We were in 5th grade; a lively group of giggly girls on route home from school, when a couple of guys approached us with some questions. They had big recorders and microphones, and thick accents. They told us they were collecting messages from Israelis for the Jewish community abroad. Of course, it’s possible they were pulling our leg, that’s not the point. The point is that while everybody said “nice” things (“tell them we said, shalom”), I said, ‘tell them they should all come to Israel right away’. None of us said things like, how are they doing over there? What do they think? How do they live? Please tell them we love them and miss them…
As a famous song says, “היינו ילדים וזה היה מזמן” – we were kids and that was long ago, but the rift of miscommunications and misunderstandings between the Jews of Eretz Yisrael and chutz-la’aretz (abroad) hasn’t shrunken much. In fact, it’s so old that some of its characteristics can be traced back to the first “ex-pat” and the first long-term diaspora.
* First, Joseph has no known intention to get to Egypt, let alone stay there, but, just like today, “things happened”.
* Things start out not so good, became great – almost perfect, but just about when it’s never been better, they start tumbling down to worse than ever, until suffering and slavery.
* While back home, in Israel, Joseph did all he could to maintain his identity as one who is different from his brothers (they were shepherds, out in the field; he was in his pretty, multi-color coat, helping his father, back in the tent). Once in Egypt, he did all he could to maintain his identity as one who is different from the Egyptians and… similar to his brothers. Numerous times we hear him repeat (variations on) the phrase “עברי אנוכי” – Ivri anochi – I am a Hebrew. This is especially striking in comparison to Moses, just a few generations later, who, when described as an Ish Mitzri, an Egyptian Man (when he saves Tzipora and her sisters at the well) shows no objection. Later, Moses will be buried outside of the Land, while Joseph will be carried back in at the time of the Exodus. Burial discussions – still take place today, as does the struggle for one’s identity on the backdrop of the outside culture (see the Hanukkah story).
* Living in the diaspora has great attractions and advantages, but it also has a great price. The influence of a different place has an impact that can’t be denied, and can cause a change in one’s behavior and presence, likes and dislikes, not to mention ideas, clothing, accent, language and more. This might explain why Jacob – and the brothers – had a hard time recognizing Joseph when they first saw him, though that also speaks to the fact that, contrary to what we think, we see with our heart and not with our eyes. Very often, we see what we expect, and not necessarily what’s in front of us, and there are plenty of studies that talk about it (like the famous “selective attention” test with the gorilla).
* last ut not least, when Jacob’s children make the “ירידה” yerida, the move “down” to Egypt, it says: “and he (Jacob) sent Judah ahead of him” (Genesis 46:28). Why did he send Judah? Rashi says, based on the midrash, that Jacob wanted Judah to set up a proper place for the family arriving shortly, including a school / place of learning. But, wasn’t Joseph already in Egypt? Couldn’t Joseph prepare everything needed? He had access to the most powerful leader in the country! He knew the terrain! Won’t he be best suited? Turns out, Jacob (Rashi’s and the Midrash’s Jacob), thinks that, although Joseph can do a lot (including making sure Jacob will receive a Jewish burial in the Holy Land), Judah is needed for the set-up of their home in Egypt.
So which is it? Joseph or Judah? The life of the diaspora Jew, or that in the Land? The answer is still, yes. May we learn to appreciate each other and the unique gifts each brings.