Parashat Vayigash: Culture clash

What stood behind Jacob’s family’s preference for shepherding over farming?

January 5, 2017 12:08
2 minute read.
Shepherding (illustrative)

Shepherding (illustrative). (photo credit: ILLUSTRATIVE: REUTERS)


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In this week’s parasha of Vayigash, we read about the great descent – Jacob’s family leaves Canaan and goes down to Egypt.

They do not do so out of joy but, rather, under financial and existential duress. Canaan was suffering a terrible drought and the famine had reached peak levels, while in Egypt, Joseph, the son/brother, served as an assistant to Pharaoh and was the de facto manager of the kingdom.

It was Joseph, as we recall, who planned and implemented saving grain during the years prior to the famine.

Egypt became the largest food supplier in the region, and Joseph was the administrator of the Egyptian economy.

Another consideration in the decision to leave Canaan for Egypt was Jacob’s great desire to meet his lost son, Joseph, after a 22-year separation. Joseph could not come to his father, since he was busy managing the Egyptian economy, so there was no choice but for Jacob to go down to Egypt to see his beloved son.

Immediately after Jacob’s family arrives in Egypt, a latent confrontation between them and the Egyptians, stemming from their different occupations, becomes evident.

“The men are shepherds, for they have [always] been owners of livestock.... all shepherds are abhorrent to the Egyptians” (Genesis 46:32-34).

Ancient Egypt, with its fertile land thanks to the Nile River, saw farming as the “right” occupation and shepherding as abhorrent. However, Jacob’s family members were shepherds. The culture clash was inevitable.

The solution was setting aside the land of Goshen in Egypt for the family. But we want to understand where this culture clash came from. What stood behind Jacob’s family’s preference for shepherding over farming? Working the land, agriculture, is risky. It is an occupation that could cause a person to become arrogant, materialistic, and develop a sense of ownership of the most stable of things – the land. Later, when the People of Israel enters the Land of Israel, the Torah makes sure to balance these negative traits through the laws of ma’aser (tithes) and other commandments through which the landowner shares his agricultural yield with people on the fringes of society.

By contrast, shepherding is an occupation that requires compassion, taking care of animals and worrying about their well-being.

The Bible describes the greatest leaders of Jewish history – Moses our Teacher and King David – as shepherds.

The sages of the midrash said of this: “The Holy One, blessed be He, said: Do you have compassion to herd a flock?... You will shepherd my flock – Israel” (Exodus Raba 2:2).

The People of Israel, which grew from the family of Jacob, saw shepherding as a positive occupation, one centered on benefiting others, particularly the weak in need of assistance. The ancient Egyptian nation saw shepherding as abhorrent because accumulating property, power and status were an inseparable part of its idolatrous culture. This is the explanation for the culture clash between Jacob’s family and the Egyptian nation.

The clash was so severe that there was no choice but to set aside a special area for this strange family to live in, this family that did not strive for control and did not aspire to accumulate power, but, rather, searched for beings in need of compassion and assistance.

The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.

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