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Home > Secteur-English > General > Parsha Vayigash : Genesis 44:18–47:27

Parsha Vayigash : Genesis 44:18–47:27

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The Beginnings of Anti-Semitism
By Yair Barkai*
In Parashat Mi-Ketz we are told (Genesis 47:11-13) :
So Joseph settled his father and his brothers, giving them holdings in the choicest part of the land of Egypt, in the region of Rameses, as Pharaoh had commanded. Joseph sustained his father, and his brothers, and all his father’s household with bread, down to the little ones. Now there was no bread in all the world, for the famine was very severe ; both the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan languished because of the famine.
Rashi comments on this :
Now there was no bread in all the world—this refers back to the former matter, to the beginning of the years of famine.
In other words, the narrative of Joseph and his brothers is interrupted to tell us about what happened in Egypt when the years of famine began, prior to the arrival of Jacob and his sons in Egypt. Rashi’s interpretation treats the prefix “ve” that precedes the word lehem (i.e., the beginning of verse 13, rendered above as “Now”) as conjunctive, describing the content of the two verses earlier (verses 11-12) as a parenthetical remark in the general description of Joseph’s treatment of the Egyptian people during the years of famine. Even when thus interpreted, the question arises as to the placement of these verses in the account of the reforms instituted by Joseph, for the natural place for them would be towards the end of the passage (from 47:26 on), after all the economic and administrative arrangements Joseph instituted in Egypt had been described. The word “ve,” however, can equally be viewed as disjunctive, pointing out a contrast. The detailed description of the extended family of Jacob’s sons enjoying the best Egypt had to offer stands in stark contrast to the harsh statement : “the land of Egypt…languished because of the famine.” Ibn Ezra interpreted va-telah (rendered as “languished”) as being at a loss as to what they should do.
In other words, while the Egyptian people faced such tremendous hardship in coping with the famine, being forced to sell all they owned, to turn over all their money, to uproot themselves from where they lived, and even to lose their freedom, Jacob’s sons, a group of aliens recently arrived in Egypt, dwelled “in the choicest part of the land” and were plentifully sustained by their brother, second to the king of Egypt. This perspective on the text is reinforced at the end of the parashah when the detailed account of the trials and tribulations of the Egyptian people is set off by the last verse of the reading (Genesis 47:27) : Thus Israel settled in the country of Egypt, in the region of Goshen, and they acquired holdings in it, and were fertile and increased greatly. One can hardly fail to note the motif of the contrast between the Egyptian people and the Israelite people in its formative stage in the foreign land of Egypt. Perhaps the Torah wishes to present Joseph’s behavior from the point of view of the Egyptians in order to prepare us for what lies in store. Yehudah Kiel, z”l, discusses this matter and brings up the obvious question :[1] How was it that Joseph, a man of unparalleled good sense and wisdom (at least for that time) in Egypt, saw fit to support his father’s entire household without asking anything from them in return, thus by his actions arousing the jealousy and hatred of the Egyptians at large, who in any event had an extreme dislike and hatred of the Hebrews ?
He suggests three answers :
After Joseph saved the Egyptians from famine, his position in Egypt became so high that it was only natural his family should be supported by the coffers of the crown, just as Pharaoh’s house was supported by the royal wealth that Joseph had built up and made so magnificent. Joseph filled the role of a priest when he instructed the Egyptians how to run their economy wisely and therefore it was fitting that the laws pertaining to the priests be applied to his father’s household (Genesis 47:22) : “Only the land of the priests he did not take over, for the priests had an allotment from Pharaoh, and they lived off the allotment which Pharaoh had made to them ; therefore they did not sell their land.” There were also reasons of security for settling the Israelites in the land of Goshen, for the Egyptians wished to prevent invaders from coming through the main gateway to their land. Thus the Israelites became like civil servants, supported by government funding. Even though these arguments might explain Joseph’s motives in giving his family preferential treatment, there is nothing in them to curb the growing hatred of the Egyptians towards the Israelites.
