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Judaism: Vayigash: The Goshen Factor

The word "ghetto" evokes negative images.
Published: Thursday, December 13, 2007 11:49 PM


Joseph, the renowned Grand Vizier of Egypt, brought his seventy relatives to Egypt, where he promptly placed them in Goshen, far away from the royal seat into what quickly became the first Jewish Ghetto in history.
Why does the Jew in America link his request for rain to the winter in Babylon?

The very word "ghetto" evokes negative images of anti-Semitic persecution and pogrom. But is a self-imposed Jewish ghetto - such as Goshen was - necessarily a problematic situation for the Jewish people? When we look around at the most successful Jewish Diaspora community today, in the United States of America, we have decreased from almost seven million Jews in 1950 to barely five million today (with another million calling themselves not Jews, but merely "of Jewish descent"), with at least another million of those having no relationship whatsoever with the organized Jewish community in any way, shape or form. In effect, we are halving ourselves; so much for the glories of a completely open society.

In this week's Biblical portion, we read of Joseph's instructions to his brothers: "When Pharaoh summons you and inquires as to your occupation, you must say, 'We and our fathers have dealt in livestock all our lives.' You will then be able to settle in the Goshen district, since all shepherds are taboo in Egypt." (Genesis 46:33)

On a certain level, Joseph's plan was quite logical. The lamb was one of the gods exalted by the people of the Nile, and contact between those who venerated sheep and those who grazed them for their wool, milk and flesh would have been disastrous. Since the brother's occupation was shepherding - and it was a preferred occupation over Egyptian agriculture since it provided ample time for study of the traditions and communication with G-d - it was necessary that they be placed in a separate area, a far enough distance away from the Court of Pharaoh and any well-settled Egyptian community.

The possibility also exists that Joseph wanted his foreign, conspicuously Jewish relatives as far from sophisticated and idolatrous Egyptian sight as possible. But there's no textual proof for such a reading. Indeed, Joseph does not seem to be ashamed of his Israeli roots; on the contrary, he seems proud of his father, even brings him for a meeting with Pharaoh, and he apparently desires his family to join him in Egypt.

Rabbenu Bachaya (1263-1340) gives a purely economic reason for Goshen: given the Egyptian attitude towards sheep, Hebrew shepherds wouldn't have any competitors. Moreover, their sheep would yield wool, providing garments, as well as basic foods such as milk and cheese, automatically giving the new immigrants their basic physical sustenance.

But the Kli Yakar (1550-1619) and the Ha'amek Davar (1817-1893) agree that Joseph as well as his family wanted the new immigrants to Egypt to be in a remote area as a protection against assimilation; that is precisely why so many Jews today insist upon living in areas such as Monsey and Monroe in America.

Far off in Goshen, away from the fleshpots of Egyptian nightclubs, bars and discos, the descendants of Jacob would guard what was unique about them as a people. In effect, they'd be establishing their own culture and society, their own yeshivas, day schools, synagogues, free loan societies, hospitals. This is how the Midrash understands that immediately prior to Jacob's entering Egypt, he "sent Judah before him unto Joseph, to show the way before him unto Goshen." (Genesis 48:28) The Hebrew word for "to show the way" is l'horot, which can also mean "to teach" (moreh is a teacher, one who gives direction) and especially to teach Torah; Rashi quotes the Midrash that Judah was sent on ahead to establish a yeshiva (school of Jewish learning), without which the family would never have come.

To strengthen this interpretation, allow me to interpret a Halakhic curiosity. It is strange that Jews in every country of the Diaspora begin to pray for rain in the daily Amidah prayer (Ten tal umatar, "please give us rain and dew") on December 4 or 5, about ten days ago, at the onset of the rainy season in Babylon (Babylonian Talmud Taanit 10). It
Given the Egyptian attitude towards sheep, Hebrew shepherds wouldn't have any competitors
would be understandable either to pray for rain when the rainy season begins in Israel, our universal Jewish homeland (on the seventh day of Mar Heshvan), or when the rainy season begins in the host country of the Jew who is praying, each country in accordance with its specific climatic need. Why does the Jew in America link his request for rain to the winter in Babylon?

I believe that our sages - in choosing the Babylonian climatic needs for all of the Diaspora Jews in all time - are teaching a crucial lesson as to how we can survive in the exile as Jews. They want to impress upon us that if we must live in the Diaspora, then our only chance of survival is by establishing a system similar to the one we had in Babylon for close to one thousand years, a state within a state, a Jewish exilarch (monarch of the Jews within Babylon), a Jewish educational system, a Jewish judicial system, and a Jewish cultural environment in Jewish neighborhoods.

Indeed, the Goshen factor, especially insofar as it stresses the critical importance of Jewish learning, including the high school and college years, of serious Jewish cultural expression as demonstrated in Jewish camping experiences, and meaningful Jewish communities in close proximity to synagogues, has been proven invaluable to those who succeed in giving over their Judaism from generation to generation.