“The Virtues of Assimilation”
(updated and revised from Vayigash 5762-2001)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayigash, the dramatic story of Joseph and his brothers comes to a rousing conclusion.

Judah appeals to Joseph to have mercy, and beseeches Joseph to take him, Judah, as a slave in place of Benjamin, who has been accused of stealing Joseph’s chalice. Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, and Jacob and his entire family journey to Egypt to be reunited with Joseph. The children of Israel settle in the land of Goshen, and the parasha concludes with a description of the famine in Egypt and Joseph’s leadership during the famine.

Jacob’s arrival in Egypt together with his family fulfills the Divine prophecy recorded in Genesis 15:13, known as the Covenant between the Pieces: יָדֹעַ תֵּדַע כִּי גֵר יִהְיֶה זַרְעֲךָ בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא לָהֶם, וַעֲבָדוּם, וְעִנּוּ אֹתָם אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת שָׁנָה, G-d says to Abraham: Surely know that your children will be strangers in a foreign land, they will serve them, and they will oppress them 400 years. This, of course, is the prophecy of the dreaded גָּלוּת –galut, exile. Exile is not only the location where anti-Semitism emerges, it is not only where the Jewish people suffer persecution–it is where wholesale assimilation takes place. According to some Rabbinic views, only חֲמֻשִׁ֛יםchamushim, only 1/5 of the Jewish people emerge from the cauldron of Egyptian slavery, while the rest of the nation assimilated and were lost forever.

Assimilation, of course, is a prime concern of Jacob, and the primary reason that he is so reluctant to leave Canaan. He knows how powerful the blandishments of a foreign land can be. And, so, when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and instructs them to quickly go up to father Jacob and say to him in Joseph’s name (Genesis 45:9-10): שָׂמַנִי אֱ־לֹקִים לְאָדוֹן לְכָל מִצְרָיִם, רְדָה אֵלַי, אַל תַּעֲמֹד, “G-d has made me master of all Egypt, come down to me, do not delay,” Joseph makes certain to inform Jacob that וְיָשַׁבְתָּ בְאֶרֶץ גֹּשֶׁן , “You will reside in the land of Goshen, and you will be near me, you, your sons, your grandchildren, your flocks and your cattle and all that is yours.” “And I,” says Joseph to his father, “will provide for you there. For there will be five more years of famine, so you do not become destitute, you, your household and all that is yours.” Joseph is aware of his father’s concerns of assimilation, and he clearly indicates that there’s a Jewish ghetto waiting for his family in the land of Goshen. They will be able to live a separate life, as Joseph sustains them from the abundance of Egypt.

Despite Joseph’s promise to settle the family in Goshen, Jacob is clearly concerned about moving his family to Egypt permanently. Instead, he suggests:(Genesis 45:28), רַב עוֹד יוֹסֵף בְּנִי חָי, “It is enough that Joseph, my son is alive,” אֵלְכָה וְאֶרְאֶנּוּ בְּטֶרֶם אָמוּת, “I shall go and see him before I die.” Jacob thinks it’s in the best interest of the family to make just a quick trip to Egypt to see Joseph and return to Canaan. But when he begins the journey and arrives at Beer Sheva, G-d appears to him and says (Genesis 46:3): אַל תִּירָא מֵרְדָה מִצְרַיְמָה, כִּי לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל אֲשִׂימְךָ שָׁם, “Don’t be afraid of descending to Egypt for there I will establish you as a great nation. I shall descend with you to Egypt, and I shall also surely bring you up.” Certainly, without this Divine confirmation, Jacob would never leave Canaan to reside for any significant duration in Egypt.

As the parasha unfolds, two schools of thought emerge with respect to the threat of assimilation in Egypt.

In Genesis 46:31-34, Joseph tells his brothers, “I will go and inform Pharaoh, and this is what I’m going to tell him: ‘My brothers and my father’s family from Canaan have come to me. These men are shepherds, because they’ve always been livestock dealers, and they have brought along their sheep, their cattle, and their possessions.’ Now when Pharaoh summons you and inquires as to your occupation, you must say: ‘Your servants have been ranchers all our lives, we and our fathers.’ You will then be able to settle in the Goshen district, because all shepherds are taboo in Egypt.”

Rabbi Matis Weinberg in his brilliant analysis of assimilation presented in an essay entitled “The Merits of Assimilation,” that appears in his penetrating book on Genesis, Frame Works, notes that Joseph clearly instructs his brothers how to speak with Pharaoh.

