Friday, December 28, 2018

Shemos—Minority Report

Even in Egypt, the Pharaohs
Had to import Hebrew braceros
—Tom Lehrer

Themes and memes from Exodus have been circulating cyberspace throughout the current ostensible immigration crisis, and particularly since the Honduran caravan made its way north.

A closer look at how the Hebrews became Egypt’s most prominent minority and then Egypt’s most prominent victim of discrimination should give the lie to most if not all attempted analogs between the Biblical Exodus and the Honduran one in particular, and the entire ultimate open borders project more generally.

The Pharaoh of Yosef wasn’t Egyptian—he was Hykso, a northern minority that had conquered Egypt and was ruling the majority Egyptian population.  After Yosef’s revelation to his brothers, the royal court invited Yosef to bring his entire family, and he negotiated settling them in an area apart from the population—in Goshen.

On one hand, this might have presented an obstacle, as Yosef feared his brothers would have been drafted, but on the other, proved not to be when Yosef raised the specter of religious oppression vis a vis shepherding, so as a fellow minority, Pharaoh proved to be more than accommodating.  In a certain sense, Pharaoh might have been setting the Hebrews as a lightning rod, another minority to take pressure off of the Hyksos, as both he and Yosef were willing to give some credence to the racist and segregationist mentality in Egypt.  

(In fact, while as part of the repeated admonishment to love the get because we were strangers in Egypt, we are commended to not “hate the Egyptian” to the point that they are allowed in as gerim after a three-generation vet: the Torah almost seems to be giving credence to the notion that an attitude adjustment toward foreigners is a long, involved process that doesn’t happen overnight.)

Yet when Yosef executes his command economy, he takes steps to equalize the population (thought admittedly in a theoretically Hebrecentric manner—he legislates national circumcision).  Despite the fact that his radical socialist economy actually SAVES people (as opposed to what would happened in other socialist economies), the population isn’t all that grateful when push comes to shove and are able to reassert themselves as majority rulers and, having driven out the Hyksos, institute a “Blame the Jews” policy first.  

(Interestingly, as part of the justification for this policy—ועלה מן הארץ—the Egyptians never seem to consider actually expelling the Hebrews; they’d rather enslave them, kill the males, and take their women.  (The Egyptian tendency to doublespeak as delineated in Rashi ad loc was a cultural tendency: just as examples of how the Egyptians used “fake news” as official policy, one need only note the erasure of Hatshepsut from all public historical records, and the Merneptah stele, which may have been the first instance of Exodus denial.))

This, towards a population that: was already there, having been invited and vetted as legal immigrants; and  had literally saved the country and its entire population, as opposed to taking it over and forcing their way of life upon it; Goshen proved that.  One also should remember that Yosef was actually ASKED by the population to do everything he did before he put it into policy: he was offered even more draconian terms than he eventually imposed, and he avoided outright slavery; plus, his moves applied equally to everyone.  He has populations change neighborhoods, but he doesn’t deport anyone, and he doesn’t import anyone.

If one were to make an analog between the Exodus and the current migrant crisis, it wouldn’t be having populations moving to foreign lands en masse: it would, instead, be displaced populations returning to their own homelands.

“You were gerim in Egypt”: remember how you were invited and how you negotiated your interaction with the local culture, and respected it even as you distanced yourself from it as you found it in complete contradistinction to your way of life. The gerim you are going to vet are going to have submitted themselves to the same level of vetting and are actually going to adjust to YOUR way of life, not demand to impose theirs while maintain an equal or even favored status.   

And that's just on religious terms.  

The ultimate folly of the ger-as-immigrant analog is even simpler: just as one wouldn't expect that today's immigrants subject themselves to Torah laws regarding gerus in formulating immigration policy, one should certainly not expect that credence is given to the notion that open borders immigration has the force of Biblical imprimatur.

It doesn't.


Friday, December 21, 2018

Vayechi—Not Just The Chairman

Last week’s parsha features the confrontation between Yehuda and Yosef that illustrates competing concepts of ideal leadership for klal yisrael.  The Rav explains how the Yehuda model has to win out in the end, because Yehuda exemplifies gevura, and Yosef exemplifies chesed, and in situation that require not retreat but advance, gevura must trump chewed; the Rav notes that Yosef realized this at that moment that he decided to finally reveal himself to his brothers. 

(Note that even when Yosef institutes increasingly draconian emergency economic measures, the dialogue between him and the Egyptian populace indicates that they seemed to ask him first; he was waiting for them to give him permission to impose.  Yehuda, in contrast, couches his “J’accuse” in diplomatic language, but that’s about the only discernible politesse in the exchange.)

