In our Parsha, Joseph prepares his brothers for their meeting with Pharaoh. Desiring to preserve his family’s unique set of beliefs, Joseph wants his brethren to live apart from the Egyptians, therefore he tells them, “When Pharaoh summons you and asks, what is your occupation, you shall answer, your servants have been breeders of livestock from the start until now, both we and our fathers – so that you may stay in the region of Goshen. For all shepherds are abhorrent to Egyptians.” (Genesis 46:33-34)
This is an odd statement. Why should shepherds be abhorrent to anyone, doesn’t the world need Shepherds? If you want to wear wool clothes, or have mutton, milk and cheese, one needs Shepherds. All of our patriarchs were shepherds, and they were great guys! What’s the reason behind this hatred, furthermore, is there a possible way to end it?
Rabbi Michael Gold answers that Egyptians hate Shepherds for Farmers and Shepherds innately hate each other. The Egyptians living along the fertile Nile valley were farmers. Each year like clockwork, the Nile would overflow its banks and bestow its bounty upon carefully seeded fields of grain.
With a tremendous amount of worth resting in one place, Farmers need to protect their investments from human and animal predators. They need fences. Shepherds, on the other hand, need space to spread out and graze the sheep; they can’t be limited by boarders or fences.
The tension between shepherds and farmers did not originate in Egypt, it goes all the way back to the beginning of humanity, with the story of Cain and Abel. Cain was a farmer, while Abel was a shepherd. The first murder enters the world through the conflict between the shepherd and the farmer.
The conflict continues long after the Israelite sojourn in Egypt. Most of us are familiar with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s hit show Oklahoma! In the second act there is a huge, somewhat humorous dance number – “The Farmer and the Cowman Should Be Friends.” Of course they are not friends, neither in territorial Oklahoma nor modern Texas. There will always be tension. Shepherds and cowmen, those who herd animals, want the freedom to move with their animals across the open range. Farmers want to put up fences and block off land to grow crops.
Interestingly enough, this is also a difference between Joseph and Judah and perhaps a contributing reason to why they’re at odds with each other. When Joseph received his “Technicolor” coat, it exempted him from the manual labor of shepherding. When he has his first dream of leadership, it’s about sheaves of grain standing up in the field and bowing down to him.
When he’s freed from prison and made Viceroy over Egypt, what’s his job: to oversee the production, storage, and distribution of grain. Joseph is a farmer! Judah on the other hand is a Shepherd. When the brothers conspire to murder Joseph, Judah is with them shepherding their father’s flocks. When Judah breaks away to start his own family, he continues in the business of shepherding.
The two great leaders of Israel: one is a shepherd, one is a farmer, and they never get along, even after they’re reunited.
Nowadays, our world has its modern opposites: Capitalists and Communists, Vegans and Meat eaters, Dog lovers and cat lovers, Republicans and Democrats (Golden Globe Winners and our President Elect?)
Can there ever be reconciliation between two such polar opposites?
I’m reading a fascinating book called The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. Drawing upon his 25 years of research on moral psychology, he shows how moral judgments arise not from reason but from gut feelings, and this is why people are so irrational about their beliefs.
After all his research he says, “When I was a teenager I wished for world peace, but now I yearn for a world in which competing ideologies are kept in balance, systems of accounting keep us all from getting away with too much, and fewer people believe that righteous ends justify violent means. Not a very romantic wish, but one that we might actually achieve.”
Yet, our Haftorah (Ezekiel 37) prophesizes a reconciliation between opposites: “And the word of the Lord came to me, saying: “And you, son of man, take for yourself one stick and write upon it, ‘For Judah and for the children of Israel his companions’; and take one stick and write upon it, ‘For Joseph, the stick of Ephraim and all the house of Israel, his companions.’ And bring them close, one to the other into one stick, and they shall be one in your hand.”
Whether it’s realistic or not, our faith espouses hope in the unity of man, and it’s worth pursuing.
Perhaps Haidt is correct from an intellectual perspective.
But man is more than his body and mind…spirit can raise us above ourselves. All the spiritual teachers and all of the world’s major religions speak of the possible attainment of unity and world peace. My favorite master, Eckhart Tolle teaches us how transcending our ego based state of consciousness is not only essential to personal happiness, but also the key to ending conflict and suffering throughout the world. He writes about this in a book he calls, “A New Earth.” Wouldn’t it be fantastic to see a New Earth, one in which the dreams of world peace could be achieved?
Utilizing a spiritual path, who’s to say what can’t be accomplished?
If we’re ever to see peace reign on earth, it’ll be because we’ve reached into the resources of our soul and achieved things beyond our greatest imaginations!