter non-reaction when Shimon was imprisoned in Egypt!
When Yaakov and Yosef met at last, Yaakov declared, “Now I can die, for I have seen your face!”
How did this loving father and son lose their closeness such that now they never met, such that Yaakov felt the need to bow to Yosef, such that Yaakov felt compelled to twice demand an oath of him for the most basic request?

This problem has bothered many classic commentators, who have offered a range of solutions. Based on a terse note in the Siftei Chachamim on ויפג לבו, we might add our own suggestion:
The Siftei Chachamim commentary to Rashi on last week’s parshah suggested that Yaakov didn’t believe that Yosef was alive because he couldn’t conceive of a situation in which Yosef, his loyal Jewish son, could be permitted to reign in Egypt. What kind of job is Egyptian viceroy for a nice Jewish boy?
Now, though, Yaakov sees his son indeed reigning in Egypt - and he fears that Yosef is no longer a “nice Jewish boy,” that Yosef has, in fact, been Egyptianized. Just as Yishmael and Esav had rejected the path of Avraham and Sarah to adopt Canaanite ways, Yosef has now left the fold, becoming an Egyptian citizen.

In fact, Yosef does appear to have become an Egyptian, based on the Torah’s definition of citizenship.
Mordechai Zer-Kavod suggested in an essay entitled הנכרי והגר במקרא, “The Foreigner and the Stranger in Tanach,” that the Torah recognizes four categories of citizen: Ezrach, Ger Toshav, Ger and Nochri.
An Ezrach, a full citizen, is entitled to political rights and social support, and shoulders communal obligations. A Ger Toshav has fewer rights and responsibilities. The Ger, the sojourner, possesses still fewer rights and responsibilities, and the Nochri, the stranger, has no claims upon, or responsibility toward, the community.

The first three generations of Jewish history see Jews in the three sub-citizen roles of Ger Toshav, Ger and Nochri; neither Avraham nor Yitzchak nor Yaakov become true אזרחים, true citizens, anywhere they live.
Avraham and Sarah are everybody’s best friends; they are close with Aner, Eshkol and Mamre; Avraham befriends Malki Tzedek of Shalem; Avraham and Sarah welcome outsiders into their home. Despite this extroversion, though, Avraham identified himself only as a Ger Toshav; he had the right to purchase land and to live among the Canaanites in peace, but he was not an Ezrach, he was not of them.
Yitzchak and Rivkah were less engaged in society; they interacted only with the Philistines of Grar, and that was quite a debacle. In fact, the midrash (cited in Rashi on Shmos 12:40 and elsewhere) notes that the prediction of גר יהיה זרעך, that Avraham’s descendants would be Gerim, sojourners in a land not their own, was first fulfilled with Yitzchak.
And then it gets worse - Yaakov’s family can’t seem to get along with anybody! Their contacts are with Esav, Lavan and Shechem, each one a bigger disaster than the last. Yaakov is a Yosheiv Ohalim, a tent-dweller, and that seems to be where he fares best; the world, for him, is a series of dangers. Yaakov is practically a Nochri in his own land. The disastrous foray to Egypt for food, viewed from the perspective of Yaakov’s sons, must have seemed like more of the same.

But then Yosef reverses the trend of social estrangement; he fulfills every biblical criterion of Ezrach, of citizen, as an Egyptian.
An Ezrach is a permanent resident, while a Ger intends to stay temporarily, לגור שם. Yosef intends to remain in Egypt until his death, as evidenced by his request for burial in Canaan.
An Ezrach owns land; Gerim live בארץ לא להם, in a land not their own. Yosef claims land in Goshen.
And, as Zer-Kavod notes, only an Ezrach has true political power, while a Ger survives on the mercy of the law. Yosef is the law, Yosef is political power incarnate. Remember what he told his brothers? “Go tell Dad, שמני אלקים לאדון לכל מצרים, Gd has made me the master of all of Egypt.”
And so Yaakov wonders if his son, Yosef, has gone the way of Yishmael and Esav, abandoning his Jewish heritage and identifying as an Ezrach, a citizen of Egypt, instead.