When one arrives at this weeks parsha, the question then arises as to the contrast between the ostensible leadership styles of Yehuda as juxtaposed with the other brother pretenders: Reuven certainly as the bechor, but possibly also Shimon and Levi.  The questions become more trenchant when one realizes that Reuven and his descendants are left with no real unique, discernible role among the bnei Leah: Shimon—pace Rashi on 49:7—became educators, and some say military men; Levi gave rise to the entire Preistly class; Yehuda, as noted, assumed the Kingship; even Yissachar and Zevulun had specifically roles carved out for them.

What was the nature of Reuven’s pachaz—“instability”—that made Yaakov assume he was unfit for any public role?  49:4 refers back to the incident of 35:22, Reuven “upsetting his father’s couch” because he thought his mother was getting short shrift.  Even when TB Shabbat 55b goes out of its way to ensure that it is known that no sin was committed, the entire incident is hardly an endorsement of Reuven’s action if one deigns to take a closer look.

First is the simple question of boundaries: having anything to do with what goes on in one’s parent’s bedroom.  The Gemara says that Reuven was actually sickened by the notion of what he might do, which may indicate that along with his impulsiveness, there was an ick factor the entire time that he was not unaware of.

Next is the fact that the Gemara note that the Shechina would precede Yaakov into whichever one of his respective wives’ tent he was to lodge that evening, so Reuven’s quarrel with his father turned out to be a quarrel with Heaven (presumably Leah wasn’t unaware of this, which may explain why there’s no protest from her, especially given her more proactive propensities as illustrated both how she married Yaakov and the duda’im narrative).  

Additionally—should one attempt to make an analog between Reuven argument with G-d as mimicking his great-grandfather vis-a-vis Sodom—the analog fall flat immediately when one remembers that Avraham was invited by G-d to argue on behalf of the Five Towns, and the argument itself was almost as if G-d was giving them Sixth Amendment rights; all Reuven did was violate his father’s Fourth Amendment rights.

Most crucially, however—and this might encapsulate Yaakov’s assessment—is that Reuven really never comes to terms with not taking everything personally.  Witness what might be his finest moment: stopping the impending slaughter of Yosef, having him thrown in the pit to play for time.  Except that: what does Reuven do once the immediate crisis is averted?  He runs off to engage in sackcloth and fasting for his offenses in the Bilhah matter, and in the meantime Yehuda moves into the power vacuum and Yosef is sold.

As the Rav explains, the teshuva at that moment was Reuven realizing that his impetuousness led the rest of the brothers to be disdainful of Yaakov’s authority and parental/paternal prerogatives, and the internecine hatred towards Yosef was the result.  Problem was, the crisis was still ongoing, and Reuven put his own personal spiritual dilemma ahead of the alleviating the crisis at hand, even as he had begun to blunt the worst case scenario.  Reuven may have still been trying to tenuously hold on to his position and his bechora by not making a public admission of his lapses, so as to not imperil his ostensible position.  

Yehuda is willing to do what Reuven isn’t: both when he admits his infractions with Tamar in public, and when he takes on the responsibility for Yosef that Reuven fails to when he "offers" his own sons as collateral.  As Eli Lebowicz explains: 

When Yehuda promises to Yaakov he’ll protect Binyamin, he’s coming from a different perspective than his brother Reuven is, who Yaakov brushes off when Reuven tries to guarantee it. After Yosef’s sold, Yehuda has two of his own sons die, and having gone through that experience, now he’s appealing to Yaakov as a father who can actually empathize with what he’s going through, having lost children of his own.

Further highlighting Reuven’s demotion is Yaakov’s admonition of Shimon and Levi: Yaakov has a problem with what they did, but doesn’t, as it were, demote them the way he does Reuven.   


The action at Shechem wasn’t an issue of personal aggrandizement for either of them; it was a calculated preemption in defense of the entire family’s honor, rather than internecine squabble about their place of privilege in the ostensible family hierarchy.  Neither one was attempting to maintain a personal privilege.  Reuven might have done just that in the Bilhah incident, which, interestingly occurs after Shechem, indicating that Reuven learned the wrong lessons, and that Shimon and Levi’s action did not undermine their father’s authority, despite Yaakov’s protestations of “achartem osi”.

