Lazer Gurkow

The Diaspora Jew

This week we are introduced to the diaspora Jew. Until this point, the Torah was concerned with holy people who lived in holy places (except for Abraham who lived for a while in Mesopotamia). We read about Joseph’s sale to Egypt several weeks ago, but that is not a true diaspora Jew story. After all, he turned out to be the viceroy of Egypt. Last week we read about Jacob and his family’s relocation to Egypt. However, the subjugation was not felt at this point because Joseph was still firmly in control.

This week we read about Jacob’s passing and Joseph needing to seek Pharaoh’s permission to bury his father in Israel. We read about the passing of Joseph and his prophetic promise that G-d will save the Jews from exile. We can feel the winds of exile beginning to blow. Next week they will be in full force.

Before his passing, Jacob blessed his children. However, before blessing his own children, he summoned Joseph and asked to see his grandchildren. He blessed both of Joseph’s sons and only then turned his attention to his own children. The astute reader will wonder why Jacob blessed his grandchildren ahead of his own children. Granted we love our grandchildren, but our final will and testament is left to our children, not our grandchildren. Why did Jacob bless his grandchildren first?

The First Diaspora Jew
I suggest that Jacob’s final blessing was not merely his last will and testament. Jacob’s intention was to fortify his children for what He foresaw to be a long and bitter exile. He blessed them to strengthen them for the long haul ahead so they would emerge from Egypt spiritually and emotionally intact.

After all, the only reason Jacob came to Egypt was to fulfill the prophecy G-d transmitted to Abraham that Jews would be enslaved in Egypt. Jacob saw his role in Egypt as the fortifier and inspirer of his children. They would know that just as Jacob spent time in Egypt, but returned to Israel for his interment, so would they one day return to Israel.

Most of his descendants had the benefit of being born in Israel. They had personal memories of the Holy Land and what life was like in Jacob’s home. Even in Egypt, the continued to live in a Jewish enclave far from the great Egyptian metropolises.

Only two of Jacob’s descendants were born in Egypt. They were the only true diaspora Jews. These were Joseph’s children Manasseh and Ephraim. They had never lived in true religious freedom. They were born into Egyptian royalty. They only knew Egyptian culture. They were frequent visitors to the family compound, but their home was in the Egyptian capital with Joseph.

They were the first to blaze the trail of a diaspora Jew. It is hard enough for us to live in this mold. We know the challenge of raising our children with Jewish pride when they are bombarded by the images and messages of Western culture and values. We know what it is like to be a minority among a foreign majority. We are grateful to live in a friendly and free country—the majority among whom we reside is not hostile to us. But we are a minority, nonetheless.

We know these challenges very well, but we also have a compass, a guide map for this life. Our parents lived it before us, and they learned it from their parents. We have a well-honed, well-established formula for survival and even of thriving as diaspora Jews. Manasseh and Ephraim had no paved path to follow. They had to pave their own path. Their challenge was perhaps the greatest in all Jewish history.

And they rose to the occasion. They were passionate Jews. They were fluent in the Torah they studied at their father’s knee. Their loyalties were first and foremost to their faith and ideals despite their status as Egyptian royals. For their success, they deserve the diaspora Jew medal, but they also required support. They needed to be fortified with spiritual stamina. They needed to know and see the love of their great grandfather and patriarch. They needed it more than the others and were, therefore, the first to be blessed.

The Message of Their Names
Joseph also recognized the role that his sons would play and gave them names that would strengthen them in the diaspora. Manasseh means G-d made me forget my troubles and my father’s home. Ephraim means G-d made me fruitful in the land of my subjugation.

Let’s consider Manasseh first. I can see why we want to forget our troubles, but why our father’s home? Joseph’s intent here was to acknowledge that he was in a land that conspired to make him forget his father’s home. The first thing a diaspora Jew needs to know is that this is not home. It is a place of troubles, but more than that, it is at odds with our father’s home—our intrinsic indigenous identity.

Knowing that this is not home strengthens our commitment to remember our Jewish home and identity. Joseph named his first son Manasseh to remind his descendants that we must never feel at home in the Diaspora. Don’t get too comfortable. Don’t identify with the land of your sojourn.

Always long for an immersive Jewish environment. Whenever you can, escape to Israel for a few days. Breathe in the holy air, absorb the Jewish atmosphere, fortify yourself for your return to the diaspora. If you can’t get to Israel, go to a thriving diaspora Jewish community. If you can’t do that, go to your local synagogue or Torah study hall. Let Judaism flood your mind and heart. Let it flow through your veins.

Joseph named his second son Ephraim to remind his descendants that we are here for a purpose. Although this isn’t home, we can’t escape and leave our mission unfulfilled. G-d sent us to the diaspora to light up the land of our sojourn. To light a candle in a place of darkness. To bring the warmth of the Torah’s teachings and the truth of the Torah’s eternal values to the Jews and non-Jews, among whom we live.

This is what Joseph did in Egypt and this is what he trained us to do in our diaspora. It is the one-two-punch of Jewish survival. It is how a Jew thrives in exile. First and foremost—the message of the firstborn son—never think of diaspora as home. Always strive to leave and return home. Whenever you can, get away for a few days to recharge your spiritual battery—your soul.

But never abandon your diaspora community. You are here for a reason. Your role is to be spiritually fruitful. Plant ideas in the minds of your neighbors, plant ideals in the hearts of your friends. These ideas and ideals will grow fruit for many generations to come.

Reside in the diaspora, but don’t allow its culture and rituals to become yours. Don’t let them rub off on you. Let yourself rub off on them. Your role is not to become part of the diaspora but to transform the diaspora into a mini-Israel—to make the diaspora holy.

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
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