Saturday, December 15, 2007

Yosef, Politics and Us

(my understanding & summary of R’ Moshe Sokol’s sermon)

So, Yosef, you think you’re all that. But maybe you’re not.

Yosef, once empowered by Pharaoh, displays complete autonomy in reforming and transforming Egypt’s political economy. He brings all production and labor into personal property of Pharaoh, he transfers populations across the land, he brings the country to its knees in an effort to survive the seven years’ famine.

But in his personal life, he completely defers to Pharaoh. He marries at Pharaoh’s behest, to Pharaoh’s priest’s daughter. He asks permission for his family to move in. He asks his family to treat with Pharaoh directly, rather than through him. He asks for permission to go to Canaan to bury Yaakov. Is this any way for the viceroy of Egypt to need to behave?

We can say that he wanted to maintain personal probity, avoid conflict of interest, but the commentators look deeper. The Ramban suggests that perhaps Yosef could have sent food out to his family, rather than forcing them to pick up and move to Egypt Why? Had he started sending food out of the country, he might have been suspected of selling it on the open market, at the higher prices food would command in Canaan which did not have its own food reserves, then pocketing the profits in his Swiss bank account. He would have been suspected of engaging in trade for profit (a common occupation for Jews in Ramban’s time –jjb).

The Meshech Chochmah, on the other hand, published in the 1920s, theorizes that Yosef was worried about the charge that he was putting his homeland, Canaan, his father’s house, above the needs of Egypt. So he made sure to join his father’s destiny to that of the rest of the country. This is the age-old charge of dual loyalty, first seen at the end of the Exile in Egypt, where the new Pharaoh says, “Come, let us deal craftily with them, lest war come, and they rise up and join with our enemies to destroy us.” Yosef, second in command of the most powerful country in the world, almost fully assimilated into their culture, the ultimate Court Jew, still thought his behavior might be suspected of betraying his host country.

We see this today – we live in the most beneficial host country in the world, perhaps ever. We have two men in the Cabinet who are yeshiva educated, one a self-proclaimed Orthodox Jew, and a powerful Senator who also calls himself a traditional Jew, who ran for President and Vice President. Still, we hear charges that the “Jewish Neocons” got us into the war in Iraq to benefit Israel, we have Walt and Mearsheimer accusing the Israel lobby of unfairly manipulating government policy – we are never free of such suspicion.

Even in Israel, you wouldn’t expect this sort of thing to happen – the host country is us, is Jews. But to certain secularist elements, particularly among the so-called “Post-Zionists”, there is suspicion of the Dati-Leumi (national-religious) Jews in government. Perhaps they have dual loyalty as well, to Judaism which would conflict with loyalty to “Israelism”.

Yosef’s story warns us, as the Meshech Chochmah warns us, no matter where we are in history, we must behave with probity in political and government affairs, because there will always be those who suspect us. Perhaps the only solution, is to come to the Rabbi’s Shiur after Kiddush, where we’re studying the Rambam’s Laws of Moshiach.


SF said...

I am amazed how you come up with such good synposes just by listening one time in shul on Shabbos, without the benefit of writing implements or recording devices...

thanbo said...

Sometimes, if the subject is really interesting, I can retain it. I go over it repeatedly during the course of the sermon, say it over to myself during kiddush, and say it over again to Debbie because she missed it. Then it's pretty well in there, at least until the end of Shabbos, when I can get to the computer and write it down. Then it's gone.

This week's, well, it was kinda rambly and never reached a conclusion, so I didn't retain it all that well, nor did I particularly want to.