The story of Joseph has become a legend. A young boy is forced to leave his family and work in an alien land. He rises to great success and serves the ruler of this alien land. His family joins him, carving an economic niche by doing work that natives look down upon and won’t do. The family, with others like it, enjoy decades of success. Then, gradually, the Israelites lose their advantage and status and will not know freedom again for a very long time. Ultimately they are liberated, and fight to take their promised land.
But is all this merely a legend? Consider how elements of it have popped up over the centuries. To begin, many of us have in our past a story of a youthful ancestor who walked across Europe, and then nearly penniless, booked the cheapest steerage to the United States or Canada. Once established in the new land, the ancestor sent for his family.
As for rising to serve a ruler in this new land, think of Maimonides, who rose to become the physician to the sultan in Egypt. Or, in our own time, think of the controversial Henry Kissinger, who forged the foreign affairs of the United States for two presidents, opening China in the process.
Ancient Egyptians looked down upon herding, while later European peoples looked down upon moneylending. Jews filled these jobs to great success.
This happened, too, in Poland. Jews, fleeing murderous German princes were actually invited into Poland. Their particular talent? Financial planning, as they helped manage estates. Over centuries, the Jewish population in Poland grew to be in the millions.
As in ancient Egypt, the combination of enormous population increase and economic success was perceived as a threat by natives. Before long, Polish Jews were second class citizens living under poverty conditions in Shtetls. In our darkest moment as a people, these millions of Jews were not only enslaved in munition factories, but they were exterminated.
Fortunately the story did not end there. For just as the Israelites were liberated from slavery and fought for their promised land, so did survivors of the Holocaust fight to establish a new state in their old land.