To Be Like ‘Them or NOT To Be Like ‘Them’?
Exploring the reason behind our desire to fit in
In this week’s Torah reading, the family of Jacob moves to Egypt, where Joseph is the ruler, as instructed by the Almighty. Before Joseph introduces his brothers to Pharaoh, he instructs them to tell Pharaoh that they are shepherds by trade. Since the Egyptians worshiped livestock, they disdained people involved in this occupation, and would keep themselves distanced from them. In addition, Rashi says (47:2) that Joseph made sure to only bring his weaker brothers to Pharaoh, because he was afraid that if Pharaoh would meet the stronger ones, he would conscript them to his military forces.
Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz (in Da’as Torah) contrasts this approach with the attitude commonly found in our midst. We tend to view the concept of Jews attaining stature amongst the other nations as a positive accomplishment. We are proud to have Jewish politicians occupying government offices, and in general we seek the approval of the world at large. Yet, Joseph had the opposite agenda. He manipulated the meeting between Pharaoh and his brothers to stand the least chances of Pharaoh having any interest in welcoming the children of Israel to join the company with him.
This is the authentic Jewish mentality that we should try our best to adopt. The way a Jew ought to think is, “leave us alone;” not to strive for world recognition. This doesn’t mean that we need to make ourselves into outcasts. Respecting the other nations and forging positive relationships with them is certainly appropriate. To have an organized representation of our communities is also desirable. Nor is it a sin for a Jew to assume a position in a government office to serve the public. But actively seeking to gain their admiration and to ‘make it’ to their ranks of prestige is not the way of the Jewish Nation. Deliberately seeking prominence amongst the gentiles poses a great danger to our values being compromised, for it leads us to become influenced by their way of life and draws us to conform to it.
My wife’s great-grandmother was a public school teacher during an era when there was a great emphasis in America on conforming to society. One day, she learned that a married woman should cover her hair. She accepted the new teaching she learned and decided she was going to act accordingly, against the prevailing norm to remove hats indoors. Despite the fact that she stuck out like a sore thumb, from then on, she determinedly wore a head covering, even while she taught in public school. Indeed, her new appearance did not go unnoticed, and the principal hurled a disapproving remark at her. Unfazed, she did not find it necessary to excuse or defend herself. Instead, she proudly retorted, “I think I look beautiful!”
This is a life-long struggle which we all have to some extent. We are greatly outnumbered on this planet, and it is only natural that we should desire the approval of the rest of the world, as we are influenced by their opinion of us. This feeling can surface in the most unsuspecting venues. When we feel an urge to adopt a new trend which entered society, it is imperative that we conduct an investigation into the source of the new desire. If we are honest with ourselves, many times we will find, that deep down, the real reason why our interest is has been piqued is because we want to be like the rest of the world. We want to be up to date with the culture surrounding us and we want to feel accepted into society. Subconsciously, we are scared of being looked down upon as backwards people who are odd or old fashioned and are not part of the establishment. When we talk about politics, we will often find that we are concerned about our status of prominence in the eyes of the rest of the world. We sometimes sense pride when we hear about a Jew who reached notable status amongst the ranks of society. All these feelings do not follow the optimal way of which a Jew should carry himself. Our goal should be to be proud of who we are, proud of our own values, and be disinterested in seeking out world admiration. Our mindset should be one that strives to be content without any fanfare from the world around us. This is the only way we can remain properly focused on our values; by keeping away from seeking prominent stature amongst the prevailing culture surrounding us.
Parshas Vayigash 5780/2020
email@example.com by Rabbi Yitzchok Aryeh Strimber