Tradition in transition
They say adapt or die. But must we jettison the old to embrace the new? Is the choice limited to modern or antiquated, or can one be a contemporary traditionalist?
At the beginning of this week’s parshah, we read that Moses was occupied with a special mission as the Jews were leaving Egypt. Moses took the bones of Joseph with him. Long before the great exodus, Joseph had made the Children of Israel swear that they would take him along when they eventually left Egypt. As viceroy of Egypt, Joseph couldn’t hope to be buried in Israel when he died as his father, Jacob, was. The Egyptians would never tolerate their political leader being buried in a foreign land. But he did have his brethren make a solemn undertaking that when the time came and the Israelites departed, they would take his remains along with them.
Now, Joseph wasn’t the only one to be re-interred in the holy land. His brothers, too, were accorded the same honour and last respects. Yet, it’s only Joseph whom the Torah finds it necessary to mention explicitly. Why?
The answer is that Joseph was unique. While his brothers were simple shepherds tending to their flocks, Joseph was running the superpower of the world. To be a practicing Jew while blissfully strolling through the meadows isn’t that complicated. But to serve as the most high-profile statesman in the land and remain faithful to one’s traditions – this is inspirational!
Thrust as he was from the simple life of a young shepherd boy into the hub of the nation’s capital to juggle the roles of viceroy and Jew, Joseph represented tradition amidst transition. It was possible, he taught the world, to be a contemporary traditionalist. One could successfully straddle both worlds.
Now that they were about to leave Egypt, the Jews were facing a new world order. Gone were slavery and oppression and in their place came freedom and liberty. During this time of transition, only Joseph could be their role model. He alone could show them the way forward into the new frontier.
Ever since leaving Egypt, we’ve been wandering Jews. And every move has come with its own challenges. Whether from Poland to America or Lithuania to South Africa, every transition brought culture shocks to our spiritual psyche. How do you make a living and still keep the Shabbos you kept in the shtetl when the factory boss says, “Cohen, if you don’t come in on Saturday, don’t come in on Monday either!” It was a test of faith that wasn’t easy. Many succumbed. But many others stood fast and survived, even flourished. It was the test of transition – and those who modelled themselves on Joseph were able to make the transition while remaining committed to tradition.
Democracy and a human-rights culture have made that part of Jewish life somewhat easier for us, but challenges still abound. May we continue to learn from Joseph.