Losing the family home and mortgaging the future to keep from starving.
When you take away the Elvis impersonator and the catchy Andrew Lloyd Webber ditties, Egypt under Joseph's management bears some resemblance to our current situation.
Back then, the Children of Israel had it pretty easy. When famine struck Egypt, ordinary Egyptians surrendered their land and indentured themselves and their descendants as serfs to Pharaoh in exchange for food to survive. In contrast, Joseph welcomes his father and his estranged brothers from hunger-ravaged Canaan, allowing them to hole themselves up separately in the fertile land of Goshen and to find more than enough sustenance.
These days, the Jewish community doesn't have the luxury of riding out the crises we face in isolation from broader society. Fiscal constraints and investment fraud have decimated contributions and endowments, and undergraduate and graduate students alike are having to defer plans to begin or continue studying for financial reasons. Global warming threatens food production and climatic stability around the globe. Distinctive Jewish pain may be more or less severe in any particular situation, but it reflects the universal agony that nearly everyone is experiencing.
What can sustain us through difficulties like these are our relationships and our support for each other. Jewish tradition and practice emphasizes the importance of relationship, from the Pirkei Avot statement that one should not separate oneself from the community to Martin Buber's exploration of I-Thou interactions to the foundational principles of Hillel's engagement efforts. These ties can be an emotional, psychological, spiritual and financial balm in our times of need.
In deepening our relationships, it's not a question of choosing either our Jewish contacts or our non-Jewish connections; both can be essential to survival and success. In fact, the Children of Israel’s survival in Goshen was not an illustration of self-sufficiency. Rather, Joseph's reunion with his brothers and father and his efforts to save them highlights one of the best examples of how relationships with both Jews and non-Jews can work in tandem.
On the one hand, Joseph’s kinship ties with his family are the most basic and ancient illustration of the connections that bind the Children of Israel. As much as time may have frayed those ties, this earliest sense of klal Yisrael instills in him the obligation to provide them with shelter and protection.
In symmetry, Joseph’s links to the outside, Egyptian world also prove essential. While the Israelites rode out the food crisis separate from the surrounding society, the resources he provides them and the license to allocate land to his family are those Joseph secured through his connections with Egyptian society. These bridging relationships provide him with the authority and the resources to act on his sense of duty to Jacob and his brothers. Thus, without both of these bundles of relationships, familial and external, the Jewish people would perhaps not have come into being in the way we now see ourselves.
Significantly, Joseph’s leveraging his relationship with Egyptian society is not a case of quid pro quo. The text shows no indication that Joseph's willingness to interpret Pharaoh's dream was spurred by the expectation that his new-found position of authority would allow him to welcome his family so warmly a few years later. Instead, it testifies to the fact that our bridging relationships with those outside the Jewish community can benefit us all in the long run, regardless of what motivates our original efforts to reach out.
There is no magic bullet to rid ourselves of the challenges we face. If you're looking to this d'var Torah for a hint as to how to pump up your checking account or lower temperatures worldwide, you're going to be disappointed. The problems we face, whether environmental disruption or pension plan degradation, are real. Nevertheless, Vayigash reminds us of the significance of togetherness and relationship and the comfort we can give to and receive from each other, both Jews and non-Jews. At times, one may outweigh the other in importance, but we cannot survive, either individually or as a people, without both strengthening our ties with each other as Jews and engaging the world around us.
Rabbi Seth Goren is the Director of Jewish Student Life at Lehigh University.