Sign In Forgot Password

VaYigash 5784 | Kate Rozansky

01/26/2024 10:27:13 AM


How to be an Abomination

My son Sam’s favorite place to be is up on the bima, and not only to get lollipops.  What he really wants to do is “give a Dvar Torah.” Actually, some of you might really like his drashas - they’re a little esoteric but very efficient. Any chance he gets, he climbs and yell his favorite words. “Excavator! Soccer! Tractor Ted!”  He takes the “dvar” part literally. As a mom I think this is delightful and precocious- and as a professional, it gives me a lot of anxiety, because one day I am sure he will outrun me during services and to do this in front of all of you. Bringing your family to the place where you work is …complicated. And we see that in this week’s parsha. 

Yosef’s family has come to Egypt, and Yosef’s worlds collide.  Yosef’s life as a Hebrew and his life as an Egyptian were until now completely separate. Last week we witnessed Yosef’s intricately stage-managed revealing of his Egyptian self to his Hebrew family.  But no sooner does Yosef achieve this goal, than he starts to work on a second revelation-  that is, the process of revealing Yosef the Hebrew to his Egyptian colleagues.  

Notice how abruptly this process begins: “…Israel said to Joseph, “Now I can die, having seen for myself that you are still alive.” Then Joseph said to his brothers - and to his father’s household,  “I will go up and tell the news to Pharaoh, and say to him, ‘My brothers and my father’s household, who were in the land of Canaan, have come to me.  They happen to be shepherds (ro’im) ; they have always been men of livestock (anshe mikne), and they have brought with them their flocks and herds and all that is theirs.’ So when Pharaoh summons you and asks, ‘What is your occupation?’ you shall answer, ‘Your servants have been anshe mikne - men of livestock….so that you may stay in the region of Goshen.  כִּֽי־תוֹעֲבַ֥ת מִצְרַ֖יִם כל־רֹ֥עֵה צֹֽאן  For all sheperds are to’avat - an abomination - to Egyptians. 

There is no time to waste - as soon as Yosef’s family is in Egypt, he needs to manage them. Notice that Yosef tells his brothers exactly what he will say to Pharoh, and then he tells them exactly what to reply. Rashi suggests that Yosef wants his brothers to emphasize their otherness to Pharoh, so that Pharoh will settle them in Goshen - apart from the Egyptians and their morally questionable ways. But the Biblical commentator Robert Sacks suggests that Yosef is doing the opposite - that Yosef is explicitly cautioning them against using the word “ro’im” - shepherds - to describe themselves, preferring that they use the euphemistic, “anshe mikne” - men of livestock - instead. 

According to Yosef, the Egyptians find the concept of shepherding morally repugnant. Yosef is afraid that Pharoh will be offended or disgusted by his family - and thus perhaps not offer them refuge, force them to give up a way of being they hold dear, or even kill them.  But Yosef also seems to think that, with the right euphemisms, he can make his family respectable - or at least acceptable in Egypt, as long as they do what he tells them to do. Be a shepherd, but whatever you do, don’t call yourself a shepherd. 

Yosef then brings some - but not all -  of his brothers to see Pharoh.  The commentaries disagree on which brothers he brings and why, but they agree that he chooses carefully. It reminds me of Yaakov splitting up his family the night before his encounter with Esav. Yosef doesn’t know what Pharoh will do to his family, and so he keeps his beloved father back, until he can test Pharoh’s intentions.  In last week’s parsha, we saw Yosef dictating similar actions and dialogue to his servants, who carried out his directions to the letter. But it turns out, it’s a lot easier to manage your servants than your family.

As soon as the brothers appear before Pharoh, he asks them what they do and Yosef’s brothers  say:

 “רֹעֵ֥ה צֹאן֙ עֲבָדֶ֔יךָ גַּם־אֲנַ֖חְנוּ גַּם־אֲבוֹתֵֽינוּ׃” 

Ro’eh tzon avadecha, gam anachnu, gam avoteinu. 

 We are shepherds, both us, and also our fathers.

You can almost imagine Yosef’s reaction to this - the one thing he told them not to say!   This moment reminds me of one of my favorite stories about my mother, of blessed memory,  whose 10th yahrzeit is this week. The summer after high school I worked at a camp where we taught kids to design video games in the morning and forced them to play outside in the afternoon. I wasn’t great at the job and the head counselor - who was very cool - and thus very intimidating  - was often annoyed at me. One day at dropoff my mother saw him roll his eyes at something I said, and when she asked me about it I said, “Oh, he just thinks I’m stupid.” My mother was incensed. “But you’re not stupid. Doesn’t he know that you got all fives on your AP exams!!!??!??”  - “No mom, he doesn’t know that.” “Well then, you should tell him.” “MOM, I’m not going to tell him, gosh, ugh!”

 A few days later, I was working with all the campers,  when the head counselor came in and - in front of everyone -  announced,  “Hey Kate, your mom called, and she’s going to be late picking you up today. And she also told me you got all fives on your AP exams…So campers, lets all give Kate a great big round of applause!” I wanted to die. I was so mad at her. And now, it’s one of my favorite stories about her. Not least because it allows her to keep doing something she loved - embarrassing me and bragging about me in public - a whole decade after she died. 

