Friday, December 23, 2011

Joseph Dines Solo

Joseph's brothers have come down to Egypt a second time, this time
bringing with them their youngest brother Benjamin. Joseph of course
knows who they are but they still do not know who he is. The brothers
are invited to a festive banquet at Joseph's house. The seating
arrangements are odd. The brothers are at one table, Joseph's staff
and household at another, and Joseph eats by himself. The text tells
us that Joseph's Hebrew brothers had to sit separately from everyone
else because the Egyptians will not dine at the same table as Hebrews,
because "it is an abomination to the Egyptians."

But the text does not tell us why Joseph has to eat by himself. We
know why, as the viceroy of Egypt, he can't eat with his brothers who
are foreigners. But why can't he eat with the other Egyptians?

Both our current Etz Hayyim commentary and the older Hertz Chumash say
that it has to do with social status -- that it would have been
demeaning for Joseph to eat with his staff members. But I don't think
this necessarily has to be the case.

I think rather that Joseph has to eat by himself because he
exemplifies the existential dilemma of the first Diaspora Jew. Joseph
was of course born in the Land of Israel but wound up living in Egypt
where he attained fame, fortune, and power. And so he is different
than his brothers, who are not immigrants but merely visitors. But he
is also different than the other Egyptians because he is a Hebrew.
Presumably, he keeps kosher and needs different food, different
utensils, and so on. Just as he is somewhat alienated from his
fellow-Hebrews because of his status as Egyptian nobility, he is
somewhat alienated from the other Egyptian nobles because of his
Hebrew origins and especially his religious practices.

We are nearing the end of the Book of Genesis and will soon begin the
Book of Exodus. We will read of a new king of Egypt "who knew not
Joseph." There is a difference between the derivative power of Joseph
and the sovereign power of Jews living in their own land. The stranger
and sojourner always lives at the sufferance of others, and what is
given can be taken away. Are we American Jews Joseph? I think not, but
nevertheless this is a cautionary tale of the difference between
Diaspora and sovereignty.

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