Joseph the Viceroy
by Rabbi M. Kripke
By the time I was in high school, our class in Talmud Torah was sufficiently advanced so that our regular assignment for each Sunday was the preparation of the full Sidrah for the following week.
We had just finished the four Sidrot at the end of Genesis, where the focus of attention is Joseph, when I had an unusual experience.
Just as we finished those Sidrot in Talmud Torah, in our freshman English course we finished one section of our anthology of world literature and turned to narrative.
I was amazed to learn that the first of the “great narratives of world literature” was the Joseph story, told in substantial excerpts. Amazed, and immensely pleased! Even in the public high school they found my Bible worth reading, studying and approving.
But at 11 I was already old enough to have second thoughts and to recognize how childish my reaction had been. Then I was embarrassed, chagrined, and crestfallen. And there was unarticulated rage that things should be that way. And I was able to see how uncertain I had been about my at-homeness in the world.
I felt the alienation of a Jew in a non-Jewish environment. Henry Ford’s flirtation with the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” underlay the eggshell step of American Jews in those days. It was a time of KKK ascendancy. There was spoken and unspoken fear. And without realizing it, as a young boy, I was affected by it.
What alienation did Joseph feel? Here he was, Viceroy of Egypt. As “Secretary of Agriculture” he had become the most important member of the king’s cabinet, virtually the ruler of Egypt.
But when the brothers dined with him, there were three separate tables, for Egyptians would not sit with Hebrews. The Egyptians present knew Joseph was a Hebrew, the brothers thought he was Egyptian, hence the three tables. Egyptians wouldn’t sit at a table with their Viceroy!
Just before he died, Joseph made a final request: don’t bury me here; take me back, when the day comes that makes it possible, take me back with you to the land of Israel, our father.
Is this a lesson in alienation?