Joseph, the First Diaspora Jew

Vayigash, Genesis 44:18−47:27

D'Var Torah By: Suzanne B. Griffel

Focal Point 

  • 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. The men are shepherds; they have always been breeders of livestock, 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 breeders of livestock from the start until now, both we and our fathers'-so that you may stay in the region of Goshen. For all shepherds are abhorrent to Egyptians."
  • Then Joseph came and reported to Pharaoh, saying, "My father and my brothers, with their flocks and herds and all that is theirs, have come from the land of Canaan and are now in the region of Goshen." And selecting a few of his brothers, he presented them to Pharaoh. Pharaoh said to his brothers, "What is your occupation?" They answered Pharaoh, "We your servants are shepherds, as were also our fathers. We have come," they told Pharaoh, "to sojourn in this land, for there is no pasture for your servants' flocks, the famine being severe in the land of Canaan. Pray, then, let your servants stay in the region of Goshen." Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, "As regards your father and your brothers who have come to you, the land of Egypt is open before you: Settle your father and your brothers in the best part of the land; let them stay in the region of Goshen. And if you know any capable men among them, put them in charge of my livestock." (Genesis 46:31-47:6)

D'var Torah 

We have now come to the denouement of the dramatic story of Joseph and his family. After having been sold into slavery by his brothers, Joseph, with the help of God and his own cleverness, has risen to the position of second in command in Egypt. He has finally revealed himself to his brothers, who had come twice to procure food to sustain their families during the famine that had afflicted both Egypt and Canaan. And he has sent for his father and the rest of his extended family, intending that they will survive the remaining five years of the famine in the rich pastureland of the Egyptian region of Goshen. It seems that all is going well and that Joseph's position in Egypt is so secure that his family's future is assured. Yet something peculiar happens: Joseph instructs his brothers to dissemble when Pharaoh asks what their occupation is. Even though Joseph himself plans to tell Pharaoh that his brothers are shepherds, he asks them to say that they are breeders of livestock because "all shepherds are abhorrent to Egyptians." However, despite this clear request, the brothers Joseph introduces to Pharaoh tell him that they are shepherds, and Pharaoh is clearly not troubled by this information. In fact, he offers to hire some of Joseph's brothers to tend his own livestock.

Let us consider Joseph's motivation for wanting his brothers to lie to Pharaoh. Was he afraid that his brothers might embarrass him by portraying themselves as poor shepherds rather than rich breeders of livestock? Did he fear offending Pharaoh by having his brothers acknowledge that they practiced a profession that was "abhorrent to Egyptians"? Was he perhaps secretly anxious that his position was not as secure as he thought it was and that one false move on his brothers' part could erase everything that he had worked so hard to achieve?

Whatever the source of Joseph's insecurity was, his brothers did not share it: They straightforwardly told Pharaoh that they were shepherds and Pharaoh, in turn, gave them the best pastureland in Egypt. Pharaoh's positive response to their request proves that Joseph need not have worried: His standing with Pharaoh was so well established that royal favor was extended to Joseph's entire family.

So why was Joseph so insecure despite his high position, and why were his brothers so confident despite their status as guests and recent supplicants? Perhaps their attitude was due to the fact that until very recently, Joseph's brothers had been living in their own land, whereas Joseph, beneath all the trappings of power and privilege, was still a foreigner. Throughout Jewish history, since our people's slavery in Egypt, Jews in the Diaspora have felt insecure. We are all familiar with the scene from Fiddler on the Roof in which the Jews of Anatevka are told during a wedding reception that they must leave within a few days, and many of us have heard stories about older relatives who always kept a packed suitcase under the bed. Even we American Jews in the early twenty-first century who are accepted in this society sometimes feel that our security is illusory and that one false move could lead to massive anti-Semitism.

So what do we do as a result of our fear? We pray and work to ensure our continued thriving in this land, and we pray for peace and security in Israel, so that our fellow Jews there may also continue to have the confidence of Joseph's brothers.

By the Way 

  • Note that although Joseph told his brothers he would tell Pharaoh "My brethren and father's house have come unto me," when he came to Pharaoh, he omitted the words "unto me," lest Pharaoh should suspect that they had come to be supported from the royal treasury. But Joseph emphasized that they had come from the land of Canaan and said, "And their flocks and their herds and all that they have have come," indicating to him that they were wealthy and in no need of support. (Abravanel, quoted in Studies in Bereshit by Nehama Leibowitz, Jerusalem: World Zionist Organization, 1981, p. 515)

  • The courage to let go of the door, the handle./The courage to shed the familiar walls whose very/stains and leaks are comfortable as the little moles/of the upper arm; stains that recall a feast,/a child's naughtiness, a loud blattering storm/that slapped the roof hard, pouring through. (Marge Piercy, "Maggid," in Available Light, New York: Knopf, 1988, p. 124)

Your Guide 

  1. How do you think Pharaoh views the relationship between himself and Joseph? Do you think that Joseph's insecurity, which is clearly revealed in the Abravanel passage, is warranted?

  2. How do Joseph's brothers regard their move to Egypt? Do you think that it was difficult for them, requiring the courage that Marge Piercy describes in her poem?

  3. How can we ever know whether we are safe in the land in which we live?

Rabbi Suzanne B. Griffel is the rabbi of Congregation Or Chadash, Chicago, IL.

Reference Materials

Vayigash, Genesis 44:18-47:27
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 281–297; Revised Edition, pp. 286–301;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 259–280