Baruch Frydman-Kohl
Rabbi, legal mediator, advocate

Joseph and Egypt, Jews and Society

Although most of us focus attention on the plea of Yehudah and the reunion of the family of Yaakov, we should also consider the relationship of Yosef’s extended family with the resident population of Egypt.

Notice that Yosef “acquired all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh,” excluding only the lands of the Egyptian priests. Egypt was transformed into an extended feudal fiefdom, with the population becoming tenants instead of owners. The Torah tells us that the population expressed gratitude to Yosef for giving them life, even while enslaving them to Pharaoh. I have my doubts. 

Their appreciation seems implausible, yet we have witnessed in our generation that people do place trust in a strong leader. Or, perhaps the farmers in their despair willingly accepted servitude as price for survival, just as we easily accept digital surveillance as price of security. 

Although Yosef’s role is as an intermediary for Pharaoh, we might wonder whether this became an indirect cause for the descent of Israelite people into slavery. As we see in Shemot, a new Pharaoh arose who no longer recalled — or no longer wanted to recall — the history of a relationship.  Did the ascent of people of Israel under Yosef lead to Egyptian resentment, resulting in the oppression and servitude of Israel?

Rabbi Shai Held of Mechon Hadar has drawn attention to the dynamic of Yosef’s administrative and political skills which always gave the people something, even as he turned their resources over to Pharaoh.  Throughout Jewish history, our people has had an interstitial role, as an intermediary between the people and the real power. When popularism prevails, we are often the focus of attacks.

Rabbi Daniel Nevins directed my attention to the commentary of Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz (Klee Y’kar to Genesis 47.27), who served as the Rabbi of Prague from 1604-1619. He sees the people of Israel as partially responsible for their misfortune in Egypt. They were never supposed to settle down there, but only to take refuge in Egypt. Had they left after the famine ended then they could have avoided enslavement. Instead, they “held tight” to the land of Goshen, became prosperous and didn’t want to leave.

In our own lives, in relationship to friends and family, colleagues and casual encounters, we also share some role and responsibility. Yosef’s self-understanding of his life seems simple —  it was God who sent me here — yet we know that things could have turned out other ways. Philosopher W. V. O. Quine once observed, “simplicity, as a guiding principle in constructing conceptual schemes, is not a clear and unambiguous idea.”

The Yosef narrative raises issues about the relationship of Jews with the larger society.  The Torah is telling us that the well-being of Israel is linked to the well-being of the society at large. Those who forget history are not necessarily doomed to repeat it, but events do bear relationship to one other.

East West Street by Philippe Sands tells of his efforts to learn what happened to his family during the Shoah. Subtitled, On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity, Sands also tells of the personal and intellectual journeys of Raphael Lemkin and Hersch Lauterpacht, the legal thinkers who originated the ideas of “genocide” and “crimes against humanity.” They did not know each other, but they studied at the same university with the same professors, in “the little Paris of Ukraine,” a city variously called Lemberg, Lwów, Lvov, or Lviv.

Sands, now a human rights lawyer based in England and France, describes the Nuremberg Trial of 1945.  In the same Bavarian city where the Nazis’ instituted the laws which made antisemitism legal -– stripping Jews of citizenship, rights, property, and eventually life — the modern system of international justice was born.

In 1933, Joseph ­Goebbels told the League of Nations, “A man’s home is his castle… We will do what we want with our Socialists, our pacifists, our Jews. We are not subject to any control, whether from mankind in general or the League of Nations in particular.” Few would contest Goebbels’s view. National sovereignty was the dominant model of international law and was later used by the Soviet Union to defend against its treatment of Jews.

Bernard-Henry Levy writes: “If the same cannot be said today, if dictators are no longer seen to hold the power of life or death over their subjects, if the archcriminals of Cambodia, Sudan and Rwanda are ­indicted and sometimes even punished, in short, if the idea of international justice has gradually gained a semblance of meaning, we owe it to two ideas, or more precisely two concepts — as well as to the two men who brought them to life.”

In the Nuremberg Trial, for the first time in history, national leaders were indicted for their murderous acts before an international court. Leading Nazis, faced their ultimate judgment. Here, the concepts of “crimes against humanity” and “genocide”, so central to contemporary political life, had their first courtroom airing.

Lauterpacht, who fled Poland for Cambridge, put the indictment of “crimes against humanity” – murderous acts by the state against individuals – into the Nuremberg trials through the speeches of the chief British prosecutor. Lemkin, who had been a Polish prosecutor before escaping tothe States. put the crime of “genocide” – crimes against a race or group on the basis of their identity – into play through the Americans at Nuremberg. In 1948, he saw it adopted by the UN General Assembly. These Jewish lawyers, with direct experience of persecution, laid the foundations of international human rights law.

