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Come Down

Today, I want to talk to you the time Joseph instructed his father to, “Come down to me.”

Joseph was viceroy of Egypt—the only country with food in a region otherwise plagued by famine. Joseph’s brothers came to procure food for their families, and Joseph tangled with them. After several days, Joseph stopped tangling and revealed his identity. His first question was whether their father Jacob was still alive and healthy. Shortly, after learning that their father was well, Joseph jumped into high gear and asked his brothers to go home and invite their father to Egypt.

“Hurry back to my father and tell him: Thus says your son Joseph, ‘God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not remain in place.”

The question nearly asks itself. We are duly impressed with Joseph’s immediate invitation to his father and his willingness to help his family including his brothers. After all, he had reason to resent them, but instead he forgave them. That is impressive. The question is why Joseph sent such a poorly crafted message?

Where do you ever hear of a son telling his father what to do. Come down to me now, don’t delay? Should he not have crafted his question with more deference? You would think that as viceroy of Egypt, Joseph was well schooled in the art of diplomacy. He would have known how to write that sentence in a way that offered his father little choice but lots of respect. Why did he speak out of turn?

Lord of Egypt

Joseph knew that when Jacob would learn that Joseph was lord of Egypt, he would fear for Joseph’s soul. He would suspect that Joseph had adopted the Egyptian customs, become immersed in Egyptian culture, and joined their worship of pagan deities. He would also assume that Joseph partook in Egyptian decadence, indecency, and immorality.

This would have pained the heart of his old father. It is painful to think that our children abandoned all that we hold dear and turned their backs on everything we taught them. Nothing hurts more than being abandoned by our own children. Come down to Egypt? But how, it would be so painful.

Moreover, Jacob would worry that he would feel uncomfortable in Joseph’s palace. The food wouldn’t be kosher, the comportment wouldn’t be modest, and the culture wouldn’t be humble or refined. It would not be a place for Jacob. For these reasons Jacob would hesitate to journey to Egypt. As Joseph put it, I know that you would deem a journey to my home as “coming down to me”—to my level.

There would be no synagogues or Torah study halls in Egypt. There would be no community, no kosher Pizza shop, or supermarket in Egypt. Why would you come down to a place like this if your patron has become one of them. He has abandoned everything holy and beautiful that you taught him.

Sense of Duty

At this point, Joseph doesn’t belabor the remarkable truth about his Jewish observance in the Egyptian prison and palace. Instead, Joseph appeals to Jacob’s sense of duty. “Do not remain in place” even if it means that you will need to “come down.” Remaining in place is not an option for a Jew. When we die and go to heaven, there will be plenty of time to remain in place. But for now, there is no time to worry about our own spiritual welfare. If the people need us now, we dare not delay.

A Jew is a traveler. We never remain in one place for long. We invest in one house, thinking of the next house, and wondering all the time where we will live after that. A Jew hesitates to set down roots. Who knows what tomorrow might bring? Who knows what the world might look like tomorrow?

(They tell a story about a congregation that wanted to move to the suburbs. They sold their synagogue to a church and moved out. Twenty years later, they were looking to move again. As it happens, the church was also looking to move and, once again, they bought the synagogue.

Only this time the church elders asked to sit on the synagogue’s building committee. After all, they had a vested interest if they hoped to buy the building twenty years later because Jews are always on the move.)

Joseph was referring to this when he told his father, don’t remain behind in Israel. Come down to Egypt and take your chances. Do it for the Jewish people who need you here. If we set up a powerful, wealthy, respectable Jewish colony now, our children will suffer less in their future bondage and will eventually be liberated from Egypt.

Yes, when you get here you will find your son dressed in Egyptian garb and you will worry. You will see your son speaking the Egyptian language, and you will worry. You will see your son behaving in Egyptian custom, and you will worry. You will worry that your son has abandoned Judaism and has embraced paganism.

I tell you now, don’t let that stop you. A Jew can’t stay in place. Come down anyway because this is where you are needed daddy. I felt the call and I responded. I embraced this majestic position because I knew that if I rule over them today, life will be easier for my children in bondage tomorrow. Daddy, you too can alleviate the lot of your children’s exile in Egypt. Come down and make life easier for the Jewish people. Come now, don’t tarry.

(The fact that Joseph had remained a pious Jew was not included in this missive. This wasn’t about Joseph or Jacob. It was about their duty to future Jewish generations. Thus, Joseph ignored his own status altogether in this statement. He addressed it later in the personal part of his message.)

Never Stagnate

The lesson to us is that a Jew can never be complacent. We can’t sit back and say I have done my part and it’s my turn to relax. There is no such thing as remaining in place. A Jew is constantly on the move. If we remain in place, we stagnate. We either rise or fall, there is no treading water. Joseph told Jacob, you can’t remain in place. You need to move forward. Spiritual stagnation is not for you, dad.

Your People

The other lesson is that we can never be content with ensuring our own connection to Judaism and that of our children. It is incumbent on us to do all that we can to ensure that other people’s children love Judaism too. Just like we give tzedakah by sharing our money with others, so ust we give tzedakah by sharing our Judaism with others.

Jacob was an old man. He could have told Joseph that he already did his part, and it was time for younger people to take over. But he did not. He heard Joseph’s call and moved to Egypt. We must do the same. Never say, I am too busy taking care of myself and my children. Always look after G-d’s children. When we look after other people’s children, G-d looks after our children.

About the Author
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, a renowned lecturer, serves as Rabbi to Congregation Beth Tefilah in London Ontario. He is a member of the curriculum development team at Rohr Jewish Learning Institute and is the author of two books and nearly a thousand online essays. You can find his work at www.innerstream.org
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