Judaism: Dual Identites
In the opening chapter of Shemot, Exodus, we read that a new king arose in Egypt “who did not know Yosef (Joseph)”. How is it possible that this king did not know Yosef, the savior of all of Egypt?
Our Sages explained that the king certainly knew of Yosef, but acted as if he did not know him. He became suspicious of the loyalty of Yosef and his family. But even this is hard to explain. What caused the king to view the children of Israel as a threat to Egyptian security?
Our Sages gave a theological answer - the children of Israel began to assimilate. Accordingly, the negative attitude of the Egyptian king and his ability to rally the people around him can be viewed as both a punishment and as divine intervention meant to thwart the attempt at assimilation. But it is possible to add a more realpolitik answer as well.
Our reading opens with Yaakov (Jacob)'s request not to be buried in Egypt. It is so critical for him that Yosef must take an oath to fulfill the request. Why did Yaakov insist on an oath? According to Rashi, Yaakov knew that Pharaoh would not be willing to allow Yosef to perform his father’s burial in Canaan. Therefore he requested that he take an oath in order to give Yosef leverage over Pharaoh.
However, why would Pharaoh be opposed to Yaakov’s seemingly modest request?
We noted that in last week’s parsha Pharaoh invited Yosef’s family to come to his court and become part of Egyptian nobility. In Pharaoh’s mind, Yosef’s family was a member of the Egyptian nobility. Moreover, when Yaakov died, he was treated as royalty; not only was he embalmed, but seventy days of national mourning were observed. E
mbalming in Egypt is not a practical means of preserving, but rather a religious ritual designed to ensure the existence of the dead in the nether world. The Egyptians seem to be claiming Yaakov as one of their own. They have adopted Yaakov and made him an Egyptian national hero. Rashi explains that they imputed to him the prosperity of Egypt in the years following the famine. From this perspective, the request to bury Yaakov in Canaan amounts to a slap in the face of Pharaoh and the entire Egyptian nation.
Let’s try to get into Pharaoh’s psyche. It seems that Pharaoh began to doubt Yosef’s loyalty to Egypt. When the brothers went to Canaan to bury Yaakov, they had to leave left their children and cattle in Egypt. In a subtle way the Torah is trying to hint that Pharaoh is concerned that they will use their father’s funeral to escape back to Canaan.
However, if that is the case, why does Yaakov put his family in this situation? Why insist on being buried in Israel and risk the distrust it would cause?
While many answers can be given, I would like to suggest that Yaakov, knowing the dangers of a being a small minority in a dominant culture, already sees the specter of assimilation hovering over his family. He fears that after his death he will become part of the Egyptian pantheon (or as Rashi defines it – he was afraid they would turn him into an idol). With Yaakov part of the Egyptian heritage, it would be so much easier for his descendants to assimilate into it and lose their own identity as Hebrews.
Chazal (Sages) tell us that the redemption came about because the Jews did not change their names, clothing, or language. But they almost did. Egypt was a melting pot. We saw how easy it was for Yosef to take on an Egyptian identity and integrate into Egyptian society. Yaakov fears that that process will spiral out of control.
Yaakov is ensuring that he is not physically attached to Egyptian soil and thereby adopted by the Egyptian nation. On the contrary, his place of burial – The Ma'arat Hamachpela (Cave of the Patriarchs) will become a magnet pulling his descendants back to Israel.
We opened by asking what led to the turnabout in Yosef’s popularity. Perhaps the trigger was Yaakov’s request to be buried in Canaan. Pharaoh correctly interpreted this request as a rejection of Egypt and its culture.
Yosef’s economic policy was appreciated by the masses at the time. But what did the people think when Yosef’s loyalty became suspect? It was Yosef the Hebrew who introduced mass slavery into Egypt and forced the Egyptians to move from one corner of Egypt to the other, while his own family enjoyed economic freedom. Perhaps it was not so hard for the king to mobilize the masses against the children of Israel after all. Perhaps they were able to rationalize enslaving the Jews as a way to retrieve all that had been taken from them.
Being unwilling to reject their Israelite identity, 'Bnai Yisrael' were not able to be totally accepted into Egyptian society. They remained the perennial outsider as their loyalty was never totally trusted. It was only a matter of time before a new Pharaoh would arise “who did not know Yosef”.