This week Judah pleads for the freedom of Benjamin, and is so moving Joseph reveals that he is their brother in a fearful and tearful reunion. Eventually Jacob and the whole Mishpocha comes down to Egypt. They all live happily off the fat of the land of Egypt at the request of Pharaoh.
Sort of….its just not happily ever after.
Twice in Jacob’s life he had a rather tearful family reunion. The first one was back in Genesis 33:4 when he met with brother Esau. And there is once again a tearful reunion:
29. And Joseph made ready his chariot, and went up to meet Israel his father, to Goshen, and presented himself to him; and he fell on his neck, and wept on his neck a good while. 30. And Israel said to Joseph, Now let me die, since I have seen your face, because you are still alive. [Genesis 46:29-30]
Joseph, on the other hand has other plans, one which some might say backfires.
34. That you shall say, Your servants’ trade has been keeping cattle from our youth until now, both we, and also our fathers; that you may live in the land of Goshen; for every shepherd is an abomination to the Egyptians.
Recently I got a new perspective on this passage from a social psychology book I’m reading. In a study of sports fans, Robert Cialdini found an interesting phenomenon in linguistics of pronouns. When a team won, its fans would describe the win as “we won” yet when the team lost, fans would describe the loss as “they lost” (Cialdini 1993, 200) As Cialdini explains, in order to bolster our own self esteem, we try to associate and identify with the success of someone else. Yet it there is an associated psychological phenomenon in cases where people are like us we tend like them and them trust more and ultimately comply with thier wishes. This is where the danger lies as we read in Exodus the Pharaoh who did not know Joseph:
9. And he said to his people, Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we; 10. Come on, let us deal wisely with them; lest they multiply, and it may come to pass, that, when there would be any war, they should join our enemies, and fight against us; and so get them out of the land. [Exodus 1:9-10]
And there is also another prime minister in the book of Esther who uses a similar argument:
8. And Haman said to king Ahasuerus, There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of your kingdom; and their laws are different from those of every other people; and they do not keep the king’s laws; therefore it is not for the king’s profit to tolerate them. 9. If it please the king, let it be decreed that they may be destroyed; and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver to the hands of those who have the charge of the business, to bring it into the king’s treasuries.[Esther 3:8-9]
Those two pronouns, us and them were used to enslave the Israelites by Pharaoh and request genocide by Haman. While this psych research is for a paper about the early Hasidic movement and the secret to their success, I also needed a lot about the history of Poland, and through the materials I have read too many times the words “much of this material was lost during WWII” The Shoah too was the ultimate version of this rhetoric of mind control “us versus them.” To see how easy it is for such things to happen, Muzafar Sherif in 1961 demonstrated this by merely separating two groups of boys at summer camp into isolated teams and letting them compete on a variety of exercises. By mid-summer, picnics always turned to riots.
I bring this all up because of Goshen, and Joseph’s plan to take Goshen for his family. In segregating the Israelites from the Egyptians, Joseph was setting up we versus they. To be fair, he may have had more immediate considerations. The Israelites were already problematic as shepherds. Midrash tells us that many herd animals, notably sheep, were also Egyptian gods, and anyone who was controlling the sheep was essentially controlling the gods. That is the abomination mentioned in the text. Joseph was hiding their unpleasant job from most of Egypt, at the same hiding everything else about his family. But a higly populous segregated people who did such abominations was just the leverage Pharaoh needed to set up the slavery system. It’s us versus them.
Segregation was part of the problem, yet, just removing the segregation is not enough.Indeed one problem in school districts even after desegregation is the increase of bigotry and racism. Even within the school, just being in the same building, us versus them continues to be a problem as demographics clump together to form tribal groups within schools.
Yet this portion at its beginning shows us another way, one found at its beginning. Such tribal differences were very much the case throughout the book of Genesis and such us verses them was almost fatal in the case of Joseph’s early years as the sons of Jacob defined their allegiance by their allegiance to their mothers. Ruben’s sleeping with Bilhah is described as part of this battle, as is Joseph’s tale bearing, supposedly about the Simon and Levi’s destruction of Shechem. Yet this battle between the sons of Leah and the sons of the other mothers come to an abrupt halt in front of Joseph’s eyes, when Judah pleads for Benjamin, the son of rival mother Rachel to be allowed to return to Jacob.
What changes the situation is the same thing that Sharif found in his 1961 study. After creating a nightmare the researchers did not think they could control, and dealing with in-camp riots breaking out when integration was tried at picnics, they found that a crisis which needed cooperation was the thing to bring people back together. Thorugh a series of cooperative activities, By the end of camp, kids from both “sides” were actually friends. The they had become we.
In one sense Joseph was the ideal success story of such diversity. In another sense is what happened to Joseph himself. He assimilated into the culture in that cooperation, and for many that is the fear of cooperating. If we help them then we are no longer we. Much of Jewish continuity for the past two millennia of Diaspora is based on such a premise. Joseph might have wanted to protect that as well and so isolated his family from the rest of the population so they did not assimilate into Egyptian society as he did as viceroy of Egypt.
Yet it is the pharaoh of Joseph’s time who might have an alternate response.
6. The land of Egypt is before you; let your father and brothers live in the best of the land; in the land of Goshen let them live; and if you know any men of activity among them, then make them rulers over my cattle.
Pharaoh knows the secret that everybody is good at something different. Diversity should be maintained in cooperation because there are some who do a better job than others at some things. Egyptians refused to be shepherds, but Jacob’s son were the experts for the job. If we do things right, we do not lose, indeed, we all gain.
Yet, as I’ve described here such integration is not easy, but I believe it is one of the biggest challenges the Jewish people face in the years to come, with questions which faced Joseph as his family journeyed to their new home in Egypt.
May we find the right answers.