The Prostration of the Shepherds


And Joseph was the ruler of the land; he was the supplier of food to all its people.

Joseph’s brothers came [to Egypt] and prostrated themselves to him … and Joseph remembered the dreams he had dreamed about them…

Genesis 42:6-9

Twenty years earlier, Joseph had dreamed two dreams which foretold the events of that day. In the first dream, “we were binding sheaves in the field, when suddenly my sheaf arose and stood upright; and behold, your sheaves stood round it and bowed down to my sheaf.”[1] In the second, Joseph saw “the sun, the moon, and eleven stars bowing down to me.”[2]

Joseph’s brothers, who were already jealous of their father’s special affection for him, “hated him even more for his dreams and his words.”[3] Jacob, however, “kept the matter in mind”[4] and “awaited and anticipated its fulfillment.”[5]

For that to happen, Jacob had to mourn the loss of his beloved son for twenty years, Joseph had to experience slavery and incarceration, and his brothers, anguished remorse, for that same period. Twenty painful years so that the sons of Jacob might prostrate themselves before the viceroy of Egypt, who, unbeknownst to them, was the very dreamer they had sold into slavery. Why was it so important that this submission take place? Why did Jacob “await and anticipate the fulfillment” of Joseph’s dreams, despite his realization[6] of the terrible animosity they provoked among his children?

The New Jew

Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were shepherds, as were the sons of Jacob.[7] They chose this vocation because they found the life of the shepherd—a life of seclusion, communion with nature, and distance from the tumult and vanities of society—most conducive to their spiritual pursuits. Tending their sheep in the valleys and on the hills of Canaan, they could turn their backs on the mundane affairs of man, contemplate the majesty of the Creator, and serve Him with a clear mind and tranquil heart.[8]

Joseph was different. He was a man of the world, a “fortuitous achiever”[9] in commerce and politics. Sold into slavery, he was soon chief manager of his master’s affairs. Thrown into jail, he was soon a high-ranking member of the prison administration. He went on to become viceroy of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh in the most powerful nation on earth, and sole supplier of food for the entire region.

Yet none of this touched him. He remained the righteous Joseph who had studied Torah at the feet of his father.[10] Slave, prisoner, ruler of millions, controller of an empire’s wealth—it made no difference: the same Joseph who had meditated in the hills and valleys of Canaan walked the streets of a depraved Egypt. His spiritual and moral self derived utterly from within and was totally unaffected by his society, environment, or the occupation that claimed his involvement twenty-four hours a day.

The conflict between Joseph and his brothers ran deeper than a multi-colored coat or a favorite son’s share of his father’s affections. It was a conflict between a spiritual tradition and a new worldliness; between a community of shepherds and a politician. The brothers could not accept that a person could lead a worldly existence without becoming worldly, that a person could remain one with G-d while inhabiting the palaces and government halls of pagan Egypt.[11]

For two hundred years, the shepherd’s credo held sway. But Jacob knew that if his descendants were to survive the Egyptian galut (exile)—and the millennia of Babylonian, Greek, Roman, Eastern, Western, economic, religious and cultural galuyot that history held in store for them—this must be subordinated to the credo of Joseph. If the children of Israel are to pass through every social convulsion of the next four thousand years and persevere as G-d’s people, they must become subjects of Joseph.

Based on an address by the Rebbe, Kislev 20, 5727 (December 3, 1966)[12].


[1] Genesis 37:7.

[2] Ibid., v. 9.

[3] Ibid., v. 8.

[4] Ibid., v. 11.

[5] Rashi, ibid.

[6] See Rashi, ibid., v. 10.

[7] Cf. Genesis 46:34.

[8] Sefer HaMaamarim 5565, p. 192

[9] Ish matzliach—Genesis 39:2.

[10] Rashi, ibid., 47:31

[11] This is the deeper significance of the fact that “Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him” (Genesis 42:8). The sons of Jacob were incapable of perceiving a “brother” (one who is their spiritual equal) in one so involved in the material world.

[12] Likkutei Sichot, vol. XXXV, pp. 159-161.


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