Parashat Vayigash 5783

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Anti-Shemitism: The Power of Names to Turn Us Into an Abomination
A D’var Torah for Parashat Vayigash
By Rabbi Mitchell Blank (’21)

In a recent notorious SNL monologue, Dave Chappelle proclaims: “There are two words in the English language you should never say together, in sequence, and those words are “the” and “Jews”.” As per Chappelle, this would violate the “show business rules of perception: If they’re Black it’s a gang, if they’re Italian, it’s a mob but if they’re Jewish; it’s a coincidence and you should never speak about it.”  Each group receives its own racial or ethnic epithet. As for the Jews, they control Hollywood. In Chappelle’s opinion, Jewish control is so pervasive that even naming “the Jews” will unleash a severe backlash against anyone who tries. Jews are uniquely noxious in that epithets are insufficient to dirty our name. In addition, Jews are allegedly so powerful, we intimidate others from even saying our name.

Why do names, or an absence of names, have such a powerful hold on the human psyche? Why do distortions of group names inevitably lead the targeted group to be viewed as abominable, which can sometimes devolve into subjugation or even death?

In the Tanakh, when the name of a group is displaced by another name, discrimination is sure to follow. “The sons of Noah who came out of the ark were Shem, Ham and Japeth – Ham being the father of Canaan…and from these the whole world branched out.” (Gen. 9: 19-20). Upon leaving the Ark, Ham (father of Canaan) rapes his mother yet it is Canaan who is cursed by Noah to be “the lowest of slaves…to his brothers” (Gen. 9:25). Why not name and blame the perpetrator? Ham’s name is mysteriously displaced. In short order, the descendants of Canaan forever become the paradigmatic example of sexual apostasy for the descendants of Shem. The name Ham is forgotten, yet the stigma for Canaan that is associated with the actions of Ham is only magnified.

Genesis chapter 10 follows, describing the 70 nations that emanated from the three sons of Noah. The Hamite nations become city dwellers and are the future enemies of the Israelites. Their main holdings are in Egypt, Canaan and Philistia. The children of Israel devolve from Shem whose territories are described as “settlements”. (Gen. 10:30) They were semi-nomadic shepherds covering areas including modern day Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq. The description of the Shemites begins by stating that Shem’s sons are “all the descendants of Eber” (Gen. 10:21) even though Eber won’t be born for 3 more generations! This signals that another name change is in the offing for descending from this line will be “Abram the Hebrew” (Gen. 14:13) (Ivri, the Hebrew, is derived from Eber)

Shem, the tribal founder’s name, is quickly displaced by Eber. (Ironically the word shem means name in Hebrew) Yet the name Ivri, derived from Eber, rapidly fades from the Tanakh in favor of the names Israel or Jacob. In fact, the name Ivri appears only 6 times in the book of Genesis and is almost exclusively cited by the offspring of Ham throughout the Tanakh (i.e by the Egyptians and the Philistines). Israel will forever be tarnished by the epithet Ivri, especially when being subjugated by their tormentors.

In Hebrews Between Cultures, Meir Steinberg claims that “Hebrew” is a codeword for the Bible’s in-group “as misrepresented from the outside by the arch-foreigner, the Hamite anti-group and anti-culture.” The Bible’s codeword which describes the offspring of Shem from the perspective of their anti-Shemtic ancestors is Ivri (another name displacement, an epithet used in the service of prejudice and subjugation of the Israelites). Ivrim are unsophisticated nomads, always crossing over (overim) from one area to the other. They are despised, different from us. The epithet serves to solidify and magnify the hatred.

Even oppressed groups, such as Jews, use name changes as a primary vehicle to distort our lineage, even our heritage. Dara Horn’s best seller People Love Dead Jews mainly examines evasions by Gentile societies to avoid accurately naming the deep hatred behind antisemitic attacks and ideologies. Yet Horn focuses a whole chapter specifically on obfuscation by Jews. Of course, it’s all about name changes. She debunks the myth that any person was able to change their name at Ellis Island, even though such stories are legendary and pervasive throughout American Jewry. In reality, everyone who changed their name had to go to the courts to do so. Unsurprisingly, the reasons for these name changes related to avoiding antisemitism as well as sustaining the fiction for their children that America was truly free of any meaningful barriers for Jews. Names are so loaded and potentially damaging. They transform so quickly into hateful expressions, yet name changes by the discriminated group also obscure and impinge on actualizing the group’s true identity. Telling bubbe meises to our children and to ourselves does not make the discrimination go away, or any less real.

Names do indeed obscure identity. Eber is not only the ancestor of Israel but also other groups who are closely linked to Israelite history such as the Arameans, Moabites, Midianites, Ishmaelites and Edomites. Yet, these groups who descended from Eber “are never called Hebrews except for the descendants of Jacob.” (Ibn Ezra on Exodus 21:2) Ivri, initially including many tribal affiliations, has been narrowed to only one, the hated Hebrews.

