מאת: הרב שמואל רבינוביץ

Vayigash 5777

Culture Clash
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites

In this week’s parasha of Vayigash, we read about the great descent – Yaakov’s family leaves the Land of Canaan and goes down to Egypt. They do not do so out of joy, but rather under financial and existential duress. Canaan was suffering a terrible drought and the famine had reached peak levels, while in Egypt, Yosef the son/brother served as an assistant to the king and was the de-facto manager of the kingdom. It was Yosef, as we recall, who planned and implemented saving grain during the years prior to the famine. Egypt became the largest food supplier in the region and Yosef was the administrator of the Egyptian economy.

Another consideration in the decision to leave Canaan for Egypt was Yaakov’s great desire to meet his lost son, Yosef, after a twenty-two year separation. Yosef could not come to his father since he was busy managing the Egyptian economy so there was no choice but for Yaakov to go down to Egypt to see his beloved son.
Immediately after Yaakov’s family arrives in Egypt, a latent confrontation between them and the Egyptians, stemming from their different occupations, becomes evident through the verses.
The men are shepherds, for they were [always] owners of livestock…all shepherds are abhorrent to the Egyptians.
(Breishit 46, 32-34)
Ancient Egypt, with its fertile land thanks to the Nile River, saw farming as the “right” occupation and shepherding as abhorrent. However, Yaakov’s family members were shepherds. The culture clash was inevitable. The solution was setting aside the Land of Goshen in Egypt for the family. But we want to understand where this culture clash came from. What stood behind Yaakov’s family’s preference for shepherding over farming?
Working the land, agriculture, is risky. It is an occupation that could cause a person to become arrogant, materialistic, and develop a sense of ownership of the most stable of things – the land. Later, when Am Yisrael enters Eretz Yisrael, the Torah will make sure to balance these negative traits through the laws of “ma’aser” (tithe) and other commandments through which the landowner shares his agricultural yield with people in the fringes of society. On the other hand, shepherding is an occupation that requires compassion, taking care of animals and worrying about their well-being.
The Bible describes the greatest leaders of Jewish history – Moshe Rabeinu and David Hamelech – as shepherds. The sages of the midrash said of this:
“The Blessed Be He said: Do you have compassion to herd a flock? You will shepherd my flock – Israel.”
(Shmot Raba 2, 2)
Am Yisrael, which grew from the family of Yaakov, saw shepherding as a positive occupation, one centered on benefiting others, particularly the weak in need of assistance. However, the ancient Egyptian nation saw shepherding as abhorrent since accumulating property, power, and status were an inseparable part of the Egyptian-idolatrous culture. This is the explanation for the culture clash between Yaakov’s family and the Egyptian nation.
The clash was so severe that there was no choice but to set aside a special area for this strange family to live in; this family that did not strive for control and did not aspire to accumulate power, but rather searched for beings in need of compassion and assistance.

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