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What Kind of Job is that for a Nice Jewish Boy?

12/29/2022 04:35:52 PM


This week’s Torah portion includes an emotional reunion, as Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and invites his father and extended family to join him in Egypt. It is notable that Joseph cautions his brothers to be careful in how they describe themselves to Pharaoh. They are to reveal that they are keepers of sheep and cattle. In our modern society, people often define themselves by their professional roles, without a second thought, but when Jacob’s sons do it, there is an added significance.

When we meet a new person, questions about religion, politics, family status, and favorite sports team can be highly sensitive. As a result, one of the first “standard” questions that we might ask is what they do for a living. Furthermore, we are encouraged to seek self-identity through our “career” identities- teacher, attorney, student, doctor, homemaker, etc. We often value people based on the prestige of their perceived employment, and there are certain roles that are potentially quite productive and rewarding that tend to be dismissed in the Jewish community. It is always appropriate to respect expertise and hard work, but we run a great risk if we only value people for what they do in their working hours.

Many commentators note that the answer that the Israelites provided to the career question is not necessarily a positive. The Egyptians looked down on tending animals. Other kinds of industries, like administration, tax collection, construction and embalming, were more highly valued. Even within agriculture, growing crops was the more respected role, and shepherding was often a task assigned to the weak or marginalized. Had the Israelites begun by describing a different ability, they might have ended up being swept up into positions more integrated in Egyptian society, just as Joseph was. Instead, the Egyptians looked down on the Israelites and segregated them, thus preventing assimilation.

There is an additional, positive aspect to the brothers’ classification as shepherds. By proudly stating their identity as shepherds, the children of Israel make it known that, despite their small numbers, that they have the desire and temperament to care for others. In fact, it should serve as no surprise that many of our greatest Biblical leaders were plucked from the relative obscurity of shepherding. Moses, who would save the Israelites from slavery was chasing a lost lamb when he came upon the burning bush.  David was out tending the flock when the prophet Samuel came to anoint him. Those who, despite their own weakness or marginalization, can care for others, are destined for greatness.

Fri, December 1 2023 18 Kislev 5784