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Joseph the cosmopolitan

Friday, 14 December, 2018 - 3:28 pm

Manhattan Skyline.jpg 

One of the most deep and profound narratives of the Torah is the saga of Joseph and his brothers, a pivotal episode of which is found in this week’s Torah portion. Being that the forefathers - as well as Joseph and his brother’s - were righteous, holy and G-d fearing men, the working understanding is that there is much more to the stories than meets the eye.

One of the lesser discussed subplots of this narrative is the difference between the location that Joseph lived his life and that of his brothers. The location also had much effect on the focus of their lives too.

The Torah highlights the fact that our forefathers were shepherds. In addition to their primary line of work being outside the city, they also dwelled outside the main population centers of the time. Joseph, on the other hand, lived in the capital city of the most influential country of his era and eventually became the de-facto leader of the country.

Despite their initial hesitation, Jacob and his sons all moved down to Egypt too. In other words, initially they lived in relative seclusion. Then, following Joseph’s urging, they too moved to the center of society.

If you’ll look closely at Jewish history, you will discover a similar pattern repeating itself. Initially the Jewish people all lived in the Holy Land, with the Temple as their focal point. But then, following the destruction of the Temple, spread out all over the world.

For generations, even while living in all sorts of countries all around the world, the Jewish population stayed together and lived in close knit communities, hardly interacting with their gentile neighbors. Fast forward to today where the majority of Jewish people live and work among people from all walks of life.

(In the Chabad world too, this pattern exists: Initially the headquarters of the movement was in a tiny village called Lubavitch. Today the headquarters of the movement is in New York City, one of the most influential cities in the world and local Chabad Houses continue to be opened in every corner of the globe.)

While interesting to note, there is obviously something more to the story than mere happenstance.

Our role as Jews has always been to positively influence the world. While we may only constitute a tiny fraction of the global population, we have shown that we are up to the challenge. In fact, the bedrock upon which Western civilization is built, is the moral code first outlined in the Torah.

However it’s difficult to influence anybody if you have no contact with them, that is why throughout history G-d has caused events to happen in order to move us closer to the centers of influence.

The questions is, why then does the cycle continue? Why not simply start and stay in the “thick of things”. Why the pattern - separation and insularity, followed by integration - why not stay on the global stage instead of constantly stepping down, only to take center stage again some time later?

In order to be effective in guiding the world around us (while not being affected by the influences of the world), one must have a solid foundation from which to operate. First develop ourselves, then extend what we’ve learned to other’s.

This highlights why it’s integral to provide our children with a Torah true Jewish education from a young age. This provides the foundation for their life and gives them a solid footing from which to influence the world around them.

This principle is also true to each of us, every day of our lives. We should begin the day with a focus on our connection to G-d. Start the day with prayer and meditation, Torah study and a focus on Mitzvah performance - then we have the foundation from which to approach life and be a force for good in our daily interactions.

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