As  a result Yaakov’s “curse” that Shimon and Levi get split up actually is more than a blessing in disguise, for them AND for the rest of klal yisrael.   In addition to the aforementioned roles ascribed to Shimon and Levi, note that actually was given what was originally supposed to be the province of the bechorim (not Reuven per se, but certainly loosely analogous) after the chet haegel, when they carried out ostensibly extrajudicial executions ; unlike Reuven,  who proved to be too tied both to himself and his immediate family and the ostensible privileges it would’ve conferred, Devarim 33:9 notes vis a vis Levi הָאֹמֵ֞ר לְאָבִ֤יו וּלְאִמּוֹ֙ לֹ֣א רְאִיתִ֔יו וְאֶת־אֶחָיו֙ לֹ֣א הִכִּ֔יר וְאֶת־בנו [בָּנָ֖יו] לֹ֣א יָדָ֑ע כִּ֤י שָֽׁמְרוּ֙ אִמְרָתֶ֔ךָ וּבְרִֽיתְךָ֖ יִנְצֹֽרוּ׃   

Finally, Yehuda, by proving that he knew where and when to face what was and wasn’t necessarily a priority; he distinguished himself from Reuven, who showed that even when he was doing teshuva, he couldn’t abandon that even when the situation called for it, and when he tried to be helpful, it could only go so far.

As Sefer Bereishis concludes with the ostensible short-term resolution of the heated fraternal conflicts between Yaakov’s children, there might be a few small temporary takeaways: 

*If one feels compelled to act impetuously on the basis of righteous indignation—one night want to reconsider;

*If one thinks one’s impetuous act of righteous indignation is justified in defense another’s honor—one might want to make sure the act is not truly about one’s own personal honor;

*One might actually be born to great things, but one still has to (re-)earn that privilege and prove that one belongs in an exalted position;

*Finally—one must be able to truly recognize the stakes and prioritize accordingly, even if and/or especially at one’s own personal expense. 

Friday, December 14, 2018

Vayigash—When You’re A “Stranger”

The issue of forcing the definition of the Biblical Hebrew “ger” to fit intersectional progressive prerogatives vis a vis unrestricted immigration has been dealt with ad nauseum in these pages and other more salient platforms.

Except, possibly, for the fact that the actual genesis [sic] of this issue can be found in this weeks parsha, particularly since the Torah repeatedly admonishes to love the ger precisely because “you were gerim in Egypt”.  So the question is [re]begged: what exactly was the nature/defintion of this gerus mitzrayim?

Recall that Yosef doesn’t initially hide origins—he repeatedly refers to himself publicly as a Hebrew (at least until he became viceroy); his detractors (e.g. Potiphar’s wife and the sar hamashkim) hadn’t missed that he was a Hebrew; and he’d even accommodated Egyptian bigotry by not seating his brothers and the Egyptians together (43:32).  In Vayigash, once Yosef’s origins are clear to the Pharaonic court, the court is described as being “pleased” with the development.   In fact, in next weeks parsha, it is strangely implied that Pharaoh has sworn Yosef to never leave Egypt, and he is forced to allow him to leave for Yaakov’s burial under duress.

By the time a “new king arose over Egypt”, the Hebrews are already a settled significant minority.  The issue of “oppressing the ‘stranger’”, then, is not that the Egyptians are trying to actually keep foreigners out, or develop a more restrictive immigration policy; it was that they had completely turned upon a once foreign minority that had been invited to settle and had become a settled part of the population.

Ergo, as the Egyptians at one point actually celebrate the Hebrews’ arrival, and at least treat them as equals until the regime change, our distinct duty under not “oppressing the ger” should be limited to this, at its baseline: to not use the non-native status of the foreign-born as a vehicle for discrimination; in fact, to love them further for making the choice to “migrate” towards us AFTER having displayed the willingness to subject themselves to ostensibly onerous initiation procedures, AND having cleared those barriers.   

The open-borders progressives claim that the primary Biblical implication is that our a priori obligation to those attempting to cross our borders first and then (maybe) be vetted later is to not commit anything that might smack of lo sonu, even if that involves asking questions about prior allegiances, restricting inflow from dangerous areas, or tightening border controls.  Adderabba: the primary obligation of a state is to its citizens, and one doesn’t need to make reference to Biblicisms for that, particularly not ones that prove o be tenuous and ontological.  The case could be made that the underlying principles could be applied to immigrants and immigration law once they have been vetted,  and they could be equally applicable in setting and enforcing the barriers to entry, and meting out consequences to those who violate those regulations. 

The use of the Biblical “ger” as an equivalent to today’s immigrant and the assertion that we-were-gerim-in-Egypt must define parameters beyond ger toshav/ger tzedek are both faulty premises.  The Hebrews’ prolonged presence in Egypt with the oppression that followed might mandate that we exhibit another level of consciousness towards those who we might have otherwise think don’t “belong” solely due to their foreign origin even after they’ve been vetted and cleared all the legitimate barriers to entry.   In fact, one might consider real ona’as ger to include both distorting the definition and then allowing those who refuse to abide by the actual parameters to stake claim to that status.