Thursday, December 9, 2010

Keeping Ourselves Away From Bad Influences

In this week's Parsha, Vayigash, Yosef brings his family to the Land of Goshen. The odd occurence here is that he, seemingly, plots with his family to keep them in Goshen. As we will see, Yosef tells his brothers to tell Pharoh they are Shepards. If that is the truth and they are shepards, why does Yosef need to tell them to relate that information to Pharoh when he asks for it? The whole conversation reads like this (Breishis 46:31-34):
לא  וַיֹּאמֶר יוֹסֵף אֶל-אֶחָיו וְאֶל-בֵּית אָבִיו, אֶעֱלֶה וְאַגִּידָה לְפַרְעֹה; וְאֹמְרָה אֵלָיו, אַחַי וּבֵית-אָבִי אֲשֶׁר בְּאֶרֶץ-כְּנַעַן בָּאוּ אֵלָי. 31 And Joseph said unto his brethren, and unto his father's house: 'I will go up, and tell Pharaoh, and will say unto him: My brethren, and my father's house, who were in the land of Canaan, are come unto me;
לב  וְהָאֲנָשִׁים רֹעֵי צֹאן, כִּי-אַנְשֵׁי מִקְנֶה הָיוּ; וְצֹאנָם וּבְקָרָם וְכָל-אֲשֶׁר לָהֶם, הֵבִיאוּ. 32 and the men are shepherds, for they have been keepers of cattle; and they have brought their flocks, and their herds, and all that they have.
לג  וְהָיָה, כִּי-יִקְרָא לָכֶם פַּרְעֹה; וְאָמַר, מַה-מַּעֲשֵׂיכֶם. 33 And it shall come to pass, when Pharaoh shall call you, and shall say: What is your occupation?
לד  וַאֲמַרְתֶּם, אַנְשֵׁי מִקְנֶה הָיוּ עֲבָדֶיךָ מִנְּעוּרֵינוּ וְעַד-עַתָּה--גַּם-אֲנַחְנוּ, גַּם-אֲבֹתֵינוּ:  בַּעֲבוּר, תֵּשְׁבוּ בְּאֶרֶץ גֹּשֶׁן, כִּי-תוֹעֲבַת מִצְרַיִם, כָּל-רֹעֵה צֹאן. 34 that ye shall say: Thy servants have been keepers of cattle from our youth even until now, both we, and our fathers; that ye may dwell in the land of Goshen; for every shepherd is an abomination unto the Egyptians.'

The verses here seem to indicate that Yosef is telling the brothers that he is going to lie about something. If the entire family was really keepers of cattle then why does Yosef need to tell them to tell Pharoh this? It seems like Yosef is doing this specifically so they can live in Goshen which is away from the Egyptians. Obviously, this is far away from the Egyptians because they consider people who keep cattle to be disgusting (probably because the Egyptians worshiped cattle).

The Ralbag even tells us that there are three reasons why Yosef wanted his family living in Goshen. First, because it is a land that is good for grazing and it is very nice. Second, it is the choicest of all the land of Egypt. Finally, Yosef did not want his family to be spread out in the land of Egypt. The Ralbag goes on to say that if the Jewish people were spread out in the land of Egypt they would be ridiculed for their way of life. However, if they stayed together in Goshen, where they would be the majority, then they would not be bothered.

With this idea in mind, I think it is quite clear what Yosef was doing. There were, most probably, people in Yaakov's family that were not shepards. That is why Yosef wanted them all to claim they were shepards, so Pharoh would not protest and, therefore, he would allow all of Yaakov's family to live in Goshen. This would allow all the Jewish people to live in one place and avoid the bad influences of the Egyptians. The Jewish people would avoid assimilation because they would be far removed from the rest of Egypt.

Obviously, the Jews were not the only people in Goshen, because it was already a small city (as the Ralbag points out). However, it was important for Yosef to minimize the influence of the Egyptians on the Jewish people. I think this is an important lesson for us to learn nowadays as well. It is important to live in a Jewish community where outside influences only have minimal impact. If a Jew goes off to a place with a very minimal Jewish community then they will be influenced much more by inappropriate ideologies than if they were surrounded by Torah Jews.

This is not to say that a Jew should cut themselves off either. However, if we look at the case of Yosef we can learn when it is appropriate to protect yourself from outside influences. The Egyptian culture was full of idol worship and licentiousness. The Jews needed to keep their distance in order to protect themselves from these inappropriate ideas. The Jews did still do business with the Egyptians and other things, but their cultures were separate. This is why the Midrash tells us that the Jews did not change their dress, language or names, among other things, because their cultures were separate.

Jews need to be able to retain their culture and their religion. The best way to do this is to do what Yosef did. Make sure that the Jewish community is strong and tightly knit. That does not mean that we can't converse with other cultures, perform business with them, or even be friends. What it does mean is that we need to make it that those who are closest to us are from our culture and religion. I think that is the message we can learn from Yosef, we need to create tightly knit Jewish communities if we are going to protect our religion and our culture. Also, the only way to truly fight detrimental influences is to keep them at arms length. That does not mean ignoring them completely, like some Jewish communities do, (for that is detrimental as well) but we must realize the differences in our values and our ways of life.


Recreational Musings said...

Very nice.

I like that you added that we can talk with, deal with, and even be friends with people in other cultures. I had an argument with my Orthodox campus rabbi last week, as he was of the opinion we should have no non-Jewish friends and interact with them as little as possible. People with that mindset often develop (from my observation, at least) a very condescending view of non-Jews and it shows in their interactions. It is sad, because a good non-Jewish friend of mine visited me and came to Shabbat dinner and was made fun of by the Rabbi's children (5-10 year olds!), which is obviously a result of their father's view on those oh-so-horrible goyim.

As someone very open to interacting and learning about other cultures -- probably more so because I can relate better to a lot of religious Christians on campus since there are no other observant Jews -- I think there is a lot to learn from interacting with others, but we must always remember that Judaism is what is most important. It can be enhanced by certain elements adopted from other cultures, but not replaced.

In any case, I have once again enjoyed your thoughts on the parsha!

E-Man said...

Thanks for the nice words. I think it is very important for Jews not to have a holier than thou type of attitude, but still maintain a strong adherence to their religion. Most things in the Gemara and other places that talk negatively about non-Jews are focusing on non-Jews that try to kill Jews and treat us like animals. However, there are only kind words about righteous gentiles. This is why it is so frustrating to hear Rabbis talk like idiots about non-Jews. Have a good shabbos.