The Contrast Between Joseph and Moses


By Rabbi Shlomo Riski


“Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, and God of our fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob…” (The Opening Blessing of the Amida)
The opening of the Amida prayer stops with Jacob’s name. But why should the patriarchal line be limited to three — why not four patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph? After all, Joseph’s role in the Genesis narrative is unquestionably central to the entire book of Genesis.

A case could be made for showing that he shares a similar fate to those of all three patriarchs. Like Abraham, he lives among idolaters and must maintain his faith and traditions within a hostile environment. Like Isaac, he suffers a personal akedah, about to be slain not by his father but by his brothers, saved not by a ram but by Midianite traders. And like Jacob, who set the foundation for the twelve tribes of Israel, Joseph provided Jacob’s descendants with life and sustenance as the Grand Vizier of Egypt.

Moreover, in resisting the seductive perfumes of his master Potiphar’s wife, Joseph merits the unique accolade haTzadik (literally, ‘the righteous one’) appended to his name.

As a result, he has come to represent for all of his descendants the mastery of the spiritual over the physical. If indeed Joseph is known to us forever as Joseph the Tzadik, and being that he is the son of Jacob, why is he not considered the fourth patriarch? After all, there are four parallel matriarchs.

To understand why, we must compare and contrast him not with the patriarchs who precede him, but with the personality who, from the moment of his appearance in the book of Exodus, stands at center stage for the rest of the Torah and all of subsequent Jewish religious history: Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our Teacher.

In many ways, Joseph and Moses are contrasting personalities, mirror images of each other, with Moses rectifying the problematic steps taken by Joseph. Joseph was born in Israel, but became professionally successful in Egypt; Moses was born in Egypt, but established his place in history by taking the Jews on their way to Israel. Joseph was the insider who chose to move outside (he dreamt of Egyptian agriculture, as well as the cosmic universe).

Moses was the outsider (Prince of Egypt), who insisted on coming inside (by slaying the Egyptian taskmaster). Joseph brought his family to Egypt, Moses took his people out of Egypt. Moses saw Egypt as a foreign country, and names his son Gershom “for he said I have been a stranger in a strange land” (Ex. 2:22). Joseph has at best ambiguous feelings about his early years in Canaan, naming his firstborn in Egypt Manasseh “since God has made me [allowed me to] forget completely my hardship and my parental home” (Gen. 41:51).

Joseph, through his economic policies, enslaves the Egyptian farmers to Pharaoh; Moses frees the Jews from their enslavement to Pharaoh. And Joseph’s dreams are realized, whereas Moses’ dream — the vision of Israel’s redemption in Israel — remained tragically unfulfilled at the end of his life.

The truth is that for the majority of Joseph’s professional life he functions as an Egyptian, the Grand Vizier of Egypt. He may have grown up in the old home of the patriarch Jacob, heir to the traditions of Abraham and Isaac, but from the practical point of view, his time and energies are devoted to putting Exxon, Xerox and MGM on the map.

Ultimately his professional activities enable him to preserve his people, the children of Israel; but day to day, hour to hour, he is involved in strengthening and aggrandizing Egypt.

A good case could easily be made in praise of Joseph. He never loses sight of God or morality, despite the blandishments of Egyptian society. And God would even testify that he had a special task for Joseph, personally chosen to save the descendants of Jacob and the world from a relentless famine.

Nevertheless, he must pay a price for being Grand Vizier of Egypt: The gold chain around his neck is Egyptian, his garments are Egyptian, his limousine is Egyptian, and even his language is Egyptian. Indeed, when his brothers come to ask for bread, an interpreter’s presence is required for the interviews because his very language of discourse is Egyptian, with his countrymen totally unaware of his knowledge of Hebrew.

The difference between Moses and Joseph takes on its sharpest hue when seen against the shadow of Pharaoh. Joseph’s life work consists of glorifying and exalting Paraoh, in effect bestowing upon the Egyptian King-God the blessings of a prosperous and powerful kingdom, whose subjects are enslaved to him; Moses flees Pharaoh’s court with a traitorous act against him, ultimately humiliating and degrading him by unleashing the 10 plagues.

A shepherd and the son of shepherds, Joseph becomes the first Jewish prince in history, while Moses, a genuine prince of Egypt, begins his mature years as a shepherd on the run, risking his life for his commitment to free the Israelites. Jealousy and destiny force Joseph to live out his life away from his brothers, estranging himself from them. But Moses, despite his foreign, Egyptian background, nevertheless cares for his Hebrew brothers and identifies with them. As the Torah most poignantly records:

“And it happened in those days [after the baby Moses was taken to the home of Pharaoh’s daughter] that Moses grew up and he went out to his brothers and he saw [attempting to alleviate] their sufferings.” (Exodus 2:11)

Even though Joseph and Moses both change the world and preserve the Jewish people through the divine will that flows through them, their energies get channeled into different directions: Pharaoh and Egypt on the one hand, the Jewish people and Torah on the other.

This may be the significant factor in explaining why our sages stop short at calling Joseph a patriarch. He may be a tzadik, two of his sons may become the heads of tribes, and he may even deserve burial in Israel; but ultimately a hero who spends so much of his energies on behalf of Egypt cannot be called a patriarch of the Jewish nation.

It is recorded that the first chief rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, was tended to in his final years by an internationally known physician. His last words to the doctor were: “I yearn for the day when Jews who are great will also be great Jews.” It was Moses who was undoubtedly the greatest Jew who ever lived.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat.


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