On Sunday, January 7, our shul will be going on a field trip. We won’t be going far. We will just be going up the road, less than a mile away, to a neighborhood in Silver Spring called Lyttonsville https://www.ostns.org/event/lyttonsville where we will tour the neighborhood with a local historian. Lyttonsville was a segregated community founded by a freed slave in the 19th century. The community that lived in Lyttonsville was allowed to work in downtown Silver Spring, but they could not live there. In 1918 a bridge was built that connected Lyttonsville to Downtown Silver Spring. This bridge is called The Talbott Ave. Bridge and is slated for demolition within the next few months as part of The Purple Line development. So the purpose of our trip is to learn about the history of this bridge before it is removed.
The notion of segregated communities appears in this week’s portion.
As Joseph’s brothers are moving down to Egypt, Joseph manipulates the situation so that his brothers will be able to live in a segregated community called Goshen.
The text tells us that Joseph says to his brothers: “When Pharaoh asks you what your profession is you should say to him that you are shepherds from our youth, both us and our ancestors, so that he will place you in the land of Goshen seeing as being a shepherd is an abomination to the Egyptians” (Bereishit 46:34).
In other words, Joseph and his brothers wanted to be segregated in Egypt. That was their plan. They desired segregation in order to preserve their culture.
So should we follow in the footsteps of Joseph and his brothers and embrace an ethic of segregation? How should we approach this passage of the Torah?
Here are three different approaches:
First is the approach of Netziv, Naftali Zevi Yehudah Berlin (1816-1893). Netziv was the great Rosh Yeshiva of the Yeshiva of Volozhin, the preeminent Lithuanian Yeshiva. When he was Rosh Yeshiva the Russian government insisted that he change the curriculum and introduce education in secular subjects. He refused to do so, and rather than make these changes, he closed the yeshiva.
He sets out his approach to Goshen and segregation in his biblical commentary, known as Haemek Davar.
First, he praises Joseph and the brothers for attempting to segregate the descendants of Jacob from the Egyptians. He writes that even though Joseph’s plan for the meeting with Pharaoh would result in Joseph’s brothers being despised by Pharaoh and other Egyptians, nonetheless it was necessary in order to guard the sanctity of Israel, lishmirat kedushat yisrael (46:34).
Moreover, he writes that the reason why the Jewish people were ultimately enslaved is because they deviated from Joseph’s plan and integrated into Egyptian neighborhoods.
In his commentary at the outset of Shemot he argues that the phrase, “vatemaleh haaretz otam, and the land became filled with them” means that the descendants of Jacob no longer just occupied Goshen but had now moved from there and were living throughout the land (1:7).
His primary proof text is that when Hashem comes to redeem the Jewish people after the Tenth Plague, Hashem tells the Israelites to place blood on their doorposts and Hashem will then pass over their doors and smite the Egyptians. This proves that the Jewish people were no longer living in a segregated community but were living amongst the Egyptians.
Another proof for this approach is that the text tells us that the Jewish people were supposed to borrow from their Egyptian neighbors for parting gifts before they left the land of Egypt – “veyishallu ish meeit reiehu, each one should borrow utensils from his friend” (Shemot, 11:2). This implies that indeed the Israelites were no longer living in the segregated community of Goshen but had integrated amongst the Egyptians.
Netziv argues that this move from segregation to integration is what caused the Jewish people to be enslaved to the Egyptians. He writes:
‘The reason for the hatred of the Egyptians toward the Israelites is because they moved away from the will of Jacob their father that they live apart from the Egyptians specifically in the land of Goshen” (Netziv, Shemot 1:7).
Lest one think that Netziv is speaking in theoretical terms and does not mean to apply his biblical interpretation to contemporary life, he continues and writes:
“The verse states in Bereishit, ‘ki ger yehiyeh zarakhah, your seed shall be strangers.’ This is the reason why in every generation we face persecution because we don’t want to live as strangers separated from the nations of the world.”
This approach of Netziv can be called a Hareidi approach to the world. It argues that we are meant to live segregated, apart from society as a whole.
When I was in 8th grade I had a Hareidi rebbe who told our class that the Holocaust began in Germany because that was the most assimilated Jewish community of all and we Jews are supposed to live separate from everyone else. This approach is a natural offspring of Netziv’s commentary. Even as an eighth grader I knew that I did not agree with my teacher’s approach.
A second approach to Goshen comes from a contemporary of Netziv by the name of R. David Tzvi Hoffman (1843-1921). He combined personal piety and extraordinary Torah knowledge with a secular education. He was educated in secular philosophy in a University and also a great Torah scholar, as he became Rosh Yeshiva of the Hildesheimers Yeshiva in Berlin. He has been identified with the Wissenschaft school of Judaism, which is a 19th century school of thought that brought a critical approach to rabbinic texts.
In his commentary he suggests that the Jewish people never actually left Goshen. He is obviously aware of the texts that support Netziv’s theory but he cites other verses to suggest that the Jewish people continued to live apart from the Egyptians.
Thus, with respect to three of the plagues – erov, hail, and darkness—the text clearly states that Gd will spare the place where the Israelites live from destruction (Shemot 8:18, 9:26, and 10:23). As the text states, “Vehifleti bayom hahu et eretz Goshen, on that day I will set apart the land of Goshen.”
This proves that the Israelites were indeed still living in Goshen and were living somewhat separately from the Egyptians.
R. Daivd Tzfi Hoffman’s solution to this apparent contradiction in the text is to suggest that the matter is “simple.” When the Israelites settled in the land of Goshen they must not have expelled the Egyptians that lived there. “So indeed the Israelites remained in Goshen, but they also still lived amongst the Egyptians” (Shemot, 3:21).
