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Vayigash 5779 - We Will Not Live in Goshen

12/18/2018 09:48:46 AM


Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

Even though Chanukah is over I still have a Chanukah story to share.  For me one of the highlights of Chanukah is when we light the large 10-foot high menorah that is in front of our house.  Every year we announce the date and invite the whole neighborhood over for the lighting ceremony and we serve hot apple cider and sufganiyot.  This year was no different.  We had a joyous time dancing and celebrating with our lovely neighbors.  It is the one time of year that we actively bring our faith out into the local community.  I believe that this program is in the true spirit of Chanukah, as we say, hidliku neirot bechatzrot kadshekah, the Hasmoneans lit the candles in their courtyards--not only in the Temple, but also in their courtyards.

This year when I invited folks to the lighting, I did so by sending out an email to the Shepherd Park list serve.  I said join us from 6-645 pm.  But one of our neighbors was so excited to come that they actually went to look up the time on our shul’s website which said that the program was from 6-8 pm.  Anyways, this family knocked on our door at 7:30 and asked where the party was.  I wasn’t home by that point, but my family was very moved when they heard that our neighbors were waiting for a long time for this ceremony and had missed it because of a typo, so we enthusiastically invited this family to join us for Shabbat dinner this past week.  

For the sake of context: this was a family of native DC’ers, African-Americans, who live within a couple of blocks of our home.  As we sat down at our Shabbat table to sing shalom aleichem, I asked them if they had ever been to a Shabbat dinner before and they said that this was their first.  Every single ritual we did at the meal was new for them.  It was a wonderful meal with a beautiful family.  I had a great time and I was glad to meet them and spend time with them.  

For me, this meal even more than the candle lighting ceremony that they missed is the true spirit of Chanukah.  We spent our Shabbat Rosh Chodesh Chanukah sharing the light of our faith with a neighbor.  It is only because they missed the first ceremony that we got to really connect with a local neighbor who we otherwise wouldn’t have a connection with.  That typo turned into an inspiring encounter with our neighbors.

Unfortunately, the story of Jews and our neighbors is not always a pleasant one.

In our parasha, the story of Jacob and his sons moving to Goshen is also a story of neighbors—but it’s a story of separating from neighbors as opposed to embracing neighbors.

When Joseph first tells his brothers that they should all move to Egypt, he tells them, “you will live in Goshen” (45:10).  Later, when Jacob and his sons arrive in Egypt, Joseph manipulates the situation in order that they should live in Goshen.  Joseph tells them to say, “Your servants have been cattle men so that you may live in Goshen, for shepherds are abhorrent to the Egyptians, ki toevat mitzrayim kol roeh tzon” (Bereishit 46:34).  In other words, Joseph makes sure Pharaoh hears that the brothers serve in a despised profession, so that his family will end up living in Goshen.

Why the strong desire to live in Goshen?

Rashi tells us that Joseph and his brothers desired to live in Goshe because that was a fertile area for their flocks (Rashi, 46:34).

However, Netziv takes an entirely different approach.  

Netziv (1816-1893) was the Rosh Yeshiva of Volozhin, which today is in Belarus.  At that time this yeshiva was the largest yeshiva in the world. But in 1892, Netziv was faced with a choice.  He either had to institute a full day of secular studies or else he had to close the yeshiva.  Rather than accept these onerous requirements, Netziv closed the yeshiva.

In the context of Netziv’s life it is interesting to see his explanation of why it was so important for Jacob and his family to live in Goshen.

Netziv writes: “Joseph intended to manipulate the matter in order to achieve his desired goal of his family living in isolation.  Even though this was all being done in a manner that would result in Joseph’s brothers and his father’s house being despised in the eyes of Pharaoh, nevertheless this was all necessary in order to achieve this essential goal of shemirat kedushat yisrael, guarding the holiness of Israel” (Netziv, Haemek Davar, 46:31).

 According to Netziv, Joseph’s plan was all based upon a core value of the need for the Jewish people to live in isolation from the other Egyptians.  In order to achieve this goal, Joseph emphasized that his brothers did the dirty work that no Egyptian wanted to do: they were cattlemen.  Egyptian society needed cattlemen and no one wanted this job.  In return for the House of Jacob doing this job, they were granted the ability to live in isolation, undisturbed by the rest of society, without fear of assimilation.  

Joseph had his dream of an isolated community in order to protect his family.  But his dream came at a very heavy price.  His family was now despised by Pharaoh.  Sure, Pharaoh did not act on it.  He treated them nicely.  But deep down he despised them.

As it relates to our own lives, how should we view Joseph’s actions.  Should we see them merely as descriptive of the way he acted or, alternatively, as prescriptive guidance for our own lives? 

On the one hand, we are supposed to look towards the actions of our holy ancestors and follow their behavior.  On the other hand, sometimes we are supposed to learn from their mistakes.

Even though Joseph’s family retained its identity as a result of their isolation, one bad result of this plan is that it made it easier to enslave Joseph’s children.  They were a separate and despised class—by choice—who easily became exposed to the evil plans of the next Pharaoh “who did not know Joseph.”  

Parts of this story of Goshen actually become a predictor for much of medieval Jewish history in Latin Christendom.

There were certain professions that the Church forbade for Christians – like, for example, lending money on interest.  Jews were often allowed into countries in Western Europe by the local rulers primarily to serve as bankers.  This profession was despised by medieval society, but it was also necessary for the rulers to raise capital.  For the medieval Jews, who often had no other economic options or places to live, it offered short term-security--protection of the king, and a good way to make a living.  But in the long term it was very deangerous.  The medieval Jews were eventually expelled from every single region in Western Europe.  In the end, they were usually despised and mistreated by vicious anti-Semites. 

