A Shepherd in Egypt


The Torah tells us that when Jacob moved his family to Egypt, where the Jewish people were to reside for more than two centuries, “he sent Judah ahead… to show the way.”[1] The Hebrew word lehorot (“to show the way”) literally means “to teach” and “to instruct,” prompting the Midrash to say that the purpose of Judah’s mission was “to establish a house of learning from which would be disseminated the teachings of Torah.”[2]

But Joseph was already in Egypt, and Jacob had already received word that Joseph’s twenty-two years away from home had not diminished his knowledge of and commitment to Torah.[3] And Joseph certainly had the authority and the means to establish the most magnificent yeshivah in the empire. Why did Jacob desire that Judah—a penniless emigrant who barely knows the language—be the one to establish the house of learning that was to serve the Jewish people in Egypt?

Judah and Joseph

The children of Jacob were divided into two factions: on one side were ten of the twelve brothers, led by Judah; on the other, Joseph, whose differences with his brothers were the cause of much pain and strife in Jacob’s family.

The conflict between Joseph and his brothers ran deeper than a multicolored coat or a favorite son’s share of his father’s affections. It was a conflict between two world-views, between two approaches to life as a Jew in a pagan world.

Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were shepherds, as were Joseph’s brothers.[4] 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.[5]

Joseph was the exception. He was a man of the world, a “fortuitous achiever”[6] in business 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.

Yet none of this touched him. Slave, prisoner, ruler of millions, controller of an empire’s wealth—it made no difference: the same Joseph who had studied Torah at the feet of his father traversed the palaces and government halls of Egypt. His spiritual and moral self derived 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 was the conflict between a spiritual tradition and a new worldliness; between a community of shepherds and an entrepreneur. The brothers could not accept that a person can lead a worldly existence without becoming worldly; that a person can remain one with G-d while immersed in the affairs of the most depraved society on earth.

In this conflict, Joseph was to emerge the victor. The spiritual seclusion that characterized the first three generations of Jewish history was destined to end; Jacob and his family moved to Egypt, where the “smelting pit” of exile was to forge their descendants into the nation of Israel. As Joseph had foreseen in his dreams, his brother and his father bowed to him, prostrating their approach to his. Jacob had understood the significance of these dreams all along, and had awaited their fulfillment;[7] Joseph’s brothers, who found it more difficult to accept that the era of the shepherd was drawing to a close, fought him for twenty-two bitter years, until they, too, came to accept that the historical challenge of Israel was to be the challenge of living a spiritual life in a material environment.

Founding Fathers

Nevertheless, it was Judah, not Joseph, who was chosen by Jacob to establish the house of learning that was to serve as the source of Torah knowledge for the Israelites in Egypt.

The first three generations of Jewish life were not a “false start”: they were the foundation of all that was to follow. It was this foundation from which Joseph drew the strength to persevere in his faith and righteousness in an alien environment; it was this foundation upon which the entire edifice of Jewish history was to be constructed.

The Jew lives in a material world, but his roots are planted in the soil of unadulterated spirituality. In his daily life he must be a Joseph, but his education must be provided by a Judah.

Based on an address by the Rebbe, Tevet 2, 5722 (December 9, 1961)[8].

The Week in Review is adapted from the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe by Yanki Tauber.

[1]. Genesis 46:28.

[2]. Midrash Tanchuma, Vayigash 12.

[3]. See Midrash Rabbah, Bereishit 94:3.

[4]. Genesis 46:34.

[5]. Sefer HaMaamarim 5565, p. 192.

[6]. Ish matzliach—Genesis 39:2.

[7]. Genesis 37:11; Rashi, ibid.

[8]. Likkutei Sichot, vol. III, pp. 827-830.


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Henry Laffer
14 years ago

Profound and personal. Jay Litvins teachings are practical but at the same time deep. They touch my soul. Universal lessons. So impressive. I wish I had met him when he was flesh and blood. Thank you for keeping his messages alive. He must be joyous in Heaven seeing the mitzvahs of his teachings continue.

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