I have a slight question with this approach because the interaction between Pharaoh and Joseph makes it sound like no Egyptians would want to live near the Israelites as they were a toevat haaretz—a people involved in a repulsive profession.
Nevertheless, this approach of R. David Tzvi Hoffman also reflects the way he lived his life. The Wikipedia entry for him calls him “A selective Wissenschaft practitioner.” He embraced some aspects of neighboring culture but he strongly fought against others like, for example, biblical criticism.
Based on his biography and his commentary on Goshen we can suggest that his attitude towards segregation is that we Jews should live apart, but not too apart. We should have our own neighborhoods but we should interact and take the best parts from the culture of our neighbors. And if a few of our neighbors want to live on our block, then that is ok with us also—just not too many.
I would like to suggest a third approach to Goshen—an approach that is the very opposite of Netziv’s approach—an approach that suggests we should proactively integrate while maintaining our identity.
What if we don’t see Goshen as the ultimate ideal of Jewish life but rather as the ultimate deviation from the original vision of Abraham.
Abraham is called av hamon goyim, a father amongst the nations (Bereishit, 17:5). Note that he is not merely a father for the Jews but a father for all the nations of the world.
In this week’s daf yomi we will come across a passage about Abraham in the Talmud (Shevuos, 35b).
The Torah tells us that when Hashem appeared to Abraham in Elonei Mamre, Abraham picked up his eyes and saw what appeared to be three men coming towards him and so he ran to greet them (Bereishit, 18: 1-2). The next verse states, “vayomer adonai im nah matzati chein be-einekhah al nah taavor meial avdekhah, please my lord, if I find favor in your eyes, please do not pass by your servant” (v.3).
When Abraham says, “please my lord,” to whom is he speaking?
One approach is the Talmud is that he is speaking to one of the men (or angels) and he is asking him to remain as his guest.
A second approach is that he is speaking to God, as the word—A-donai- is a term often used to describe God.
According to this second approach, Abraham was saying to God, “Excuse me for a few moments while I go and tend to my guests.”
The Talmud explains that this approach is in line with the opinion that states, “gedolah hachnasat orchim yoter mi hakbalat penei hashechinah, welcoming guests into our home is even greater than greeting the Divine Presence.”
One Chassidic commentator emphasizes this point by putting it in stark terms for us. Abraham was involved in having a deveikus with Hashem Yisboruch. He was literally having a conversation with Hashem. And he said to Hashem, “Excuse me, I have to do something that is even more important.” I have to welcome in guests. In the words of this commentator he welcomed in three Arab guests in order to teach us, “hachnasat orchim aravim docheh et ruchaniut shelo, extending hospitality to Arabs overrides his own spirituality” (Chochmat Mitzafon, vayerah).
Abraham’s original charge was to be an Av Hamon Goyim. When he went to the land of Canaan he took with him the nefesh asher asu be-charan, the souls he had made in Charan, which Rashi says refers to all the people he and Sarah had converted (Bereishit, 12:5). But somewhere along the way he stopped focusing on people that were external to his tribe and only focused on his own family.
After Lot was captured, Abraham turned away all the people that he rescued alongside Lot and gave them over to the King of Sodom. These people surely ended up dying with all the other Sodomites. But Abraham could have influenced them for good. He gave up on these souls and according to the Talmud it is for this very reason that his children were exiled into Egypt (Nedarim, 32a).
So maybe the desire of Jacob’s family to live in Goshen is simply an extension of the deviation from the original mission. The original mission of Abraham was to impact the world by being a part of the world; true Abraham had his own unique family but he was supposed to be Av Hamon Goyim. Now Jacob’s sons want to live apart. This was a reflection of their deviation from Abraham. They had lost their purpose for existence for how could they impact the world for the better if they lived in their own little shtetl!
Arguing against the Netziv we can suggest that the move away from Goshen that was NOT the sin that caused their enslavement. Just the opposite. As the Talmud says, it was their desire to be segregated from the world that led to their enslavement.
Lets go back to the two proof texts that were cited in support of Netziv’s approach that the Israelites has assimilated—the idea that they needed to put blood on their doorposts so God could pass over their homes and borrow utensils from their neighbors.
I don’t view this as proof of their assimilation, but rather as a blueprint for their success once they have been redeemed.
These actions are supposed to herald the redemption from Egypt.
I read them as Hashem telling the Israelites if you want to remain redeemed, if you want to remain true to your mission, here is your blueprint:
1) You must proactively interact with your neighbors. Go and borrow utensils from them. It is ok to do that as they are your friends. Note that the Torah uses the word for friend (reiehu) in this context.
2) I know you are afraid to live amongst your neighbors. Because you are afraid of integration. I know that it is easier to live in Goshen as a segregated society, but I will tell you what to do. Put a mezuzah on your doorpost. This mezuzah will protect you spiritually from the threat of losing your faith. You can remain true to your values while still living amongst your neighbors.
We Jews are a small nation, yet we are supposed to be a light to the nations, an or lagoyim. We can’t accomplish that mission if we take our light and shine it into a dark closet and shut the door behind us.
We must take the light and shine it out to the world and go out of our way to meet our neighbors and work with them to improve our world, together.
This past week we held a Chanukah party outside my home. We lit our candles and invited all of our neighbors to attend. It was a beautiful night—people of all faiths came to join together with us in a moment of tenderness and sweetness. Interacting with neighbors of different faiths does not make me insecure in my own faith. Just the opposite, the more I reach out to embrace a neighbor the more I feel that I am truly walking in the footsteps of Abraham.
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