If you were asked to name the most important human character in the Book of Genesis, you probably would not name Joseph. And yet, more space in Genesis is devoted to Joseph than to any other human being. Abraham merits three parshiot, weekly Torah portions, while the Joseph saga is spread out over four, starting with Vayeshev which we read this Shabbat.
The Torah presupposes an Israelite commonwealth living in its own land. A significant proportion of the Torah’s commandments can only be observed in the Land of Israel -- virtually all of the commandments dealing with agriculture, of which there are many. And yet, the fact is that most of Jewish history has taken place outside of the Land of Israel. While Rabbinic Judaism first developed in the Land of Israel, it did so under Roman occupation, and the most important work of Rabbinic Judaism is the Babylonian Talmud, written in what is today Iraq.
Perhaps this is the real reason for all of the emphasis on Joseph, who was in essence the first Diaspora Jew. He was a sabra, true, born in the Land of Israel, but he rose to political power not in Israel but in the capital of the most powerful country on Earth at the time, Egypt. While for the Torah the ideal is to live in Israel, the reality is that throughout most of our history -- and today -- the majority of Jews have lived elsewhere. For those of us who live today in the capital of the most powerful country on Earth, is Joseph a role model