Small enough to know you. Large enough to serve you.

Drive a Mercedes Benz? (Vayigash – 12/15/18)

Rabbi Neil Schuman

Drive a Mercedes Benz?
My Jewish summer camp experiences always coincided with Tisha B’Av, the saddest day in the Jewish calendar. While recounting the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E., the Holocaust would also be memorialized. Visions of Adolf Hitler and other Nazis being chauffeured in luxurious Mercedes Benzes became engraved in my mind. Since those summers in my youth, I’ve never felt comfortable in this car brand. How ironic it was when I went to Israel after my freshman year in college that all the buses and taxis were Mercedes Benzes! I had to overcome my discomfort quickly.
Israel was flush with German engineering in the mid 80’s as part of Germany’s national repentance. They offered reparations to individuals in payments and to the country as a whole through technology. Although some vehemently protested accepting the payments as if they were “blood money”, the Knesset agreed to accept them, as they would help develop the nascent country.
I bring up this topic because in our Parsha, Vayigash, Joseph enslaves the Egyptians. He was in charge of the distribution of the stored grain, and, as the famine continued year after year, Joseph upped the cost of the grain. Initially the Egyptians paid for the sustenance with their savings of gold, silver and jewels. When those were exhausted, they paid with the animals. When they owned no more animals, they were forced to sell their land and eventually their bodies. Joseph moved them from their lands to cities, and from then on, they were serfs, giving 20% of their earnings yearly to Pharaoh.
There’s much discussion among Biblical commentators as to whether Joseph acted justly or not. Some bring proof of Joseph’s inappropriate decisions from the Torah’s soft-spot for Egyptians. There’s a prohibition in Deuteronomy against hating them (23:8): “You shall not abhor an Egyptian, because you were an alien in his land.” On Passover night we spill 10 drops of wine when we recount the plagues honoring their great loss of life. Additionally, on Passover we don’t give G-d praise with a full Hallel because of the same reason.
One theory as to why there is so much sympathy for the Egyptians is because we’re responsible for instituting slavery in their country.
While I agree with those who criticize Joseph’s actions, I’m not sure if those proofs are actually supports, for the sympathy for the Egyptians might be for other reasons. In later Biblical times Egypt became an ally of Israel. While we were being tormented and dominated by Assyrian and Babylon rulers, Egypt was our only friend.
Likewise, Germany has changed their ways as well. This year was the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, and the country invited an American rabbinic delegation to come and participate in the commemoration.
Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg writes, “When you think about it, it’s hard to believe! Who would have imagined 75 years after the crematoriums were bellowing the smoke of the ashes of Jewish people the German government would be paying American rabbis’ expenses to come to Germany to participate in Kristallnacht memorials? And who would believe that at that ceremony, carried live nationwide on television, the Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, would denounce anti-Semitism from the left and right, and tell German Jews that it is a “gift” having them! And who would believe that across from the Reichstag, where so much of the Holocaust began, there is now a street named for Yitzchak Rabin? Who would believe that in all of Europe, Germany would be amongst Israel’s strongest allies?”
Following the prohibition against hating the Egyptians, there’s another intriguing law (23:9) “Third-generation children who will be born to them may come into YHWH’s community.” The Talmud has an intricate way of explaining this verse, but perhaps simply we could say that if an Egyptian wants to become Jewish, if he/she is two generations away from the perpetrators, they are welcome to join. We don’t hold the sin of the grandfathers against the children.
Currently, we are certainly two generations removed from those who supported the Nazi Government. Germany started their repentance decades ago with the reparations and the most severe anti-anti-Semitism laws in the European continent. As witnessed by the presence of the rabbinic contingent, they continue on that path today.
The sympathy that the Torah commands for Egyptians may have nothing to do with Joseph’s questionable domestic policies. Perhaps it’s because Egypt changed its ways and became our best ally in late Biblical times. Jews then lived safely in Egypt after the destruction of the first Temple for 2500 years. The laws in Deuteronomy may therefore be teaching us not only to forgive and forget but also to embrace the penitent.
As for me, I got an Audi as a compromise!
Have a great week,

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