So as template for how to live today, this model of seeking out a ghetto for an isolated Jewish community is physically dangerous.

This physical insecurity as a result of isolation definitely concerns me.  But what bothers me even more is that I believe that this approach of Joseph is not in sync with the totality of our spiritual mission.  I loved spending Shabbat dinner with our neighbors and welcoming them into our space for that night, not just because I think such behavior will make Jews safer, but because I was inspired spiritually by my relationship with my neighbors.  I view the interactions with our neighbors as part and parcel of our spiritual obligation to be an or lagoyim, a light to the nations—to share our faith as a means of bringing more light to the world.  If we are isolated, then how are we going to be able to impact the world?

Is this model of seeking more ways for integration in line with the biblical paradigm?  After all, it’s not in line with the Joseph story, and in general, the Torah is known for being harsh on the nations of Canaan. There are many verses talking about the evils of nations around us whom we must wipe out completely.  If we were really being true to the biblical text, wouldn’t we say that Joseph’s plan was indeed a prescription for how we are supposed to live when we are in diaspora? 

Let’s look to the Babylonian Talmud for guidance.  The Babylonian Talmud needs to address this tension about the proper way to interact with neighbors.  The rabbis of the Talmud couldn’t afford to live in the ivory tower of the biblical world.  They lived in Babylon, as a minority amongst a pagan population.

How would deal with biblical texts that encourage us to isolate ourselves from idolaters?

As part of our daf yomi studies this week, we came across a text that made clear to me how the rabbis of the Talmud approached this.

The Talmud discusses how we should view the legal status of an animal that is slaughtered (shechitah) by an idolater.  Says the Talmud, today we no longer have idolaters.  “Nachrim she-bechutzah laaretz lav ovdei avodas kochavim hen, elah minhag avoseihen beyadeihen, the non-Jews outside of Israel are not worshippers of idolatry, they are just following the customs of their ancestors” (Chullin, 13b).

This could be read as a condescending statement: these pagans in our neighborhood, aren’t really committed to their beliefs.  They are just going through the motions.  But I read it differently.  I read it as an incredible statement of interfaith outreach by the rabbis: Our neighbors are not the idolaters that the Torah is describing.  Sure they seem to be doing exactly what the Torah says is idolatry.  Sure it looks like idolatry.  But it’s not.  It’s just a minhag.  It’s just symbolic as really we all believe in one God.  This is an incredibly forward thinking statement from our core religious text written almost 2000 years ago.  In making this statement the Talmud is essentially legislating out of existence the entire concept of idolatry amongst our neighbors.  

More than the story of the Israelites in Goshen, these teachings of the Talmud must be our guide.  While we must never compromise on our identity and our beliefs, we must also be looking for integration with our incredible neighbors.  Do we have some texts in our cannon that speak harshly about interaction with our neighbors?  Of course.  We have a large cannon and it was written many years ago. But the central message of the corpus is that of openness and integration with our society.  We must view our neighbors with love and admiration and as partners in our effort to spread the light of Hashem.

I thought about this message as the Maharat and I were faced with a difficult question recently.  A vegan restaurant in Anacostia named, Elife, asked us if we would provide kosher certification.  This restaurant is in a neighborhood with almost no Jews.  It is a major schlep to get there from our shul.  It will be a pain in the neck for our mashgichim to go and check on a regular basis.  And realistically, how many people in Anacostia keep kosher?  So why, should offer them certification?

We decided to offer the certification to this restaurant because we think it is an important thing to support healthy businesses in Anacostia.  And we think it is beautiful that this restaurant in Anacostia wants to symbolically partner with us.  We view our certification as a baby step forward in the relationship of our shul with Anacostia.  We need to be thinking about how we can take more of these steps.  

So one reason to seek integration with our neighbors is because it will lead to greater security.  A second reason is because the more we interact with our neighbors the more we will be better able to accomplish our holy mission of spreading the light of the Torah.  But there is also a third reason:  our neighbors can inspire us spiritually and through their own teachings and offerings lift us to a greater place in our own service of Hashem.  We have so much to learn from our neighbors.

The Talmud hints to this idea when it says that even if there would be idolatry amongst us, we would still welcome idolaters into our community. Says the Talmud, “lerabos havodei kochavim she-nodrim nedarim ve-nedavos keyisrael, idolaters can bring voluntary offerings in the Temple” (Chullin, 13b).  

Can you imagine if on Shabbat morning just before we began our mussaf prayers an idolater would walk in, ascend to the podium, and offer a prayer in front of our congregation?  Many of us would flinch.  But right there in our Talmud we are told that these types of offerings were brought in the Temple.  These types of offerings can enhance our own offerings.

I want to close with another Chanukah story. This story happened this past Sunday night, the eighth night of Chanukah.  

On Sunday afternoon, I received a phone call from a man.  He said he was not Jewish but that he was in the park and he found a head covering that looked like it was from our shul and so he wanted to return it.  This man had taken the time to pick up the kippah, find my number, and call me up.  I said to him that he could drop it off anytime.  He responded that he would meet me the next time I will be at shul.  So I told him to come at mincha time.

When our neighbor came to our shul, he returned the kippah. It was such a generous act of giving of his time that I was inspired.  I asked him, why did you go so far out of your way to return this?  With tears in his eyes, he explained that a member of our congregation had once tended to his child and he wanted to do this act as an offering for our congregation.  As he left the building and we began to daven mincha, I thought to myself that his offering was surely as holy as our mincha service.

We will be children of Jacob but we will not live in Goshen.  We will live amongst our neighbors and accept each other’s offerings.

Sun, May 31 2020 8 Sivan 5780