D’var Torah: Leaving the Land of Goshen

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Rabbi Josef Davidson

RABBI JOSEF DAVIDSON

There has long been a tension in Judaism and in Jewish communities between particularism and universalism.

Proponents of particularism would have Jews form themselves into self-contained communities, isolated from neighboring non-Jewish communities, providing their own schools, social services, law enforcement and society based on the rituals, obligations and values of Judaism.

Proponents of universalism maintain that specific identities are reinforced through a more global outlook, acculturating to the society (not assimilating into it), participating fully in the general community, but as Jews.

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, the story of Joseph continues. Joseph, after a brave and emotional confrontation on the part of his brother Judah, finally reveals his true identity. The one who is second in command of all Egypt is, indeed, the brother whom they had sold into slavery so many years ago.

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With his inside information as to the length and severity of the famine that brought the sons of Israel to Egypt in the first place, Joseph invites his brothers to return to Canaan and to bring their families and their father and his wives back to Egypt. Perhaps eager to provide a permanent reason for Joseph to remain, the Pharaoh issues an invitation of his own with generous provisions for their travel to and from Canaan.

As the family approaches Egypt, Joseph goes out to meet them and to instruct them as to what they should say when they are greeted by the Pharaoh. They are to say that they are shepherds and have been shepherds for generations and that they require only to reside in an area that provides pasture for their herds and flocks. Joseph has identified the area known as Goshen as ideal for this.

In the end, this is precisely what Pharaoh grants them. As such, they can potentially create a “little Canaan” for themselves, as they dwell apart from the Egyptians, engaged in an occupation that is considered undesirable by the Egyptians. Just as Joseph sat apart from both the Egyptians and the Israelites at the meals, so, too, the family would be set apart.

In ancient Egypt, particularism was most beneficial to both the children of Israel and to the native Egyptian population.

While Joseph, as a slave, a prisoner and second in command, had the opportunity to acculturate to Egypt, so much so that his brothers failed to recognize him when they first met, the Israelites were to remain isolated. Their particularism made it very easy years later for Pharaoh’s daughter to recognize a Hebrew child floating in a pitch basket in the Nile River after the warm welcome turned into a cold, heartless enslavement at the order of “a new king who did not know Joseph.” (Exodus 1:8) The Israelites were particularly easy to recognize and to control due their particularism.

Particularism is both a blessing and a curse. It reinforces identity, provides support for a minority population and maintains a communal structure. It minimizes any attraction that another culture might have. Much of history demonstrates the effectiveness of Jewish particularism, whether by choice or by decree.

The question, however, is whether this isolation from others is good in a postmodern world. When Jews and other minorities are afforded citizenship, when they reside in mixed neighborhoods, work side-by-side with other people, when Jewish and secular values intersect, does not a more universalist approach apply?

For most Jews today, the option taken has been to live as Jews within, rather than apart from, the general society. To leave “the land of Goshen” has consequences, to be certain, and risks, but it also has reaped benefits. Jews best affirm their own identities by affirming those of others. Moses Mendelsohn in the early 19th century attempted to be a Jew at home and a German in the street.

The reality is that it need not be either/or. Hyphenated Americans can be who they are in private and in public. The tension exists only when the balance between particularism and universalism is skewed one way or the other.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Josef Davidson serves Congregation B’nai Amoona and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the weekly d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.