Living for our Livestock

Our sedra begins with the final confrontation between the Egyptian viceroy “Tzafnat-Panaich” and Yehuda, before the former reveals he is the latter’s long-lost brother. After Yosef reunites with his brothers, Pharaoh finds out and insists that Yosef’s family comes down to Egypt to live through the rest of the famine in relative comfort there. Pharaoh sends Yosef’s brothers back to Canaan with food for the journey, and instructs them to bring Yaakov down. He even magnanimously sends wagons, explicitly saying that “ועינכם אל תחס על כליכם כי טוב כל ארץ מצרים לכם הוא- don’t even think about bringing your belongings with you, for the best of Egypt will be for you.” (בראשית מה:כ).

When this extravagant convoy reaches Canaan and Yaakov is informed who sent it, his spirit becomes revived, and he sets off to see his son. Even in his excitement, our forefather doesn’t forget to pack anything, as the passuk says:
“ויסע ישראל וכל אשר לו- And Yisrael traveled with all of his belongings [towards Egypt].” (מו:א)

This seems to be in direct contradiction to Pharaoh’s instruction that the Israelites shouldn’t bring any of their belongings with them. Nonetheless, when Yaakov and his children arrive in Egypt, Yosef is pleased that his father brought all of his possessions, specifically their livestock. In fact, he advises his family to capitalize on this and emphasize their profession before Pharoah.

When they stand before Pharoah, Yaakov and his sons tell the Egyptian leader: “we are shepherds, and look, we even brought our own flock with us.” You can almost imagine the scene as Pharoah, who explicitly commanded Yosef’s family to come empty-handed, saw them come and proudly speak of their belongings and their sheep- the powerful leader must have been quite angry. Nonetheless, he agrees to their request to settle in Goshen, far away from the center of Egypt.

As readers, we can only begin to wonder why Yaakov so insistently ignored Pharaoh’s instructions, and why Yosef was so pleased that he did so. Why did Yaakov bring all of his belongings to Egypt after Pharaoh told him specifically not to? Pharaoh even sent wagons so there would be no reasonable explanation for bringing any livestock as transport- why did Yaakov ignore this and bring everything anyways?

In order to answer this, we must take a step back and look at Pharaoh’s mentality. Over the past decade, Yosef, the homeless Canaanite slave of unknown descent, had risen in ranks and become Egypt’s savior. Pharaoh must have always had a desire for him to become “one of us,” but Yosef’s questionable origin and stint in jail made this quite difficult. However, once it became clear that Yosef was from a reputable and well-respected family in Canaan, it became possible to try to transform Yosef into Egypt’s “golden boy,” by trying to bring Yaakov and his sons into the fold, and assimilating them into Egyptian culture.

What stopped this from coming to the fruition? The livestock. Yosef’s family was, by heredity and reputation, a clan of shepherds. As Rashi so famously highlights, sheep were an Egyptian deity and they hated the idea of anyone herding sheep or eating them. It would’ve been impossible to paint Yosef as Egypt’s “golden boy,” and assimilate his family into the local culture while they were conspicuously prancing around cultivating and slaughtering the national god. So, Pharaoh came up with a brilliant plan- to try to get rid of the sheep in the middle of the big move, by passive-aggressively insisting that Yosef’s family leave them behind.

However, Yaakov, perhaps from his previous experience of those people around him trying to change him (Shechem, Lavan, Eisav), knew that this couldn’t end well. So, he set into place a subtle and effective plan to stop this by using the Egyptian’s weakness and hatred against them, by specifically bringing the livestock with them into their exile. This way, Pharaoh would have no choice but to try to save Yosef’s image by sending his family far away, where Egyptians wouldn’t see them practicing the forbidden profession of herding sheep. It’s clear from the pesukim that Yosef was completely onboard with this, and even helped with this by instructing his brothers on how to speak to Pharoah, to manipulate the discussion so that the leader would have no choice but to insist that they live in Goshen.

So, Yosef’s family came before Pharaoh and, not unlike the oblivious cousin who shows up for the holidays every year with the same terrible present, they said: “Tada!! Look what we brought!” Their actions and speech force Pharaoh to locate them far from the Egyptians, safe from the dangers of proximity and unwanted integration. Thus, Yaakov and Yosef were succeeded at to entirely avoiding the issue of assimilation, at least at that point.

Much later, as things became worse for the Jews in Egypt, their separateness put them in danger, as they were persecuted and enslaved for being different. In fact, Yaakov’s unwillingness to assimilate and insistence of living in Goshen seems to do more harm than good for his descendants, as this directly caused their enslavement (as we’ll read in a few weeks). However, their separateness, which initially contributed to their suffering, was also instrumental in enabling their salvation. If the Jewish people in Egypt hadn’t stayed separate, hadn’t kept on reproducing, giving Hebrew names to their children, and kept the faith strong through the generations of hardship in Egypt, they may never have merited the eventual redemption. Without the Jews keeping a distance from their neighbors, as Yaakov insisted, the Exodus may never have happened and we could all still be slaves in Egypt.

