Lessons from the first expat, Joseph Jacob-son

Joseph is the first expat. Different from his great-grandpa Abraham, who was born in the diaspora and made aliya; different from his father Jacob who went to exile for a few years, got himself together, and actually came back, Joseph provides a new model. True, it wasn’t his (conscious) choice to leave the holy land but once he did, and after a challenging period (not unlike many modern expats-), he discovered new opportunities which were not available back home, like being second to the Pharaoh, having nice clothes, a lovely Egyptian wife and an Egyptian name, perhaps because “Yoseph” was too difficult to pronounce for the locals, another phenomena many of us are very familiar with (try getting your drink at Starbucks with a name like Michal).

His brothers come due to drought and famine in the land, who can blame them? Survival is critical (although we might question how dire was their situation if they could bring gifts of food to the Egyptian ruler, Genesis 43:11-12). Regardless, now, well into the 17th year of their arrival, they show no signs of going back.
Then Joseph is called to deal with his father’s death, another situation many of us are sadly familiar with, and a lens through which to shed light on the complex tension between life in “chutz la’aretz” and in Israel.
Not much different from his grandma Sarah, Jacob death is told in a Torah portion titled “life”, and here too, we deal with burial, except Abraham buried his wife in a plot he bought, in the homeland where he lived; Jacob doesn’t seem that any of his wives to do so, and further, he and the family are now living in Egypt. He has no choice but to approach his son in the matter.
And so we hear (Genesis 47:29): “And the time drew near that Israel (Jacob) must die; and he called his son Joseph, and said unto him: ‘If now I have found favor in your eyes, put, I pray thee, thy hand under my thigh, and deal kindly and truly with me; bury me not, I pray thee, in Egypt”, again, not different from what many of us tell – and have told – our children throughout history: it’s one thing to live here, but when the time comes, don’t leave me in the galut.
Joseph, of course, agrees, but Jacob insists that he must swear to him, and only when Joseph does so, Jacob bows on his bed.
Why does Jacob not accept Joseph’s words, “I will do as you say” (47:30) and demands an oath?
Check again his previous words: “… If now I have found favor in your eyes…” As Rav Hirsch points, this is not how a parent would speak to his child, so what’s going on?
It is possible that Joseph, as viceroy to Pharaoh, could and possibly did arrange favors to Jacob, and Jacob must have approached being the “father of…” with mixed feelings: proud of his son who made in “die goldene medina” but also frustrated to be needy and dependent in a foreign land, with people whose culture and language he knows not, and wanting to be known and remembered for who he himself was. But then, Jacob has always been also a realist; a realist who spent many years living in another diaspora; a realist who especially now, with his renewed insight, could sense the difference between living in a stressful diaspora as he did, a place that doesn’t let you forget who you are, waiting to get rid of you, and between this place of growing comfort and acceptance, in Egypt.
And he could sense how further complicated things can – and will – get. Here he asks for “chesed ve’emet”, an act of both kindness and truth for Jacob knows the two don’t always travel together: Kindness without truth can be fake; truth without kindness can be harsh. Jacob, as Abraham’s grandson and the heir of this way of life, asks Joseph for both. Then immediately almost begs twice within the same nine words: “and please, do not bury me in Egypt”.
Google Earth tells us that walking from (about) Cairo to Hebron can take (about) 10-12 days. It was generally “in the neighborhood”, but from Jacob’s repeated request we can surmise that there must have been a chance that Pharaoh would have disallowed the journey; that this sort of journey would further signal to Pharaoh and his people that the Children of Israel view Egypt as a temporary home; that ultimately, they are still attached to their homeland.
But Jacob was less concerned with his impression on Pharaoh and more with the slow, creeping permanence of settling in Egypt: “and Israel settled in the land of Egypt… and they acquired property / possessions there, became fruitful and multiplied exceedingly” (47:27 – last verse of last week’s reading). Note that “vaye’achazu ba”, here translated as “acquire property” is really more “they held tight to it”.
What’s more, much later, when Joseph actually fulfills his father’s last wish, he tells Pharaoh: “My father made me swear, saying: Lo, I die; in my grave which I have prepared for me in the land of Canaan, there shall you bury me. Now therefore let me go up, I pray thee, and bury my father, and I will come back.’ “ (50:5). Not one word about Jacob not wanting to be buried in Egypt! And check that tone, “my father made me… (I had to) swear”; “I pray thee”, and the promise to be right back. No talk about visiting his mother’s grave or maybe taking a quick tour in the holy land, perhaps arranging for a “birthright” trip for his own children? Pharaoh is impressed with Jacob, blessed and honored to support Joseph’s request to pay last respects to the old man, but as the trusted advisor, Joseph also knows exactly where he stands: he is 2nd to, not 1st. He doesn’t say what doesn’t need to be heard, what can get him in trouble; he smiles and says ‘thank you’ and ‘have a nice day’. It’s enough that he can do his father’s wishes.
It’s no wonder that the blessing that Jacob gave Joseph’s children has stayed with us: “may G-d make you like Ephrayim and Menashe”; maybe G-d make you like these two boys who grew up in Pharaoh’s palace yet never forgot their father’s home, family and teachings; who could walk the line between acceptance in another society and maintaining their core identity.
For 2000 years the Jewish people lived in various courts of various Pharaohs, some better, some worse. The temptation to let go of our way of life was always immense. But time and time again, Jacobs insisted and Josephs did their parents’ bidding, maintaining that careful balance, keeping a connection with who we are, and with the Land of Israel, alive and relevant.
Shabbat Shalom.

"May G-d make you like Efrayim & Menashe"



This entry was posted in life and some, shabbat shalom, פרשת השבוע לחילוני האדוק and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s