In this week’s parsha, Vayigash, we once again see an example of a familiar Torah theme – in order to be civilized, sometimes you have to avoid large groups of people who are practicing what they call “civilization”.
Last week, we left Joseph and his brothers in a meeting at Joseph’s palace in Egypt, where he is chief minister to Pharaoh. Joseph was going to make his brothers return to Canaan, but without the youngest, Benjamin. Benjamin was to be kept as a slave (or so Joseph said) because he was found with Joseph’s goblet (which Joseph had his servants hide in Benjamin’s pack). Judah steps forward and explains that, if they return to Canaan without Benjamin, it may cause their father, Jacob, to be sad enough to die. Judah offers to remain in Egypt as Joseph’s slave instead of Benjamin.
Joseph is overwhelmed with emotion. He clears the room of everyone except his brothers and cries, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” Joseph tells his brothers not to blame themselves for selling him into slavery, because it was a divine plan for him to come to Egypt. The brothers have a tearful reunion. Then all of Egypt, including Pharaoh, learn that Joseph’s family is in Egypt, and Pharaoh himself orders Joseph to send lavish gifts to Jacob with instructions for the brothers to bring Jacob back to Egypt with them.
Jacob and the brothers return. Joseph arranges for his family to live in the fertile rural area called Goshen, which will be good for their many flocks of sheep. Joseph is careful to let everyone in Egypt know that his family are shepherds, because the Egyptians worshiped animals and therefore disliked shepherds. Joseph has seen the moral corruption of the Egyptian ruling class, and wants to keep the Children of Israel from being influenced by this culture, by having them live in Goshen, away from “civilization”. This plan works for several generations, but the Israelite families grow so large (as God promised) that they have to move from Goshen and live closer to the Egyptians and some become assimilated. Ultimately, those Israelites who adopt Egyptian customs will not be part of the Exodus.
But we’re getting ahead of our story, by three generations. Next week we’ll learn that while Egypt was an OK place to live, the righteous were dying to get out.
P.S. For the next few months, we’ll be learning about our ancestors’ sojourn in Egypt, much of it under slavery. The people, religion and culture of ancient Egypt are very different from those of modern Egypt. Torah teaches us that everyone is created in God’s image. The Scout Law teaches us that a Scout is a “friend to all”. We must not be upset with people now for things that happened in their land 3,000 years ago.
© Nelson R. Block 2013