And they did not recognize him.
Is isolationism the only way to live as faithful Jews, or can we scale the ghetto walls and still remain devout? This is, of course, an ongoing debate among different schools of thought in our community. Some look down on those who insist on insulating themselves as being too tentative, too insecure in their own Jewish identity. Otherwise, why should they fear the outside world? Whereas those who have opted to shelter themselves inside the ghetto would argue that engaging a hedonistic, morally corrupt society is nothing less than spiritual suicide.
And then there are those who took the risk and lived to tell the tale.
Our parashah recounts the dramatic episode of Joseph and his brothers. The young boy sold into slavery has since catapulted to prominence and is now viceroy of Egypt. The brothers come down from Canaan seeking sustenance during a famine. They encounter the viceroy face-to-face but do not realize that it is their own long-lost brother.
“And Joseph recognized his brothers but they did not recognize him.” Rashi explains that when they had last seen each other, the brothers, being older, were mature and bearded, while Joseph was still young and without a beard. Thus it was easier for him to recognize them than vice versa.
Applying a more homiletic interpretation, the mystics understand the brothers’ lack of recognition not on the facial level but on the spiritual. The brothers were shepherds. It suited their spiritual lifestyle to be alone in the meadows, surrounded by nature and unchallenged by a society that might be hostile to their beliefs. The sheep they tended didn’t give them a hard time on religious issues. That Joseph could remain a devoted son of Jacob, faithful to his father’s way of life while working in the hub of the mightiest superpower on earth, was totally beyond their comprehension. They could not fathom – or recognize – such a thing. Indeed, later we will read how Jacob himself is deeply gratified to learn that the son he had given up for dead was not only alive but was “my son,” that is, faithful to Jacob’s traditions in spite of his high office in Egyptian society.
There is no question that it is easier to be Jewish among your own. Without a shadow of a doubt, it is much tougher and far more testing to practice your faith as a minority. Nobody enjoys sticking out like a sore thumb. So sequestering yourself in your own little comfort zone makes perfect sense.
Unless, of course, you believe that you have a responsibility to the world around you.
When you believe that Hashem expects nothing less from you than to change the world, then simply treading water is not enough. Then you have no option but to go out and take on the world, engage it, and make that very world a more Godly place.
All Jacob’s sons were righteous men. But Joseph was the greatest. He is known as Yosef HaTzaddik, Joseph the Righteous. Because it is one thing to be righteous in the fields and the forests. It is another to be righteous among people, especially men and women steeped in moral depravity, as were the Egyptians.
The viceroy of Egypt then must be roughly equivalent to the president of the United States, or at least the secretary of state, today. Imagine that the person holding such high office is a committed, practicing Jew. He is successful in the fulfillment of his governmental duties and brings stature to the position, while at the very same time living the life of a devout Jew. Quite mind-boggling. But Joseph achieved it. And it was in this spirit that he raised his sons, Ephraim and Menashe.
That’s why Joseph is an important role model for our generation. Most of us find ourselves in a socially integrated society. We mix in many different circles. We live in a gateless, even wireless community. Will we maintain our Jewishness with dignity and integrity despite the challenges thrust upon us by a wide-open society? This is the question that Joseph answers. It may not be easy, but it can be done.
So whether we are honchos in the corporate hierarchy or diplomats in high office, let the viceroy of Egypt, Joseph the faithful son of Jacob the Jew, inspire us by his example.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman was born in Brooklyn and was sent in 1976 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe as an emissary to serve the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is Senior Rabbi of the Sydenham Shul and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. His sefer “From Where I Stand: Life Messages from the Weekly Torah Reading” was published by Ktav and is available at Jewish book shops or online at www.ktav.com.