Immigration has always been a hot issue. A country’s immigration policy impacts both the security and the economy of that country. These are considerations that are debated today, and they were debated in ancient Egypt.
In this week’s parshah Yosef has the difficult task of arranging for his brothers’ visas to Egypt. With a famine ravaging the rest of the region, and Egypt being the only stable economy at the time, you can imagine that Egypt was very tight on immigration.
Yosef’s brothers had to be vetted by Pharoah personally.
Yosef prepared his brothers for the meeting with Pharoah.
He prepared a delegation of only five of his brothers. he also told them that they must tell Pharoah that they are shepherds because “every shepherd is an abomination to Egypt.”
On the delegation of five there is disagreement among the commentaries. Rashi says that Yosef brought the five weakest of his brothers. Others say that he brought the five strongest.
The question that the commentaries are debating is how did Yosef want Pharoah to perceive his brothers? If Pharoah saw them as too strong he would be threatened that they could rise up and start a coup. On the other hand, if Pharoah viewed them as too weak he may be loathe to welcome them because a large family would be a strain on Egypt’s limited resources.
The same debate goes on today. On the one hand we are afraid to take in Syrian refugees, especially young strong men who may launch terror attacks against American citizens. On the other hand, orphans and widows will require social services that are already strained trying to provide for the citizens who are already in the country.
Strong capable immigrants will provide for themselves but may be a security risk, whereas more vulnerable immigrants may not threaten our security but will be a strain on our economy.
This debate is also reflected in how we understand Yosef’s direction to say they are shepherds. Two words are used in the Torah, and it is not clear which Yosef was using. The brothers insist that they are “Roeh Tzon” – shepherds. Yosef seems to use the terms “anshei mikneh” – cattlemen. (He also uses the term “Roeh Tzon” although it is not clear if he says this or the narrator. See Rashi 46:31)
My understanding is that Yosef wanted his brothers to say that they were anshei mikneh -cattlemen. This was probably some kind of prestigious occupation. Roeh Tzon was a lowly profession that was a degrading position for Egyptians.
This is also part of the modern immigration debate. Some immigrants come with highly skilled professions and work for high tech companies, or hospitals. Others are the immigrants who come and do low wage jobs that people say other Americans don’t want to do.
There are arguments for and against both.
Immigration is a very complicated issue, but it is not a new issue. Jews have been on both sides of the issue, as president Obama reminded us yesterday. In this country 70 years ago, in Egypt 3,000 years ago, and many times in between.
Something to think about this week!