In a gambit to cover up an attempted rape of Joseph, Mrs. Potiphar identifies Joseph to her servants as an Ivri who was brought into the house “to dally with me.” (Genesis 39:14,17) A description as an Ivri now describes not only nomadic herdsmen in general but also the notorious acts of dalliance particular to the descendants of Jacob (See Gen. 21:9 and Gen. 26:8). The displaced name that has become an epithet has now been established. Later, in the Book of Exodus, the people are enslaved. Pharoah first refers to them as the “Israelite people” but in his paranoia, he comes to see them as a fifth column. They are now worked to the bone, yet they continue to multiply in number. In response, Pharoah decides to kill all the first-born males. The text now (tellingly) switches to the name “Hebrew.” The midwives explain that the plan is failing “because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; they are like animals. Before the midwife can come to them, they have given birth” (Ex. 1:19). As Ivrim, they are not only oppressed slaves, they are now sub-humans, like animals.

How did the pejorative reference to “Hebrews”, at first a clever pun poking fun at tribal indiscretions, eventually metastasize into mass enslavement and, ultimately, an attempt to exterminate the entire nation? Over the course of only a generation or two, the continued use of the slur Ivrim led to mass hatred of this group. They came to be considered an “abomination” despite Joseph becoming Pharoah’s second in command as well as singlehandedly saving Egypt from starvation.

Inside Joseph’s house, when dining with his brothers: “They served…them (the brothers) by themselves, and the Egyptians who ate with him (Joseph) by themselves; for the Egyptians could not dine with the Hebrews, since that would be abhorrent to the Egyptians.” (Gen. 43:32) In parashat Vayigash, the brothers are now reconciled and Joseph wants to present them to Pharoah to gain permission to settle in Egypt. Joseph advises his brothers to tell Pharoah “Your servants have been breeders of livestock from the start until now, both we and our fathers…For all shepherds are abhorrent. to Egypt.” (Gen. 46:34) Note well that Joseph knew Pharoah would ask about their occupation (Gen. 46:33). Robert Alter, commenting on vs. 34 explains “The Egyptians, who were by and large sedentary agriculturists and who had large urban centers, considered the semi-nomadic herdsman from the north as inferior (an attitude actually reflected in Egyptian sources) and so preferred to keep them segregated in the pasture region of the Nile Delta” (The Hebrew Bible: The Five Books of Moses, 184). The abominations are jettisoned out of sight but not out of mind. Vayigash concludes “Thus Israel settled. In the country of Egypt, in the region of Goshen; they acquired holdings in it, and were fertile and increased greatly.” (Gen. 47:27). How did the hated Hebrews gain Pharoah’s approval as well as overcoming Egyptian prejudice to settle and prosper, davka during a time of famine? One thing is certain; our biblical ancestors did not obscure their ethnic identity, nor did they attempt to appease the ruler.

Joseph’s brothers had a plan: be loud and proud and identify strongly with their ethnic heritage. Name exactly who and what they were. In every generation, this is the only chance to keep our oppressors at bay and our pride intact. We must retain the ability to define ourselves on our own terms, not by the loathsome, loaded names hurled at us by those who hate.

The brothers disregard Joseph’s warning and Pharoah does indeed ask of the brothers’ occupation: They reply: “We your servants are shepherds, as were also our fathers.” (Gen. 47:3) Yes, that’s right, we’re semi-nomads as we have always been. In effect, they are telling the king “we are Shemites”! Pharoah, perhaps dumbfounded by the directness by the “abominables”, remains silent. Abarbanel, commenting on Gen. 47:3 adds that the brothers clarified further in the following verse, since Pharoah did not respond. “We have come to sojourn (laagur) in the land. Aha! They are gerim, another distinctive quality of the Hebrews, the Ivrim.” (See Gen. 12:1015:1326:3 and 37:1 for our ancestors destiny as gerim.)

As leaders of the Jewish community, may we model for our flock and for all whom we help shepherd through life to learn from the example of Joseph’s brothers. Our best chance to define ourselves and not be defined by others is to maintain a clear connection to our heritage and to our ancestral homeland. We can trace our lineage all the way back to Shem and Hashem. “Blessed be the Lord, The God of Shem.” (Gen. 9:26) May the two names always be linked proudly together. Otherwise, we will fall prey to the likes of Chappelle, who wants to both demonize and marginalize us by perverting our name. He ends his monologue: “I hope they don’t take anything away from me…whoever they are.” We validate ourselves and our future by pridefully proclaiming who we are: “Am Yisrael Hai”!
Rabbi Mitchell Blank was ordained by AJR in April 2021 and most recently served as the spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El of Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn