As we conclude this year’s reading of the Book of Genesis on Shabbat morning with the final portion, Vayechi, we will read of the deaths of Jacob and Joseph. Jacob, though seemingly a flawed person, has the status of revered patriarch, with his name prominently mentioned along with his father and grandfather in our daily prayers. But how is Joseph remembered by our tradition? A smash hit Broadway show is not bad, but actually the rabbinic sages give Joseph an honorific title—they call him Joseph the Tzadik, the Righteous One. A question worth asking is why he merits this distinction.
A variety of Talmudic and Midrashic answers are there for us to consider. Here are a few examples:
- Joseph was a “tsadik” because he obeyed his father willingly.
- Joseph’s righteousness was due to his moral standards. He refused to be intimate with Potiphar’s wife not because he was afraid he would get caught but because he felt it was simply wrong (the Midrash embellishes this side of Joseph by telling stories of how numerous Egyptian women who were married threw themselves on him but he consistently refused their advances).
- Joseph was righteous because he was God’s agent in implementing the Divine plan to relocate the Israelites to Egypt, setting the stage for their enslavement and eventual redemption. Through all he endured, he never lost his faith in God.
At this week’s Torah study class, we came upon what might be the best explanation of why Joseph was considered to be a righteous man. Despite living outside of the Land of Israel, he maintained his Jewish identity and passed it down to his children.
In this last portion of the Book of Genesis, we find the blessing that Jacob, near death, bestows on his Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Menashe. We recite these very words every Friday night when we bless our sons at the beginning of the Shabbat meal—Y’simcha Elohim K’Ephraim V’chi-Menashe…May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe. The question is, why does the Torah tell us to bless our sons in the name of Joseph’s two children and not in the name of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? One modern Torah scholar, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Ginsberg (1885-1946, Russia and America), says the following:
“Why specifically as Ephraim and Manasseh? The reason is that Jacob realized that the time of the exile of his descendants was approaching, and he knew that in exile their Jewishness was in great danger. He therefore blessed them that they should be as Ephraim and Manasseh – the first Jews who were born, grew up, and were educated in exile – and yet in spite of that, they “are mine” – they remained faithful to the House of Israel, just as Reuven and Shimon.”
Rabbi Ginsberg tells us that Ephraim and Menashe are role models to be emulated, so much so that the Torah mandates that a blessing be offered in their names. They were the first members of Jacob’s family to be born, grow up and be educated outside of Israel, yet they retained their Jewish identity. We could infer that Joseph deserves the credit for this, and therefore should be known as a tzadik (perhaps Rabbi Ginsberg, who lived in Russia and the United States, saw a great many people giving up a Jewish way of life).
The Torah tells us that the destiny of the Jewish people is to live as a nation in the Land of Israel. And we are blessed to live in a time of history that has seen the reestablishment of Medinat Yisrael, the modern State of Israel. But despite the Torah’s message about our destiny to live in Israel as a nation, it became our fate to make our home in a great many places around the world other than Israel.
Jacob’s sons were the first “Diaspora Jews.” Our history relates that the Jewish people returned to Israel a few generations after Joseph and developed there as a nation, but exile soon followed. For over 2,500 years Jews wandered the earth in search of a place to call home that would be safe. We’ve been compelled to find the right balance between assimilation and isolation, always seeking a way to preserve our tradition while struggling to survive. Joseph is credited with being a tzadik, a person who devoted himself to preserving the traditions of his ancestors and passing them faithfully to his children. We ought to ask ourselves if we are also a tsadik in the same way.