Thursday, December 13, 2012

Two-Minute Torah: 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 has 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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