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   by Jacob Solomon

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(Joseph) moved the (Egyptian) people from city to city, from one end of Egypt to the other (47:21).

The last part of the text recounts the methods that Joseph, as Pharaoh's representative, used for ensuring fair distribution of food during the years of famine. Eventually, the text recounts, the entire population ran out of resources in cash and kind, and Joseph provided that their lands would be mortgaged to Pharaoh in exchange for the food that would save them from starvation.

In that process, the text (above) recounts that Joseph 'moved the people from city to city, from one end of Egypt to the other'. The Rabbis explain that he did this to impress that the lands were not their own, but Pharaoh's. They also mention that his own brothers would not be ostracized as foreigners by the Egyptians when they themselves were made to be strangers in their own country.

But however desperate people are for food, they are not going to be grateful to being moved around - to be consigned to virtually refugee status. Indeed, much of Polish anti-Judaism is rooted in the late-medieval Polish landlords using Jews to do their dirty work; running their estates, and acting as their middle-men with the local landless peasants. Jews implemented the bitterly resented taxes and tithes on their behalf, which did much to inspire the peasant inspired Chmielnicki massacres of 1648. And Joseph acted in a broadly similar capacity on Pharaoh's behalf - filling the state's coffers, and transferring privately owned land to the royal estate.

Yet it appears that the Israelites in Egypt were never actually hated for it. The new Pharaoh who 'did not know Joseph' incited the Egyptians to 'come and deal wisely with the people of Israel', because they were too 'many and mighty for us', and they might side up with the enemy in a future war (Ex.1:8-10). But he did not recall the obvious - that these very people were from a stock that took away their money, their lands, and their home environment.

R. Joseph Dov Soloveitchik gives an insight into these verses which may explain the above. He notes that Pharaoh refers to Egyptians as 'his people' (Ex. 1:9), but the Israelites were too 'many and mighty for us' (ibid). They were not 'his people' - they were a separate population living in Egypt. They acted that way. Deliberately. They knew it. And the Egyptians knew it as well.

The Midrash (would any kind person e-mail me with the actual reference) states that the Israelites maintained their spiritual heritage to the extent of not mixing with the Egyptians. They kept themselves to themselves. They kept their own language and culture distinct from the indigenous population.

That was no doubt the right thing to do - in principle. But such behavior does create a problem. People just hate being ignored. They can live with drunkards, criminals, and may even accommodate themselves to heavy-handed officials. But not with people who give out the vibes of not wishing to associate, of being different, of being spiritually superior. Or use language in their presence between each other that 'outsiders' are not supposed to understand. That is what offended the Egyptians most, and was used by Pharaoh to incite his people against the Israelites.

The Torah does create laws which separate us from other nations and cultures. They include the dietary laws, and those of the Shabbat and Festivals. But the Torah does not tell us to go overboard. It does not tell us to wantonly exude vibes of superiority and dislike of the local inhabitants. On the contrary, the Torah forbids us to despise the Egyptians 'because you were strangers in their land' (Deut 23:8). And Rashi comments that that is so 'even though they drowned your children in the Nile, they were your hosts at the time of your distress'.

Indeed, my own association with genuine Torah authorities recalls how, in their greatness, their communication actually gives you a spiritual uplift. They did not patronize, and look down on you as an inferior, unworthy of their notice. On the contrary: I remember making a surprise visit to one world ranking Torah personality. Seeing him in top gear handling problems from all over the globe, I apologized for taking his time. He asked me how long I would be in town. I told him that my work dictated having to catch the evening train. Smiling, he replied 'We'll make time.' And he did.

The implications of this discussion are that a Jew today is required to tread a very fine balance between remaining loyal to his traditions and calling, and relating to other groups and cultures in as positive and proactive a way as the circumstances allow. That may be exemplified by R. Samson Raphael Hirsch in mid-late nineteenth century Frankfurt, who as the founder and leader of the 'austrittsgemeinde' (break off, strictly Orthodox community), steadfastly refused to associate with any other group (even Jews of a less Orthodox community) in specifically religious matters. He nevertheless co-operated with such bodies in matters of social and communal importance, and was noted to have worked amicably and in harmony with non-Jewish authorities in matters concerning his school in Frankfurt…

For those after more comprehensive material, questions and answers on the Parasha may be found at and on the material on the Haftara at .

Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.

Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site:

Also by Jacob Solomon:
From the Prophets on the Haftara

Test Yourself - Questions and Answers


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