Historically, from a socio-political standpoint, it appears that this hatred laid the foundation on which the enslavement of the Israelites, described at the beginning of the book of Exodus, was built. It also seems in line with the primal characteristic of the events described in Genesis, and in this respect the process described in this week’s reading could be called the very beginnings of anti-Semitism throughout the ages. In fact, we are familiar with the Egyptian people from many years earlier, from the time of Abraham who, like his grandson, was forced to go down to Egypt due to famine in the land of Canaan (Genesis 12:10-20). Abraham learned of the moral baseness of the Egyptians as he approached Egypt, and therefore he warned his wife Sarai (Genesis 12:11-12) : As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are. If the Egyptians see you, and think, ‘She is his wife,’ they will kill me and let you live.”
Radak interpreted this as follows :
If the Egyptians see you—the Egyptians are not good-looking like the people of the land of Canaan ; rather, they are ugly, for they are southerners and are lecherous. Hence, as he approached Egypt and reached its border, seeing the ugly people there he became afraid that when they set eyes on his beautiful wife, they would desire her. Had he known this from the outset, he would not have gone to Egypt but would have suffered the famine and not handed over his wife. He was not afraid of them raping her and lying with her. For though they might do that once, they would not do it many times, lying with her before his eyes ; for that would be extremely wicked and human beings do not tolerate extreme wickedness. But killing him they would have to do only once, and then she would be at their disposal without their being any wickedness, for she would have no husband ; that is what Abraham feared.
The things that happened in Potiphar’s house (Genesis chapter 39) and in prison (Genesis chapter 40), reflect the dubious morality of a slave people, substantiating the bad impression the Egyptian people make on the reader. In other words, the moral degeneracy of Egypt provided fertile ground for the seeds of hatred towards the Israelites to germinate in the context of what is said in this week’s reading. Deeper analysis, examining the sequence of events from a larger perspective in terms of the Creator guiding His world, requires us to go back to the starting point of the process, to the Covenant of the Pieces, in which it was said (Genesis 15:13-14) : And He said to Abram, “Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years ; but I will execute judgment on the nation they shall serve, and in the end they shall go free with great wealth.”
Abram does not ask the Lord the reason for his descendants being enslaved, but accepts it as a divine decree, just as he accepted those who enslave them being punished and his offspring being redeemed. It is not always possible to explain every phenomenon in the history of mankind, as the prophet Isaiah teaches us (Isaiah 55:8-9) : For My plans are not your plans, nor are My ways your ways—declares the Lord. But as the heavens are high above the earth, so are My ways high above your ways and My plans above your plans.
Or, as the midrash expresses in the story of Judah and Tamar (Genesis chapter 38 ; Genesis Rabbah, Va-Yeshev, ch. 85) :
Rabbi Samuel b. Nahman commenced thus : “For I am mindful of the plans I have made” (Jer. 29:11). While the tribal ancestors were engaged in selling Joseph, Joseph was taken up with his sackcloth and fasting, Reuben was taken up with his sackcloth and fasting, Jacob was taken up with his sackcloth and fasting, and Judah was busy taking a wife, the Holy One, blessed be He, was creating the light of the Messiah : thus, About that time Judah left his brothers… While each of the characters in the narrative was focusing on things close to his heart, thinking that he had control over the course of events, the homilist reminds us that the Holy One, blessed be He is the mover, in accordance with His plans. The Judah and Tamar episode only took place in order that Peretz be born, from whom King David descended, and from whom in turn the Messiah will come. Thus we learn that only when a broader super-historical perspective on the running of the world, as hinted at in Scripture, is taken together with our human endeavor to analyze the course of events and understand them are we able to obtain a more clear picture. But even then the matter must be approached with humility and faith, recognizing the limitations in human ability to understand the reality in which we live.
Translated by Rachel Rowen
* Dr. Yair Barkai is head of the Lifschitz College of Education in Jerusalem.
[1] Da`at Mikra, Genesis, Vol. 3, Va-Yeshev—Va-Yehi, Jerusalem 2003, p. 18.

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