Throughout history, Jewish economic success has sparked anti-Semitism. Jews have been blamed for the ills of capitalism, stereotyped as greedy moneylenders, and accused of attempting to take over the world. The phenomenon may have its roots in Biblical times, and its first manifestation may be in Parashat Vayigash.1
Many modern scholars,2 following the lead of R"Y Bekhor Shor, suggest that Yosef's Economic Policies during the famine years, coupled with his simultaneous nepotism towards his family, caused enduring resentment which later paved the way for the Israelite bondage. Others would argue that this interpretation is an anachronistic attempt to impose modern trends upon Biblical stories, and that Yosef's policies were both necessary and appreciated by the Egyptian population.
- What textual factors support each reading of the story?
- What are the root causes of economic anti-Semitism? How does it compare to religious anti-Semitism? What role (if any) did each play in the enslavement?
- In what circumstances do you think that nepotism is a valid practice, and when is it problematic? Where else in Tanakh do leaders give preferential treatment to their families? Do these other cases also have negative results?
Yosef's framing of Binyamin ends on a happy note of family reconciliation. Was this, though, what Yosef had hoped and planned from the beginning, or was he caught by surprise by Yehuda's unanticipated intervention? What would have been Yosef's next move had Yehuda not made his impassioned plea? If Binyamin alone had remained with Yosef in Egypt, would the course of history have been completely different? See Yosef's Treatment of his Family.
Why Did the Israelites Remain in Egypt?
Yaakov's family's descent to Egypt marks the beginning of Israel's first exile. But was that Yaakov's intent?
- When Yaakov's family moved to Egypt, how long did they intend to stay? Why did they not return to Israel as soon as the famine ended? [For one suggestion, see the third approach in Yosef's Economic Policies].
- Already in the Covenant between the Pieces, Hashem tells Avraham of the future exile. Does this mean that Hashem actively intervened to guide the Israelites into Egypt,3 or was the exile merely a natural result of human choices which did not involve any special heavenly input? Was Yaakov's family even aware of the prophecy and, if so, did they view themselves as fulfilling a Divine decree? See Divine Plans and Israelite Free Choice for elaboration.
- Why was the exile in Egypt a necessary part of Jewish history? What did it accomplish? Are the purposes of the exile and bondage identical, or might each have its own goals? See Purposes of the Egyptian Bondage.
Did Yehuda Threaten Yosef?
The Tanchuma recasts Yehuda's plea for Binyamin into an overtly hostile and aggressive dispute in which Yehuda and Yosef each accuse the other of wrongdoing and duplicity, and finally threaten each other with violence. Is there any basis for such a reading in the text? If not, where is the Midrash coming from, and what message is it trying to impart? See Yehuda's Oration.
- In general, how should one understand Midrashim that seem to veer sharply from the plain sense of the verses?
- In this case, Prof. Nechama Leibowitz suggests that the Tanchuma is really having Yehuda argue not with Yosef, but with his own conscience Others propose that it is serving to foreshadow the future enmity between the two tribes of Yehuda and Yosef and their centuries long power struggle. Can you think of other Midrashim which might similarly be read as either an internal monologue or as portents of the future?
Shtetl or Ghetto?
What led to the decision to live in Goshen? According to the Netziv, Yaakov's family attempted to isolate themselves so as to prevent assimilation and preserve their national identity. Ralbag, on the other hand, suggests that fear of hostility from the Egyptians "who abhorred shepherds" is what prompted the segregation. Rashi offers an additional possibility, implying that the decision was economically motivated, with Yosef simply wanting to provide good pasture lands for his family. See Why Live in Goshen and Where in Egypt Did the Israelites Live for more.
- What support can you find in the text for each approach?
- What should be the balance between integration into foreign society and segregation from negative cultural influences?4
- Does integration provoke anti-Semitism or prevent it?
For more, see: Parashat Vayigash Topics.