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Wy Irael?
Joseph Vs. Moses
By Yosef Y. Jacobson

"G-d became angry with me because of you, and He did not listen to me," Moses states in the beginning of this week's portion (Vaeschanan). "G-d said to me, ‘It is too much for you! Do not continue to speak to Me further about this matter.’”

Thus G-d refuses the pleading of His faithful servant, Moses, to be allowed entry into the Promised Land. Instead, G-d tells Moses: “Ascend to the top of the cliff and raise your eyes westward, northward, southward, and eastward, and see with your eyes, for you shall not cross this Jordan (1).”

The Midrash, in this week’s portion, presents a moving dialogue between Moses and G-d (2):

Moses said to G-d, “Master of the universe, the bones of Joseph will enter the land, and I will not enter the land?!”

What he meant was this:

As we recall from the conclusion of the book of Genesis, Joseph the viceroy of Egypt, just before his death, adjured the children of Israel, that they take his bones with them when they leave Egypt. More than a century later, when the Jewish slaves embarked on their path to freedom, “Moses took the bones of Joseph with him, for he [Joseph] had firmly adjured the children of Israel saying, ‘G-d will surely remember you, and you shall bring up my bones from here with you (3).’”

Joseph’s casket wandered with the Jews during their forty-year sojourn in the desert. When Joshua led the people into the land, Joseph’s bones were interred in the city of Shchem (4), known today also as Nablus. (The gravesite was burned and destroyed in October 2000, in the beginning of the second Intifada. Rabbi Hillel Lieberman, who came to protect the site, was killed.)

This was the irony hinted in Moses’ plea to G-d: I was the one who carried Joseph’s bones for forty-years; yet these bones that I carried all this way will make their way into the Holy Land, while I will remain behind!

What perturbed Moses, according to this Midrash, was not so much that he wouldn’t be allowed to enter the Land alive. Moses could understand that his leadership was designed for the generation that left Egypt, and that now it was time for his pupil Joshua to take over the reigns. The brunt of Moses' hurt was that G-d would not allow even his body to be interred in the soil of the Holy Land! Joseph’s remains can enter the land, and mine cannot?! Joseph died some 180 years earlier, but his bones will find a home in the earth of Israel; Moses led the Jews all the way till the border, and he his body cannot enter?

G-d’s response is nothing less than astounding. It goes like this: He who acknowledged his land, will be buried in the land; he who did not acknowledge his land, will not be buried in the land. Joseph acknowledged the land; Moses did not.

The Midrash quotes two episodes demonstrating Joseph’s loyalty to the land.

The First Episode

At the age of seventeen, Joseph was living with his father Jacob in Hebron. The young handsome lad was kidnapped by his brothers and sold into Egyptian slavery. There he acquired the trust of his master, Potiphar, who put him in charge of the home, while his wife was unsuccessfully attempting to seduce Joseph into immoral behavior.

One day when nobody was home, the woman held on to Joseph, demanding that he betray his morality. Joseph fled the home leaving his cloak in her hand. She seized the opportunity and cried out: “Look! He [my husband] brought us a Hebrew man to sport with us; he came to lie with me but I screamed out loudly! When he heard that I raised my voice and screamed, he left his garment beside me, fled and went outside (5)!”

For this, Joseph was sentenced to prison. For twelve years he remained incarcerated in an Egyptian dungeon, until he was finally liberated to interpret a mysterious dream of the Egyptian emperor, Pharaoh, following which he rose to become the viceroy of the country.

How did Potiphar’s wife describe Joseph? As a “Hebrew man” (“Look, he brought us a Hebrew man to sport with us”). This was a most obvious and conspicuous characteristic of Joseph's. Clearly, he never disguised his origin; everybody was aware that he was member of the Hebrew tribe, coming from the Land of Israel.

The Second Episode

The second episode occurs ten years later, while in the Egyptian dungeon. There, Joseph interprets the enigmatic dreams of two of Pharaoh’s assistants, his baker and his butler. The baker, Joseph predicts, will be executed; the butler will be set free and restored to his previous post in the palace.

Joseph asks of the butler: “If only you can do me a favor, and mention me to Pharaoh, and get me out of this place, for indeed I was kidnapped from the land of the Hebrews, and even here I have done nothing to them to put me in the dungeon (6).”

Here again Joseph proclaims his connection to the Holy Land. “I was kidnapped from the land of the Hebrews.”

Indeed, when the butler does present Joseph’s case to Pharaoh, two years later, that is exactly how he describes Joseph: “There [in the dungeon] with us was a Hebrew youth, a slave…(7).” The first characteristic by which he defines Joseph is his being “a Hebrew youth.”

Why Risk Your Freedom?

In Egyptian society, to be a Hebrew was a badge of shame (8). That may be the reason why Potiphar’s wife when seeking to gain credibility for her version of the story that Joseph attempted to violate her, defined him first and foremost as a “Hebrew man.” She knew that this would help her case. When people will hear that he is a Jew, they will believe all the ill behavior attributed to him.

And Joseph made it known that he was a Hebrew, a resident of Israel. Disguising it would perhaps allow him to integrate into Egyptian society, but that would mean lying to himself and to the world. What type of life is that?

Years later, while suffering in prison, attempting to seek the Egyptian ruler’s grace to set him free of his misery, it would have been even more logical for him to underplay his true identity. Why did he tell the butler, “I was kidnapped from the land of the Hebrews” and put his entire freedom at risk?  

Furthermore, how can Joseph define the land as “The land of the Hebrews? At the time, the land was home to 31 kingdoms, consisting of large and powerful tribes, while the Hebrews were comprised of fewer than 70 members (9), and lived in part of one city, Hebron?

