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    Respect for Joseph – Vayyiggash

    Joseph, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1874

    No-one likes it when an outsider jumps the queue and is given a position of power.

    This must certainly have been the case in Egypt. Who was this Joseph who all of a sudden had the highest appointment in the land apart from Pharaoh himself? A foreigner, a former slave, a one-time jailbird!

    It is true that he had the right combination of talents for a critical moment, but where was his lineage, where had he sprung from, what right did anyone even Pharaoh have to appoint him over the heads of locals who had all the right connections of birth, rank and status?

    The resentment that people felt towards him could not have been a secret. Joseph must have seen it, recognised it and felt awkward.

    Yet there did come a moment when things changed for the better. This moment was when Jacob and his family arrived and settled in Goshen. The word got around that “Joseph’s brothers have come”… and the news “pleased Pharaoh well, and his servants” (Gen. 45:16).

    According to Nachmanides, it had been embarrassing for both Joseph and the Egyptians until then. Even though Joseph had explained that he was from a respected and respectable family in Canaan, only now did they believe him.

    Sforno adds that once the family arrived, Joseph was seen by the Egyptians as one of themselves. With his father and family living in Egypt, Joseph had roots in and commitments to the country, and no-one grumbled about him any more.

    The tragedy is that after his death, “There arose a new king over Egypt who knew not Joseph” (Ex. 1:8).

    What Rashi says is that the new dynasty did indeed know who Joseph was, but chose to ignore all that he had done for the country in time of crisis. The ingratitude led to the enslavement, and it took a long time and much suffering for Egypt to learn, too late, what the truth was.

    No wonder the sages say ma’asei avot siman labanim, “history repeats itself” – or literally, “what happened to the fathers happens to the children”.

    In countless centuries and countries, Jews, after an initial period of uncertainty, have shown themselves as exemplary citizens and made exceptional contributions to the society of which they were part, only later to be repudiated, degraded and made unwelcome.

    Not that this will stop us continuing to be models of good citizenship, but a nation that turns against any of the segments that makes it up only diminishes itself.

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