1. Pharaoh must be led to think that you came to Egypt to be with me [Joseph]. He must never know that you came to escape Canaan. Otherwise, he will look upon you as indigent refugees from famine, rather than landed immigrants who plan long term settlement.
2. I want Pharaoh to know that you are “shepherds,” a taboo profession in Egypt. This way he will not be concerned with the possibility of mercantile competition from our family.

3. You must not mention “shepherding” directly, use the word “anshei mikneh” ranchers, livestock dealers. Give him a sense that you are a substantial businessman, and that you are here for long-term investment of your livestock and property.
4. Finally, do not mention Goshen directly. It’s important that it just “works out” that you wind up in Goshen.

And, yet, the brothers say exactly the opposite of everything that Joseph has instructed. Genesis 47:3-4: “They [the brothers] said to Pharaoh: We, your servants, are ‘shepherds.’ And they said to Pharaoh: We only came to sojourn in your land temporarily because we have no grazing left for our flocks–so severe is the famine back in Canaan. Let us stay for now in Goshen, please.”

Fortunately, Pharaoh pays no attention to what Joseph’s brothers say, because Pharoah has his own agenda. To begin with, Pharaoh never even invites the brothers to the palace, instead Joseph is forced to select five of his brothers and present them to Pharaoh (Genesis 47:2). Pharaoh in effect says to them, (Genesis 47:5-6) It’s clear to me that the only reason your family is here is because they’ve come to be with you, Joseph. Make sure they settle in permanently. I leave it to your discretion whether or not to offer them government appointments.

Clearly, the brothers understood the dangers of assimilation, and the possible loss of national identity. They therefore preferred to avoid any hint of permanent settlement in Egypt. In fact, by not establishing a comfortable home in Egypt, they hoped to assure Israel’s eventual exodus.

Joseph, claims Rabbi Matis Weinberg, had the exact opposite idea. He was optimistic about a productive Jewish future in Egypt. He wanted Israel to live there, become established, and entrenched there, in security and comfort. Was it because he was totally assimilated? Was it because of his negative feelings toward Canaan where he endured the travail of his early childhood? Rabbi Weinberg proffers a more radical explanation by insisting that Joseph was simply of the opinion that there can be merit to assimilation. Joseph felt that a Jew can experience galut (exile), and yet maintain his Jewish identity. By setting very clear limits, one could imbibe the good of the alien land, and reject the evil influences.

And yet, despite his loyalty and commitment to the idea that healthy integration of the Jews in Egypt could be achieved, it was Joseph who bound the children of Israel by oath to remove his bones from Egypt after his death (Genesis 50:25). It was Joseph who identified himself as coming from the Land of the Hebrews (Genesis 40:15) and was clearly identified by others as a Jew (Ivri) (Genesis 39:14 and 41:12).  It was Joseph who shifted the Egyptian population from city to city so that his brothers would not feel stigmatized as aliens. It was Joseph who supported the priestly cast of Egypt with state funding to create an infrastructure for the special status later conferred in Egypt on the tribe of Levi. And the reasoning behind Joseph’s very radical economic plans for Egypt, claims Weinberg, was all on behalf of the Jewish people. It was designed so that the full resources of the Egyptian treasury, the money and gold of the entire world, would be available for the Israelites to take with them when they left Egypt.

Apparently, Joseph felt that there are values and experiences in Egypt that would be appropriate for the Jewish people to adopt and share. Clearly Joseph does not see assimilation as a total evil, but rather a fulfillment of the Talmudic dictum (Megilla 9b, יַפְיוּתוֹ שֶׁל יֶפֶת יְהֵא בְּאׇהֳלֵי שֵׁם , the beauty of Jefet (Greece) can flourish in the tent of Shem (Israel).

There are many positive things that the Jewish people can learn from an interface with the other nations during their galut experience. A Jew can be enriched from Egypt, from Babylon, from Rome, from Spain, from France, from England, and from the United States of America. Says Rabbi Weinberg, “It is [the People of Israel’s] sacred mission to be completely committed to the world and to totally assimilate it–through love and consciousness and incorporation of the details that are the substance of the symphony called Creation.”

How intriguing it is to read this interpretation, especially on the heels of the festival which celebrates the battle for Jewish identity, the festival of Chanukah.

May you be blessed.