In Exodus, Moses will name his son Gershom because he was a stranger in the land of Midian. But he was not the first stranger in a strange land. How did Joseph end up thriving as a stranger in a strange land? There are several interesting passages:
Genesis 41:14 Then Pharaoh sent and called Joseph, and they brought him hastily out of the dungeon; and he shaved himself, and changed his garment, and came in to Pharaoh.At first, even before he meets with Pharaoh, he stops to clean up and look presentable before a king. Note the people who were to bring him were rushing him along. It was Joseph who thought of this, out of respect for a king.
Genesis 41:40-45 And Pharaoh took off his ring from his hand, and put it upon Joseph’s hand, and arrayed him in cloaks of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck. Then he made him to ride in his second chariot; and they cried before him, “Bow the knee”… Pharaoh called Joseph’s name Zaphnath-Paaneah; and he gave him to wife Asenath the daughter of Potipherah priest of On
After meeting with Pharaoh, he likes what he hears from Joseph, and appoints him as prime Minster, several things happen. At the orders of Pharaoh, Joseph dresses the part of the national identity, drives the vehicles, and marries a local girl Asnat- ironically the daughter of his former boss and the older woman who tried to seduce him.
41:51. Joseph called the name of the firstborn Manasseh; For God, said he, has made me forget all my toil, and all my father’s house.
Sometimes during the years of plenty, Joseph has two sons. The first he calls Menasseh, because he begins to forget who he used to be, as he is so busy in his office.
42: 7. And Joseph saw his brothers, and he knew them, but made himself strange to them, and spoke roughly to them; and he said to them, From where do you come? They said, From the land of Canaan to buy food.
42:23. And they knew not that Joseph understood them; for he spoke to them by an interpreter.By the time his brothers show up, he is a different person, and they do not recognize him. The Rabbis believe this is because Joseph now has a beard, but it might be other things as well, such as his dress and his language - and the entire attitude of someone who is assimilated.
42:32. And they served him by himself, and for them by themselves, and for the Egyptians, who ate with him, by themselves; because the Egyptians might not eat bread with the Hebrews; for that is an abomination to the Egyptians.Even how he eats follows the custom of the Egyptians. Eating with his brothers would seem abhorrent to the Egyptians. But the Egyptians still will not eat with him. As far as he assimilates this also shows he never can completely assimilate.
As we read these texts there are the subtle hints of assimilation into the majority culture, and very little that tells us that Joseph is being as virtuous as he was in slavery or prison. One of the ironies of our own times is best told by Joseph’s story. In a world of oppression and servitude, Judaism as a people and religion survived uninterrupted for close to two thousand years. In a world of freedom and success like America, both the culture and religion assimilate into the majority.
Jews have undoubtedly been successful in America, with the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion. The National Jewish population survey in 2001 had as one of its conclusions “Relative to the total U.S. population, Jews are more highly educated, have more prestigious jobs and earn higher household incomes.” Some statistics, for example the while only 8% of the general population have an income over $100,000 a year 22% of the Jewish population earns over $100,000. 25% of Jews have a graduate degree, while only 6% of the general population do. There are many other such numbers, all pointing to one thing: Jews did “make it” in America. On the other hand, only 28% light Shabbat candles at home, and 27% go to synagogue once a month or more. While success is there, the cost seem to be observance.
Joseph knew he forgot all of this when he named his first son. But there's something about family. For most of the rabbis, Asnat goes into the category of converts like Ruth, Rahab and Tzippora. There is bit of commentary I once heard from my Teacher Byron Sherwin. Ephraim and Menasseh Dressed like Egyptians. When they were introduced to their grandfather Jacob, he did not think them his descendants. Joseph’s response is “They are my sons, whom God has given me in this place” but its more literally is “They are my sons, whom God has given me with this.” Most have assumed “place” belongs here. “This” is referring to something else: their circumcisions. In having children, Joseph is reminded of his lineage and his contribution towards the future, and almost immediately he does something about it, having his son circumcised.
When I was recently at a tot Shabbat I was rather delighted when the rabbi asked the kids if they wanted to read Torah with him, and they all ran up to the bimah like they were going out to the playground. In the Al Hayt confessional during Yom Kippur, we confess we’re sorry we ran to do evil. How joyous it is to watch little children running to read Torah!
Joseph names Menasseh as his own lament of assimilation, and dedicates himself from that point on to his immediate family in Egypt, and to his bigger family back in Canaan, testing them to see if they are now righteous. It is family that makes him a Jew, and he who makes his family Jews. Joseph is known in rabbinic texts as Joseph the Tzaddik. He may have been the first Diaspora Jew, and the first Baal Teshuvah, the first to assimilate and return, stronger for being both the Man of Egypt and the Son of Israel. It is our concerns for family which most drive the need for Jewish continuity. Like I saw at that reform synagogue, many of those kids attend day school there, who at three or four knew their candle lighting and Torah blessings already. Jewish education is on the increase with many young adults making Jewish studies of some kind part of their learning. And as NJPS correlates, those who do any kind of study are more likely to keep connection and observances of the Jewish community.
A we light the menorahs with the little ones in our lives, it is good to think of every light and every blessing as one more step in Jewish continuity.