But while Yaakov sees Yosef walk like an Egyptian, but Yosef yet thinks like a Jew. Yosef has acquired Egyptian citizenship without abandoning his Jewish identity.
First, Yosef never forgets that he is in exile. When naming Ephraim, he labels Egypt ארץ עניי, the land of my suffering, even though he is now the Egyptian viceroy. He asks that his bones be returned to Israel, another sign that even if he will not leave Egypt alive, this is still not home for him.
Second, every step of the way, Yosef identifies himself as an Ivri. Like Avraham before him, Yosef emphasizes that he comes from a different place and tribe. Yosef even tells Paroh that his success is Jewish, credited to only one source, the Jewish Gd; הלא לאלקים פתרונים.
Yosef is a new breed of Jew, a break from the model of his ancestors, a Jew who can not only survive among the nations, but who can even lead, using his Jewish identity as the basis for his leadership.

This should not be viewed as a quirk of Yosef; Yosef’s participation in the whole of the human community is the model prescribed by R’ Shimshon Raphael Hirsch for the MenschYisroel, the complete Jew.
In an essay entitled “Religion Allied to Progress,” Hirsch wrote of a Judaism that “extends its declared mission to the salvation of the whole of mankind.” As he put it, “The more the Jew is a Jew, the more universalist will be his views and aspirations.”
This is Yosef - Concerned with the salvation of the whole of mankind and taking a leadership role within society… as a Jew.

Yosef’s path has never been the path of every Jew. For every cosmopolitan Rambam, for every political Shemuel haNagid and Abarbanel, for every influential Rabbi Yehudah haNasi, dozens if not hundreds of Torah giants have stood back from society, considering the influence of the greater world a poison without antidote - and the world has been quite content with that separation.
Today, though, in America and beyond, the Jew is summoned to lead secular society. Socially, politically, scientifically, morally, philanthropically, the body politic turns to the Jew and asks, “What can you provide?” Congressional hearings on medical ethics routinely solicit Jewish opinion, victims of international disasters seek Israeli aid, non-profit organizations appeal to Jewish philanthropies, newspapers and television pundits ask the Jewish community for comment, Jews are accepted as professors and authors and politicians and producers and members of every level of the workforce. Every opportunity of which the ghetto-bound Jew was deprived is available to her descendant.
Given this opportunity to seek what Hirsch termed “the salvation of the whole of mankind,” and given this opportunity for Kiddush HaShem, we would ill-serve the purposes of Torah were we to back away into our Ohalim. Certainly, we must tread carefully, as Yosef did - informing the world of our Ivri status and retaining an awareness that secular society is not truly home. But we can do this; Yosef is given to us as a model.
Yosef leads as a Jew - and we can do the same.

This past December 10th, the 7th night of Chanukah, Caren and I were privileged to be invited to the Chanukah party held by the President and First Lady at the White House. The event was remarkable on many levels, but one particularly relevant point is the way we were honored as Jewish leaders in America. The food was all kosher - with two certifications, of course - a kosher menorah was lit, a maariv minyan was held, every possible halachic concern was satisfied. This was a celebration for us as Jews, because we are Jewish, because we visibly retain our identity, even as we are active members of American society.
We are the heirs of Avraham the Ger Toshav, and the heirs of Yosef the Ezrach. The models of Yitzchak and Yaakov remain very much a crucial part of Torah - we need to have people sitting and studying Torah in the Ohel - but in this land of opportunity we have been given the greatest opportunity, the chance, as Hirsch said, to work for the salvation of the whole of mankind. Like Yosef, we can shoulder this responsibility - and, with Gd’s help, like Yosef, we will succeed.

Additional thoughts:
1. The affection seems to go from Yosef to Yaakov as well - from the moment Yosef meets his brothers in Egypt, he can’t stop asking them how his father Yaakov is doing. And when Yosef reveals his identity and then speaks of Yaakov, he refers to his father four times - and he doesn’t say אבינו, our father, but rather, all four times he says אבי, my father.

2. In terms of Yaakov's suspicions: Although Yaakov gives Yosef a double portion in Israel, he eliminates Yosef’s name; the double portion will instead be given to Yosef’s sons, Ephraim and Menasheh!

3. On this reading of the Yaakov/Yosef suspicion, see also Avraham Ahuviah in

4. A side note: Yaakov demands an oath from Yosef. Yaakov’s first speaking part in the Torah, his purchase of the bechorah, ends with him demanding the same thing, saying השבעה לי כיום.

5. Note that there were also Jews who fulfilled this Yosef "citizen" role in the days of the Gemara; cf the discussion of Jews who travel among the aristocracy wearing the קומי haircut, such as Sotah 49b.

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