An Organic Connection

What is the connection between the Jewish people and the Holy Land, both in the past and in the present? Is it merely a national one: Jews reside in Israel, they are citizens of the country, so they are naturally connected to it. No! For the last 2000 years, Jews have been exiled and dispersed all over the globe, yet they still spoke of Eretz Israel as their home; they cried for it as their spiritual epicenter. It was the core of their longings, dreams, and aspirations (10).  

For 2000 years, Jews have prayed three times a day in the direction of Israel; they have beseeched G-d to return them to their homeland; they have concluded every Seder and Yom Kippur service with the declaration, “Next year in Jerusalem!”; they have fasted each year, without fail, on the day their exile from Israel began.

Why? If it were merely a nationalistic obsession, it should have diminished with the two millennia of living elsewhere.

The answer to this enigma has been articulated in countless works of Jewish philosophy and mysticism (11): Each and every Jew – secular and observant alike -- is organically linked to Israel. Israel for the Jew is not merely a nationality; it is the home of the Jewish inner consciousness: The Jewish soul is rooted in the Divine energy vibrating in the atmosphere of Eretz Israel.

The 10th century Jew thriving on the Rhine, the 16th century Jew walking the streets of Krakow, the 20th century Jew struggling in communist Moscow, and the Jew of 21st century sipping coffee in a Soho Starbucks – each of them was and is aware, on a conscious or subconscious level, that his or her soul is inherently interconnected with Eretz Israel. He may have never visited the physical territory, but it is still home. How? Because his or her soul originated there, and was merely grafted to the Diaspora, in order to imbue it with the sanctity of Eretz Israel.

Joseph was a slave, then a prisoner. He was living in Egypt and was powerless to change that. Ultimately he would become the prime minister of the country. But that was only his body; his soul was still living in Eretz Israel. Thus he was never ashamed to remain loyal to himself and declare the truth: I am residing in Egypt, but a part of me has never left the Holy Land. I may one day come to love Egypt, but Eretz Yisroel will always remain my home. Because it is home.  

One With the Land

Now let us shift our attention to Moses.

Following his escape from Pharaoh’s sword, Moses spent time at the well of Midian. There, the Jewish boy who grew up in the Egyptian palace rescued Jethro's seven daughters from shepherds harassing them, and he watered their sheep. When the daughters came home and their father asked them how they managed to make it home so quickly, they replied, “An Egyptian man saved us from the shepherds and he even draw water for us and watered the sheep (12).”

“An Egyptian man” was the way they described Moses. In other words, Moses allowed them to get the impression that he was Egyptian. Moses did not necessarily tell them he was an Egyptian; he merely didn’t protest their impression of him as such.  

Joseph, concludes the Midrash, embraced his land, hence he was interred there; Moses did not, hence he remained outside of it.

This was not a punishment. Moses, we can be sure, had good reason for his behavior. (Moses stood up to the superpower of his time, so he clearly suffered not of Jewish self-hate, nor was he fearful of sounding “too Jewish.” The reason he behaved so is beyond the scope of this present essay). Nevertheless, to be worthy of the Land of Israel, you need to be one with it.

The Modern Crisis

In recent years, some of our brothers have lost touch with this innate sense etched in the hearts of our people for four millennia. We began to question our right to that small territory in the Middle East, surrounded by hundreds of millions of Muslims. The Balfour declaration of 1917 and the UN resolution of 1947 became for many the sole basis for our right to establish the State of Israel.

Israel’s neighbors, deeply acute of this change of heart in Israeli modern culture, seized this weakening of the Jewish connection to Israel in order to build their terror-armies with the objective of defeating the State. Instead of giving the terrorists a full blow the moment terror rose its ugly head, Israel was consumed by self-doubt as to its own legitimacy in conquering Arab land. Israel had a strong army, but it lost much of the spirit giving the military a soul and a passion.

Now Israel was horrifically awakened from a decade of allusions. The dream that concessions, a withdrawal from the 1967 occupied territories, the creation of a Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem will create a climate for peace, has tragically turned into a nightmare. We hoped the Israeli left would have been proven right, but that was not the case. The country that was in the mid-80’s relatively safe, has come a bloodbath. Thousands of innocent Jews and Arabs lost their lives in the process.

Now, our holiest children, the soldiers of the IDF, are fighting for the People and the Land of Israel. At this defining moment, we must reclaim our inner sense of unity and purpose, embedded in the depth of every Jewish heart. The Land of Israel is really the land of the Jewish people. It is not about nationalism; it is about reality: The Jewish soul is linked with a million chords to the territory of Eretz Yisroel; it is an inherent connection, coded into the very DNA of the universe.

Over the past 4000 years the Torah never let us down. Not once. We can trust it on this truth, too.  

Joseph was a man of the world. He walked the corridors of the United Nations and the State Department. He was a loyal and faithful citizen of Egypt, contributing immensely to its economic growth and rescuing it from famine. But he never hesitated to say the truth: that Israel was the eternal home of the Jewish people, given to them as a gift from the Creator of heaven and earth.

Today we all need to become Joseph’s.


1) Deuteronomy 3:26-27. 2) Midrash Rabah Devarim 2:8. 3) Exodus 13:19. 4) Joshua 24:32. 5) Genesis 39:13. 6) Ibid. 40:14. 7) Ibid. 41:12. 8) Genesis 43:32. 9) Ibid. 46:27. 10) See, for example, the extraordinarily dramatic poem by Rabbi Yehudah Halevi (12th century Spain), “Zion will you not seek the welfare of your prisoners?” Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik called it one of the greatest gems in Jewish literature. 11) See, for example, Likkutei Torah Parshas Massei. 12) Exodus 2:19.   


Posted on August 4, 2006
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