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| Hurry - go up to my father and say to him, “So says your son Joseph: ‘The Almighty has made me master of all Egypt. Come down to me; do not delay. You shall live in the land of Goshen and you will be near to me - you, your sons… and all that is yours’” (45:9-10).
So said Joseph to his brothers after revealing to them that he was indeed the Joseph whom they had sold into slavery. The text later on relates that Joseph instructed his family to tell Pharaoh that they were cattlemen so that they would live in the land of Goshen. Indeed it would seem likely that it was in that part of Egypt that the Israelites sojourned for the whole period that they were in that civilization. For in connection with the seventh plague, the fiery hail, the Torah states: Only in the land of Goshen where the Israelites lived, there was no hail (Ex. 9:26).
Why was Joseph so particular that his family should be shepherds in the land of Goshen?
1. Rashi implies the answer where he remarks on since all shepherds are abhorrent to the Egyptians (46:34) that the Egyptians worshipped cattle as deities. This means that Joseph’s family were to live by themselves, undisturbed and uninfluenced by the Egyptians, whose culture included idol worship, murder (Ex. 8:22), and incestuous relationships (Lev. 18:3).
2. Rabbenu Bachaya comments that the work of a cattle herder is honorable and productive on one hand (wool, milk, meat), and conducive to solitude and contemplation on the other. He notes that both Moses and David had spent their earlier careers as shepherds: a spiritually formative occupation for their later respective roles as leaders of the Israelites. As Rabbi Samson Rephael Hirsch points out, a shepherd is involved with dependent living creatures, so he develops the traits of kindness and generosity. As his possessions are unstable, he learns not to put too much value on wealth.
3. The cattle people then (as in many developing countries today) are nomadic. In encouraging his family to be shepherds, he guided them towards a way of life in which they would not put down roots, but they would be a transient population. This would always remind them that they had come to sojourn in the land (47:4) and not settle there permanently as the Passover Hagadda relates. Perhaps a message to those living outside Israel today…
(Jacob) sent Judah ahead of him to Joseph, to prepare ahead of him in Goshen… (46:28)
The translation above follows the simple interpretation of lehorot: Jacob sent Judah in advance, to make proper arrangements for his arrival and settlement in Goshen. However the Midrash (Gen. Rabbah 95:3) renders lehorot as ‘to teach’. The Midrash explains that Judah’s mission was to establish a house of Torah study. This Midrashic explanation emphasizes the need to prioritize Torah education at every place where there is a Jewish community.
Several issues arise from the (Midrashic) content, and context of the above verse:
1. What was the reason Jacob wanted a house of Torah study to be established in Egypt before he arrived there? Surely he himself could have performed the task better than his son would have? After all, Jacob was (according to the Midrash) a direct disciple of Shem and Ever.
2. Why did Jacob agree to settle in Goshen in the first place? And, for that matter, why did Joseph choose Goshen of all places to settle his father and family (45:10)? True, they would be geographically close to Joseph. However, Rashi derives from the text (Lev. 18:3) that Goshen was the most morally depraved part of Egypt. What chance would a house of Torah study have of enduring in such an atmosphere? Further, Joseph emphasized that were they to live in Goshen, his brothers and their children and grandchildren would be close to him. Surely they would grow apart from him with repeated exposure to the licentiousness of Goshen’s inhabitants?
A look at more recent Jewish history may supply an answer.
In the earlier years of this century, the most famous and influential Yeshivot in Eastern Europe were not to be found in the capital cities. Neither Vilna, nor Riga, nor Warsaw had Yeshivot of the calibre of Baranovitch, Kamenitz, Slobodka, or Mir. The same is generally true in the Golah today. The largest and best established traditional Yeshivot are not to be found in New York, Washington and London, but rather in, for example, Lakewood, (New Jersey) and Gateshead (UK). Unlike the capital cities mentioned, these localities are not known in the gentile world as areas of culture, progress, and opportunity. (Some were rural communities composed of simple people.) There is therefore relatively little to distract the Torah scholar from his learning.
It follows from this that it may well be easier to raise children according to the Torah where the local culture does not compete. Indeed, the areas which had the greatest degree of assimilation over the last two centuries were those which offered the best secular social, educational, and business opportunities. There was, and is, some good in those societies, but they do have the side effect of offering distractions from serious Torah study.
This line of thinking could have been behind Joseph’s choice of Goshen. In Goshen – the most depraved place in Egypt – Joseph felt that the differences between good and evil would be easily defined. A person brought up according to the strict Torah way would be revolted at the base way of life of Goshen to the degree that he would wish nothing at all to do with it. Thus the house of Torah study would the absolute spiritual home of Jacob’s descendants. But it had to be done at once – because without the immediate spiritual benefits of Torah education, a vacuum would form. And in the absence of anything better, that vacuum would be filled with the low-down culture of Goshen.
In addition, to reinforce the segregation, Joseph told his family to work as shepherds (46:34). On the words since all shepherds are abhorrent to the Egyptians, Rashi remarks that the Egyptians worshipped cattle as deities. That meant that Joseph’s family would be able to live by themselves, undisturbed and uninfluenced by the culture of the people of Goshen, whose culture included idol worship and murder (Ex. 8:22), and incestuous relationships (Lev. 18:3).
Thus their settling in Goshen - with the established house of Torah study – had two benefits. They would be close to Joseph geographically – that geographic proximity would serve to maintain their spiritual integrity and relationship with Joseph and his exemplary way of life. And they would also be close to Joseph spiritually, as they would not err in assimilating with a culture that was clearly immoral.
Some of this material was based on ‘Peninim Latorah’ by Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum of Cleveland, Ohio.
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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