Vayiggash - 5776, 18 Dec 2015

Post date: Dec 18, 2015 9:44:58 PM

In tomorrow's 3rd triennial reading from the Torah portion, Vayiggash, Genesis 46:28 - 47:27, we find a lesson of extreme relevance for our world today: One must be culturally sensitive, not at the expense of, but indeed for the purpose of, honest dialog. Let me set the scene.

Joseph is viceroy, second in command to Pharaoh in Egypt. Joseph's brothers originally came to Egypt for food, as there was a severe famine in Canaan. But now, in the beginning of the chapter, our patriarch Jacob answers the invitation made by Joseph and Pharaoh to dwell in Egypt. Joseph is culturally sensitive to the Egyptian practice of deifying lambs and how they regard shepherds with contempt. He advises his family:

"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." (Ex. 46:33-34).

Two verses later, when Pharaoh asks them of their profession, they answer, "We are shepherds."

What meaning can we derive from this?

Joseph, for all his his position of power and wealth, attempts to show a cultural sensitivity, but actually betrays a sense of inferiority. He is a "stranger" (resident alien), and he does not want to create trouble. Joseph's brothers, on the other hand, have grown up as free and independent people. They are, thankfully, impatient with the subterfuge that Joseph advises. When asked a simple question, they respond honestly. Surprisingly, Pharaoh is not phased in the least, and offers them a job, taking care of his cattle.

Cultural awareness is an increasingly important facet of living in such a connected world. My wife, Shelli, had many experiences during her decades as an occupational therapist. For example, she had a family who insisted that there were no left-handed Vietnamese people. The child she was treating was clearly left-handed. The cost of forcing a left-handed child to do everything right-handedly would be a lifetime of feeling frustrated and possibly inferior. The cost of rejecting the mother's culturally held bias might have been that the mother would reject therapy altogether, leaving the child without the help needed. Like Joseph, Shelli had to be sensitive to the mother's belief, but like his brothers, she had to be honest. Not keeping you in suspense, I believe Shelli resolved her dilemma by acknowledging that while in Viet Nam, no one was left handed, now that they were in the US, children would be susceptible to all the maladies of western civilization, such as left-handedness.

In 1942, when faced with the prospect of war with the Japan, the US Office of War Information enlisted the anthropologist Ruth Benedict to help the army understand Japanese culture, not out of respect, but in order to defeat it. Her groundbreaking work recognized that Japanese society was driven by honor and shame, whereas Western (Judeo-Christian) society was driven by guilt and forgiveness. Benedict's ideas were collected in a book called The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, and it is as informative today ever, as honor is central to Islamic law. If we want real dialog with our brothers and sisters, and I think we must, then we must also understand one another's cultures.

One of the saturated issues of our time is "politically correct" speech. Here again, the key is to find a proper balance. Cultural sensitivity's greatest benefit must ultimately be the degree to which it provides us a framework to engage in honest dialog. It is this sensitive communication, like love, that ultimately brings us all closer to God.

Shabbat shalom,