Why is it that civilization always seems to be accompanied by uncivilized behavior? Homo sapiens gathering into communities is a strategy that enabled us to survive and thrive as a species. However, with communities came rivalry. With communities came the development of societal strata. With communities came improved standards of living that became dependent on some members of the community performing the more quotidian and disdained tasks. With communities came wealth, and with wealth came the inevitable societal inequities.
Is this a price we will always have to pay? Must we accept these incivilities in order to be civilized?
Joseph, it would appear, believed it was necessary to accept the realities of social strata, and the incivilities that accompany them, even given his lofty position. He urges his brothers to lie about the work they did as shepherds, for “shepherds are abhorrent to Egyptians.” He suggests they call themselves breeders of livestock so that their esteem shall be higher in the view of the Egyptians. They should not admit to being lowly shepherds.
Joseph’s brothers reject his advice. When asked directly by Pharaoh “what is your occupation?” they answer that they are shepherds, as were their fathers (i.e. their ancestors.) They are proud of their heritage. Pharaoh does not seem at all put off by their answer, and welcomes them to come and settle in Egypt’s choice pasture land.
There are layers of meaning and insight we might explore in this little drama. Here is Joseph, second only to Pharaoh in Egypt, yet still worried that he and his family come from the wrong side of the tracks. (Yes, I love mixed anachronistic metaphors.) This is Joseph in galut, displaying assimilationist tendencies, suggest some commentators. This is Joseph, uncomfortable in his own skin, ashamed, perhaps, of his heritage.
Other commentators suggest that Joseph was exemplifying the value of respecting the customs of other people for the sake of maintaining peaceful relations. Personally, I think that’s a convenient whitewash, an attempt to put some positive spin on Joseph’s awkward need for his brothers to dissemble.
I would suggest that, given the outcome as presented in the narrative, the “authors” and redactors of the Torah were not pleased with Joseph’s tactics, and pleased with the pride of his brothers. Yes, such a thought process plays directly into the hands of the anti-assimilationists. We should not worry so much about what our neighbors think of us when we are living in diaspora. (Another potential lesson here is to not assume we understand the biases and prejudices of those amongst whom we live. Joseph worried for naught, for Pharaoh didn’t bat an eyelash upon learning that Joseph’s brothers were shepherds. It is also a reminder to not assume the worst about others. The text of the Torah could have noted that Pharaoh, and/or perhaps some of his courtiers reacted upon learning that Joseph’s brothers were shepherds. It does not. Was Joseph wrong in his assessment of Egyptian culture, or did Pharaoh choose to rise above his prejudices? We will never know for sure. It is a lesson to not always look for or assume the worst in other people. They may surprise you.)
If you’ve been reading my musings over the years, you know that I don’t believe assimilation is a dirty word: Miketz 5763ff: Assimilating Assimilation. Yes, we can have the pride of Joseph’s brothers, yet we can still co-opt and incorporate the things we encounter while living in diaspora.
Things become problematic, however, when we start to adopt the societal biases and prejudices of the cultures in which we find ourselves. When we find ourselves abhorring shepherds like our Egyptian neighbors, we have a problem. This is the real danger of assimilation – when when assimilate values that conflict with those at the core of our beliefs. The danger increases when we become comfortable and wealthy-when we no longer have to work as shepherds, and choose to not do such “lowly” work. This is a dehumanizing behavior.
That we choose not not work as a shepherd is one thing. To look down upon those who do is another thing. A wrong thing. It also exhibits a certain blindness to reality. The Jewish community in North America is not universally wealthy and well off. When we look down upon those who do certain types of work, we may be looking down upon fellow Jews. Don’t misunderstand me. Looking down upon a fellow Jew is no worse than looking down upon a fellow human being. However, the danger in adopting the biases of the communities in which we live in diaspora can cause us to be unaware of those Jews in our own midst who struggle to be treated equally and fairly. This compounds the error.
It’s great that we are called upon to remember that we were slaves in Egypt. I think we need more. We need to recall that we were shepherds. That we were (and still are) ditch diggers, servants, laborers, prostitutes, trash collectors, secretaries, clerks, cashiers, baggers, maids, housecleaners, cook, truckers, and many other things that some among our society see as somehow less desirable.
In every generation, and not just on Passover, I must act as if I am the immigrant, the slave, the domestic worker, the poor. I am the shepherd. We are shepherds.
©2013 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Vayigash 5773 - Let's Be Judah
Vayigash 5772 - Redux & Revised 5760 Teleology 101: Does G"d Play Dice With the World
Vayiggash 5771-Being Both Israels
Vayigash 5769 - He's A-Cookin'-a-Somethin'-A-Up
Vayigash 5768 - G"d By the Light of Day
Vayigash 5767-Two Sticks As One?
Vayigash 5765-One People
Vayigash 5763-Things Better Left Unsaid
Vayigash 5761/5766-Checking In
Vayigash 5762-Teleology 101: Does G”d Play Dice With the World?
Vayigash 5764-Incidental Outcomes and Alternate Histories