Joseph’s legacy is a guide to the future

Rabbi Brad Horwitz is director of Jewish engagement and adult programs at the Jewish Community Center.

By Rabbi Brad Horwitz

This week, we come to the end of the Joseph saga. Joseph reconciles with his brothers, and the whole family reunites after years of separation and then settles peacefully in the land of Goshen, in Egypt. 

The details of this reunification are fascinating but it is the legacy of Joseph that needs exploration.

One thing for sure is that Joseph had a challenging life. He was thrown into a pit, sold into slavery, put in jail for a crime he did not commit in a foreign and strange land and was separated from his home and family for years. Despite all of this, Joseph stands firm in his faith in the Hebrew God. 

When Potiphar’s wife attempted to seduce him into committing adultery, he refused saying, “How could I do this most wicked thing and sin before God?” When Joseph is brought to interpret Pharaoh’s dream again, he invokes God’s name, saying, “It is not I! God will see to Pharaoh’s welfare.” In naming his two children, again Joseph chooses two Hebrew names, Ephraim and Menashe.

When he finally reveals himself and reconciles with his brothers, he emphasizes to them that it was God and not them that sent him to Egypt. 

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“God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in extraordinary deliverance,” he says. 

Perhaps this should be Joseph’s legacy: his dedication to God no matter the circumstance or what life brings. 

We also see that part of Joseph’s legacy is that he was the first Jew who maintained this dedication and faith despite living in a foreign culture. All of the lures of ancient Egypt — the grand pyramids, the exotic culture, the wondrous Nile, the power of office, the animalistic gods — did not entice Joseph to forget his roots, his Jewish identity. 

Joseph’s desire to reunite and reconcile with his brothers also provides evidence that his heritage and roots are important to who he is. 

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat said it best: “Joseph is the first Jew to resist the temptations of assimilation.” 

Rabbi Riskin points out that every Friday night when children are blessed at the Shabbat table, daughters are to be like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, but sons are blessed to be like Efraim and Menashe (Joseph’s two sons) and not Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. 

Why? Perhaps because Joseph’s sons were the first Jewish children to be born in a society where Jews were a significant minority and yet still hold on to their Jewish identity. Ephraim and Menashe are role models for every generation of children who face this same struggle.

Joseph maintained his identity not by avoiding Egyptian culture or by isolating himself. Rather, he played an integral role in Egyptian society. After all, it was Joseph who saved Egypt from destruction and starvation. 

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Israel’s first chief Rabbi, provides two different ideologies, one that Joseph represents and the other that his brothers represent. Rav Kook explains that the brothers symbolize the notion that Jews should live insular lives to prevent the risk of assimilation and disappearance. Joseph, on the other hand, represents the view that Jewish survival depends on integration with the outside world. In the end, it is Joseph’s view that prevails and teaches the value and necessity for some type of participation in the outside world.

It is a difficult task for many North American Jews to maintain a Jewish identity yet be a part of the large outside world. The large numbers of intermarried and unaffiliated Jews are testimony to the difficulty of this task. Joseph, too, realized the dangers of assimilation to his descendants. Perhaps this explains Joseph’s decision to settle his family in the outskirts of Egypt in the land of Goshen. This was more of a distant isolated area of Egypt where it was more possible to maintain a Jewish identity surrounded by a majority.

Our challenge therefore is to be like Joseph. We must model for and teach our children how to integrate with modern life and culture without losing our hold on our Jewish identity.  Through active participation in Jewish schools and Jewish camps, Jewish culture, community life, synagogue, Israel engagement, Jewish ritual and customs, I am confident that we can meet this challenge. 

The future of the Jewish people will depend on it, and Joseph’s legacy will remain intact for generations to come.

Shabbat Shalom.