Possibly the biggest proof to this is in the symbol of the Exodus, the korban pesach. On the night of Pesach Mitzrayim, as G-d went through the cities smiting firstborns, He passed over every house which had blood on the doorposts. Which blood? Of the korban pesach, of a sheep. The very same animal which Yaakov insisted on bringing to Egypt in order to keep a distance from his family’s idolater neighbors, which became a symbol of Jewish pride and suffering, was put to the test on the night of makat bechorot, as everyone who truly believed in G-d was commanded to publicly display this on their front doors, so that Hashem would pass over their homes. In this way, the sheep, which initially endangered Yaakov and his sons before Pharaoh (by directly going against the command of the Egyptian king), and embittered the following generations who suffered from slavery, eventually became their salvation. Generations later, as the Exodus was celebrated in the Bet Hamikdash every year, every Jew would bring a sheep to celebrate that finally, the pain and abuse they’d suffered for their separateness had paid off. “עבדים היינו לפרעה במצרים, ויצאינו ה’ משם ביד חזקה ובזרוע נטויה,” all because of the livestock that Yaakov had so insightfully brought from Canaan.

In our times, Am Yisrael is facing a similar situation. Once upon a time, the sheep was the symbol of Jewish uniqueness and became a cause of their suffering. Nowadays, Eretz Yisrael and Zionism have filled this role. Around the world, every day, people young and old are calling for the destruction of millions of Jews, thinly veiling their anti-Semitism as anti-Zionism. The idea of Jewish nationalism, the two thousand-year-old dream of self-determination which became a reality almost sixty eight years ago, has reminded the nations of the world and, more importantly us, that we are separate from them and we don’t belong with them. Not unlike the Egyptians, they were happy to accept us if we wanted to become part of their people, but those of us who chose to stand firm and remain separate were punished for this, with inquisitions, pogroms, and mass killings. The passive, weak Jew was fine in their eyes, but once our people sought out our own country, and changed into the strong Jew, they began to take issue. It would unfortunately be very correct to say that a lot of Jews around the globe are suffering right now because of the State of Israel.

There are a few ways to react to this scary reality. One, perhaps the easiest way, is to revert to being the passive, weak Jew; to admit defeat, give up on our dream, and settle for being “one of them.” Over 67% of Americans have taken this path, whether by choice or because they didn’t actively make a choice otherwise, and it’s clear from Yaakov Avinu’s actions in our parsha that this far from correct. Imagine what would have happened if Yaakov hadn’t brought his livestock down to Egypt- our ancestors would have assimilated into their neighbors’ culture, and we wouldn’t be alive today. Clearly, this is not an option.

Another possibility, one very much embraced with Satmar Hasidut and their Neutrei Karta extremists, is to blame the metaphorical sheep for our suffering, and get rid of them at this later stage. This is perhaps even worse than giving up from the get go, as it completely undermines all of the suffering that previous generations went through, to keep the Jewish dream alive. If one would portray anti-Semitism as solely Israel’s fault, and call on Jewish leadership to remove themselves from Eretz Yisrael in order to stop the pain, it would be like pulling the plug on a sick patient with a good prognosis in order the kill the illness now- it doesn’t make any sense whatsoever, and undermines all of the suffering the patient went through fighting for his life until then. Again, this isn’t an option.

So, we are left with a third and final option; to keep on pushing forward. Just like the Jewish People of Egypt saw the sheep as a symbol of hope, not suffering, we must remember that Israel and Zionism are the future. Very soon- whether tomorrow, in a few weeks or a few years, we don’t know- G-d will redeem us from our exile and our suffering as he did for our forefathers in Egypt, and bring us home to Israel. Now, at a dark time things are quite bad, we must keep strong in our emunah and our faith in Hashem. We must realize that, just as life was most difficult for the Jews in Egypt right before G-d began hitting the locals with makkot, our suffering now is a sign that redemption is almost here. We must keep on looking forward towards mashiach, and keep on supporting Israel, ראשית צמיחת גאולתנו, despite the complications its mere existence may add to some exiled Jews’ lives in the Western world. We cannot let the fear of persecution lead us to ignore or destroy our hope for redemption from the lands of our enemies.

With Hashem’s help, may we continue to stay strong in our faith in Hashem and Eretz Yisrael, so that, just as the sheep eventually became a symbol of the Egyptian Exodus, we too will merit to have Eretz Yisrael become a clear symbol of our impending geu’lah, very very soon.

About the Author
Born and raised in Teaneck NJ, Tzvi Silver moved to Israel in 2012 after catching aliyah fever while learning abroad. Tzvi is now pursuing a degree in Engineering from the Jerusalem College of Technology, and works on the side as a contributor for local newspapers in the New York Area. Tzvi's interests include learning Torah, rabble-rousing, and finding creative ways of mixing the two.
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