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In Search Of Joseph

01/13/2017 12:53:13 PM


Some say that Jews should be insular and provincial. Others argue that Jews should be worldly and cosmopolitan. Who is right?

In the Torah's record of G-d's very first instruction to the first Jew Abraham, He tells him "Lech lecha" - go out from your homeland. The Midrash explains, that Abraham was compared to a vial of fragrant perfume. Its flavor was that of monotheistic faith, love and ethical values. But so long as Abraham remained secluded in his 'homeland', the vial was sealed and not spreading its fragrance to the wider world. G-d's instruction to Abraham was to open the vial and begin traversing the world spreading his pleasant aroma.

Later, when Abraham’s son Isaac planned to pass on the Abrahamic torch to one of his children, Providence had it that it was Jacob who received the blessings, albeit dressed in Esav's clothing. Jacob was the insular son, whilst Esav was the worldly one. Remarkably, the blessings – and the inheritance of the monotheistic tradition - were given to the insular son wearing the clothing of the worldly son.

From all his twelve sons, Jacob’s favorite was Joseph. But Joseph was peculiar. His thoughts, behavior, dreams and dress-code were different from the rest of his siblings. This irritated his brothers, but apparently was the cause for the special attention and nurture he received from his father.

The brother’s lived as quiet shepherds in the land of Israel, isolated from the large cities and general populace. Even when they eventually moved to Egypt, they lived in a private neighborhood, away from the Egyptian communities. Joseph, on the other hand, though originally by no choice of his own, lived deep in the thicket of Egypt, among the Egyptian populace and eventually among the Egyptian royals. Yet unexpectedly, Joseph was no less of an inheritor and an ambassador of the Abrahamic faith than the rest of his family. In fact, only Joseph – and not his brothers – is referred to as Joseph the Righteous.

From all the above-mentioned instances a pattern emerges. In response to the question ‘What did G-d expect from the Jewish people?’, the answer is that He expected them to be His agents in teaching and influencing humanity about the ideals of monotheistic faith, values and lifestyle.

Throughout history, Jews have debated about what is the correct response to this unique calling. Some advocated that Jews ought to live isolated and protected from the impure elements of the world. Others argued that Jews ought to live within the environs of the general populace, for to be a ‘light unto the nations’ one must live among the nations.

What are the results of each school of thought? On the one hand, the communities which isolated themselves saw greater successes with retaining Jewish identity, piety and continuity, whereas the cosmopolitan Jewish communities experienced greater amounts of assimilation. On the other hand, the isolated communities achieved less with regards to ‘Jewish influence’, whereas the cosmopolitan communities achieved more with disseminating Jewish teachings.

Some communities successfully survived but did little to influence the wider world; other communities may have had more impact on the wider world but succeeded less to achieve continuity.

Realizing the perfect balance has been the ongoing struggle. How does one live as Jacob inside, genuinely committed to faith and tradition, and at the same time wear ‘Esav’s clothing’ in order to successfully influence the wider world? How does one become so authentic and deeply-rooted in their essential identity that no wind in the world, no matter how ‘Esav-like’, can uproot even one iota of their core? How can one don ‘Esav’s clothing’, look and act like an Esav, and yet remain fully cognizant that it is merely clothing, which can be removed at any time, and has no bearing over one’s identity? How does one live in a foreign environment, yet remain assured to not be affected by their surroundings but instead to affect their surroundings?

Whilst no single community may have yet achieved this, we certainly have who to learn from. Joseph. Joseph is the iconic Jew. Joseph didn’t focus his efforts at survival, though he certainly survived. In fact, Joseph thrived. Notwithstanding his environment, he alone became Joseph the Righteous.

And how did Joseph achieve this? Well, that’s the million-dollar question. A clue can be learned from the Kabbalists, who explain that Joseph’s soul was rooted in the sefira of Yessod. More on this another time.

Thu, August 6 2020 16 Av 5780