Genocide and crimes against humanity reflect two different concepts of law and society. They rest on opposing notions of rights — individual or group. “One places at the top of the scale of offenses those perpetrated on individual men and women, the other the intention to annihilate the population or community from which those individuals spring.”

Sands writes:  “Does the difference matter? … Does it matter whether the law seeks to protect you because you are an individual or because of the group of which you happen to be a member?” Lemkin and Lauterpacht clearly thought so. Contemporary Jews seem more invested in the crime of genocide than in crimes against humanity. Evern then, all too often, we are only concerned about our own experience, relegating to the side the suffering of others.

Tilly Nevin notes that “at the centre” of Sands’ book “is not only the city of Lviv but also the concept of what a city can and should be, in all its heterogeneous glory. For Sands a country should be an amalgamation of cultures, religions, peoples, a source of ideas …The loss of such heterogeneity is untenable for Sands and for him it is the task of the individual – as Lauterpacht did, as Lemkin did – to work on restoration, on restitution, to ensure that such loss does not occur again.”

That vision of a city of diversity, a country of different ethnic groups, a culture of respectful debate, is again under attack. And we are again grappling with antisemitism: individual attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions, some visible and others terribly violent; political and social antisemitism directed against Israel and those who understand Zionism to be an integral aspect of their Judaism.  The hatred of Jews is more complex than simply blaming Jihadist Muslims, Black nationalists, White supremacists, or anti-colonial leftists. 

Are these attacks simply crimes against individuals? Are they directed against us as a group? Are these the actions of individuals? What is source of the underlying hatred? If mental instability occasionally leads to anger against others, why is it expressed in attacks on Jews? Are these violent acts driven by contemporary social insecurity? Is antisemitism an ever-present reality of Jewish life or does its depend on the social structure and cultural stability? In addition to self-protection, what must we do to protect our society?

Lemkin and Lauterpacht understood that the rule of law and an international order were critical to the safety of Jews. But they also realized that the structure that would protect Jews could also defend others against attack.  They could not have anticipated that the charge of crimes against humanity would be used by abusers of human rights to attack Israel. As Irwin Cotler has told us at Beth Tzedec, we should make every effort to salvage the concept of human rights from abuse and to again make those rights an important element of a Jewish agenda.

As a community, we should speak up about the ongoing acts of genocide Rohingas in Myanamar, the Nuer in South Sudan, Christians and Yazidis in Iraq and Syria, Christians and Muslims in the Central African Republic, and Darfuris in Sudan. We must speak about what took place in Canada toward First Nations. These belong on our community agenda and on the program of Liberation 75. “Never again” should apply to more than just Jews.

The story of Yosef also speaks to the contemporary expression of the disease of antisemitism, a virus that can lie dormant and then spring to life with virulence. For the Yosef narrative is about more than family conflict. I also learn that my neighbours are my responsibility. If I ignore their distress, then it will might come to claim me as well. And I want our city and country to realize that what hurts Jews will eventually injure our society and culture.

Rabbi Nevins writes: “From the enslavement of Egypt to the enslavement of Israel is just two quick steps. And as we have seen with the recent spate of anti-Semitic attacks, when we stand in solidarity with our neighbors in their distress, they return the favor, allowing us together to build a more stable and peaceful society together.”

Let us be proud Jews, mobilised for our safety and security. Let us turn to police and government to join in our defence. And let us be determined to ensure that our society remain committed to the rule of law and the protection of minorities, so that we do not allow antisemitism, racism and hatred to be tolerated in our community and in our country.

Robert Jewish. Marx, The People in Between: The Paradox of Jewish Interstitiality (2014)

Rabbi Shai Held, “Saving and Enslaving: The Complexity of Joseph.”

Daniel Nevins, “Tachlis and Torah,” January 3, 2020.

Willard Van Orman Quine, “On What There Is” (1948).

Goebbels cited:

Bernard-Henry Levy,

Tilly Nevin,

About the Author
Baruch Frydman-Kohl is Rabbi Emeritus of Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto, Ontario, after having served for 26 years as the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Senior Rabbi. Born in Milwaukee and raised in Chicago, Rav Baruch previously served Congregation Ohav Shalom in Albany, New York. He has a doctorate in philosophies of Judaism from the Jewish Theological Seminary, a LLM degree in Dispute Resolution from Osgoode Law School of York University, and is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is Vice-Chair of the Canadian Rabbinic Caucus.
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