Vayigash – Separation and Contempt
The following sermon was delivered by Russell Harding on 9 Jan, 2017.
This week’s Parsha contains the emotional reunion of Yosef with his father and his brothers. Paro is pleased. Perhaps he sees further advantage of the type that Yosef has already brought to Paro and to Egypt. He gives wagons for Yosef to send to Eretz Canaan to collect his brothers and father. Paro promises that he will give them the best that Egypt has to offer.
Yet, this is not how it turns out. Yosef tells his family that Paro will want to see them and when he does they are to tell him that they are shepherds, as had been their forebears and they wish to settle in the Land of Goshen. However, once Paro hears they are shepherds, he has no further use for them.
Yosef’s instructing his family to respond in this way is no accident. Shepherds were despised in Egypt. The Egyptians deified sheep. Those who herded sheep and milked them and sheered them for wool were detested. Why would Yosef have instructed his family to do this? He could have appointed them to government positions where they would have been revered by Egyptians, earned high salaries and retired on generous pensions!!
The Kli Yakar (Shlomo Ephraim of Luntshits – 16 th century), writes that Yosef wanted his brothers to say they were shepherds so that Paro would separate them from Egyptians. Rabbenu Bachya (Bahya ben Asher ibn Halawa – 13 th century Spain) explains that the occupation of shepherd has two advantages: 1. Shepherds earn money from wool, milk and lambs; and 2. Because being a shepherd is held in contempt by Egyptians, there is little competition.
In addition, shepherds live in nature, not with other people. Isolation is necessary for prophecy, a spiritual phenomenon. Yosef achieved his goal. His brothers lived apart, supported themselves and had no contact with Egyptians. They avoided the spiritual contamination that contact with Egyptians may have had.
Don’t forget, Hashem had assured Yacov that his family would be the seedling of a nation that would grow in Egypt. However, they were not at that stage – they were 70 in number – hardly a nation. This small group needed protecting from influences that would lessen its spiritual values.
The downside of separation is that it leads to contempt. Egyptians displayed contempt toward other nations. None matched its science, wisdom or construction prowess. How much more contemptible would a small group of shepherds living apart within Egypt have been held. Rav Dessler explains that being held in contempt by others erodes spiritual advancement. The ultimate redemption from Egypt was a release from this state of mind. Redemption allowed us to appreciate our unique role as people of G-D – a spiritual people.
The balance between separating ourselves from the nations in which we live in order to fulfil our spiritual role and participating in the civic and social life of those nations in order to avoid the contempt of separation is a very fine balance. It is easy to become comfortable to a fault in nations where life is relaxed. Doing so contaminates our spiritual development and impedes our ability to play our unique role among the nations. In recent times, I have had the fortunate privilege of not working for pay. A great deal of my time has been devoted to addressing the encroaching weeds that have had largely free reign over the last few years. While undesirable in the suburban garden, the weeds have protected delicate, native seedlings. Left unchecked, though, these same weeds will choke the developing kauris, totaras and rimus of the future.
So it is for us in New Zealand. We need to find for ourselves the balance that provides a safe existence within which we can fulfil our spiritual role without being choked by the influences that surround us. At the same time, recusing ourselves from the society in which we live risks being viewed with contempt, itself an erosion of spiritual development.
I was taken with a line from one of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ recent lectures. He concluded by saying that “non-Jews respect Jews who respect Judaism.” As comfortable as life in New Zealand may be, may we not forget the purpose for which we are here. We need not live as shepherds in Taumaranui. But we do have to live as Jews in Wellington.