Commentary on Parshas Vayechi - The Jewish Voice
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Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Commentary on Parshas Vayechi

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Did Joseph and his brothers invent the Jewish Ghetto?

Goshen in Egypt was the first “ghetto” in Jewish history. Historians say that every place and every time, it was the Jews who created the ghettos, as a way to keep apart from the people among whom they lived and so that they could live in a Jewish atmosphere among themselves. The non-Jews only erected the walls and gates to the ghettos, in order to prevent the Jews from leaving the quarters which they themselves had set up. Sometimes, the Jews were shut up in ghettos ostensibly for their own protection, but in most cases it was done to prevent them from forming any close ties with their neighbors.

The first voluntary ghetto of this kind was in Goshen. Kli Yakar says Yosef’s brothers deliberately said, “Your servants are shepherds”, so that Pharoah would move them away from the Egyptians, for “all shepherds are detestable to Egypt.”

HaAmek Davar says that, in spite of the fact that living apart from the Egyptians would make the Egyptians detest them, Yosef nevertheless wanted to have his brothers separated from the Eqyptians , in order to preserve their purity and identity as Jews.

R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch takes this idea, and adds:

“As long as the ethical dawn of the other nations had not yet come, it was the partitions which the other nations erected which preserved Israel from being infected by the corruption of the people among whom it dwelled for hundreds of years. That is why Yosef stressed here a step which would arouse Egyptian loathing, with the clear intention of thereby having set aside for his brothers a special place for their dwellings.”

Various rishonim, though, give different explanations for Yosef’s advice to his brothers to have them tell Pharoah that they were shepherds. Yosef wanted to involve them in productive and creative work, in which they would be able to support themselves without excessive effort. It is true, says Abarbanel, that Yosef could have made his brothers government officials, but he did not want them to assume positions of authority, preferring to have them engage in honest and clean work.

Yosef wanted to instill in his brothers the characteristic of compassion, and that was why he wanted that they should continue as shepherds. A shepherd is compassionate towards his flock, and all the more so, toward people. That was also the reason that Pharaoh did not take them into his army. A person who was taught to be compassionate could not serve in the Pharaoh’s army, because being in the army meant being cruel and shedding blood.

Even before Pharaoh knew that Yosef’s brothers were shepherds, Yosef had a message sent to Pharaoh that “My father and my father’s house…have come to me.” He stressed that they had come, with the idea that they would be of use to Pharaoh, just as Yosef himself was. However, after hearing that Yosef’s brothers were shepherds, Pharaoh had no further interest in them, and said to Yosef “Your father and your brothers have come to you.” He decided that he had no need for them.

Yosef achieved the goal which he wanted, to separate his brothers from the Egyptians, and to enable them to live an ethical life in which they would support themselves from their work. Josep’s brothers continued their profession as Shepards, settled in Goshen, and had minimal contact with the Egyptians. Yosef’s plan eventually led to our early redemption from Egypt after 210 years, instead of 400 years.

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