So - why  do Yosef’s brothers insist on embarrassing him like this - saying, “we are shepherds” even though they’ve been told  that Egypt might find this utterly disgusting and abhorrent?  Maybe the brothers are simply inept pretenders. Or maybe Yosef still has something to learn from his brothers, as flawed as they all are.  Maybe they sensed that if they had to lie about who they were in order to survive  in Egypt - then it would be better for them to know now.  Maybe they refused to dissemble about themselves because, despite all that these brothers do have to be ashamed of, they are still proud to be shepherds - the keepers of their father’s way of life. Admirable - but risky. And for now, the risk pays off.  Pharoh isn’t disgusted by the fact that they are shepherds.  Indeed, he then invites the family to settle in Goshen, and even tells Yosef that if any of the brothers are particularly good shepherds, Pharoh would like them  - yes, these abhorrent shepherds  -  to tend to his own cattle. 

Yosef seems to have overestimated the Egyptian hatred of shepherds. Or perhaps Yosef’s warning was giving voice to his own discomfort with his former life. Maybe Yosef feels more repugnance towards these shepherds (who betrayed him) than he would like to admit. Either way,  Pharoh seems to pass Yosef’s test, because now Yosef brings Yaakov to Pharoh.  And perhaps here is where we witness something about Yaakov that could hint at why his children were so proud to  be upholding his way of life, even when it seemed dangerous to do so publicly. At least, it showed me something that made me proud to be a part of the Nation of Yaakov. 

 וַיְבָ֥רֶךְ יַעֲקֹ֖ב אֶת־פַּרְעֹֽה׃. When Yaakov meets Pharoh, Yaakov blesses Pharoh. Rashi asserts that the bracha is a way of saying he merely greeted Pharoh,  but Ramban insists, no Yaakov gives Pharoh  a bracha. Even though Pharoh’s people think Yaakov’s people are utter abominations. This is impressive for two reasons: first, if mentioning you are a shepherd is abominable to Egypt, imagine how brave Yaakov had to be to mention Hashem to Pharoh - a man who is pretending to be a god.  Secondly, as far as Yaakov knows – the reason he hasn’t seen Yosef for twenty years is that Yosef was trapped in Egypt, and could not leave. What kind of parent has the ability to bless their child’s captors?

This week, I read a poem by Rachel Goldberg-Polin, the mother of Hersh Goldberg-Polin,  one of the hostages still in captivity in Gaza. The poem, delivered at the United Nations (of all places), is addressed to a woman in Gaza. Goldberg imagines that this woman is a mother, a mother who looks just like her, because they have both been crying. 

 “Could it be,” Goldberg-Polin asks, “that this woman/ so very like me/ that she and I could be sitting together in 50 years/ laughing without teeth/ because we have drunk so much sweet tea together/ and now we are so very old/ and our faces are creased like worn out brown-paper bags…And our sons/ have their own grandchildren/ and our sons have long lives…?”  

While the parallels are not exact, this could have been Yaakov’s blessing to Pharoh. Blessing Pharoh is not approving of Pharoh or equating oneself with Pharoh, but it is a blessing. There’s a Midrash that says Yaakov blessed Pharoh so that the Nile would flood at Pharoh’s approach, thus ending the famine that had captured the whole world. Why not bless some other river? Yet this Midrash’s Yaakov blesses the world through Pharoh, not knowing whether Pharoh wishes him the same. To be clear, Yaakov’s bracha alone is not enough to create some kind of ideal community between Bnei Israel and Bnei Mitzrayim. We’ve all read the next book. And yet, wherever I see this kind of depth of soul - it fills me with awe. 

Where does this virtue come from? Are people born this way or are they only forged in extreme hardship? Can I - should I - hope to be this kind of person? How would I even go about it?  Rachel Goldberg-Polin’s blessing expresses a hope towards building a world of compassion and abundance. It is a blessing about creation - planting seeds in a time of famine.  Delivering this poem at the United Nations, asserting her own humanity in the face of so much indifference…it is both magnanimous and an astounding assertion of self-respect.  

It appears that Yaakov’s generosity of spirit comes from a deep sense of emunah - from his faith that God is with him, in his comings and in his goings. Before he arrives in Egypt, as Yaakov is going to meet Yosef, Yaakov is afraid. God comes to Yaakov in a dream and says, “Do not be afraid. I Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I Myself will also bring you back; and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes.” And Yaakov wakes up less afraid. Perhaps this dream - this knowledge that he is not alone - is the source of Yaakov’s strength and his chesed. 

When I have been afraid, and - in the last two months, I have been afraid a lot - I find myself reaching more and more for assurances that God is with me - that God is with us all. I keep hoping to wake up less afraid, less angry, and more hopeful. And so my bracha for us all is that God’s voice should find us wherever we seek it - in our tefillah and  in our tehillim and  even in our dreams.  May that voice comfort us and guide us, and help us continue to be ourselves, still. We are Shepherds - both us, and our fathers.  

Shabbat Shalom.

Mon, July 22 2024 16 Tammuz 5784