Vayigash: What Do You Do?

Vayigash: What Do You Do?


Over the next couple of weeks we will see lots of partying all around Atlanta.

Rabbi Mark Kunis

I’m not going to speak about the appropriateness of attending Christmas and New Years Eve parties. That’s a subject for another time. For now let’s consider parties in general.

I think it takes a special skill to do well at parties. Some people mix well and have an easy time engaging in conversation with others they don’t know very well, and some have a more difficult time. Sometimes you only go because you can’t say no to the host and sometimes because you can’t say no to your wife.

Now that you’re there, what do you do?

You try to make small talk and get acquainted. How? By asking each other questions that don’t really matter, like, “Where are you from?”

You never discuss money. That would be an intrusion on another’s privacy. You may play Jewish geography for a few minutes and then comes the crucial question: “What do you do?” – meaning, “What do you do for a living?”

When you hear the answer, you immediately know a lot about the person. You know if they’re a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer, and you can relate to them accordingly.

Even retirees ask the question, but they answer it in a slightly different way. When retirees get together at a party, they ask each other: “And who did you use to be?”

I want to show you the way that this question, “What do you do?”, is understood in two civilizations. The first is ancient Egypt.

In this week’s sedra, Joseph and his brothers are reunited and Jacob comes down to Egypt to live with him. Joseph has to introduce his family to Pharaoh, but before they meet, he briefs his brothers on the proper protocol – especially what to say to Pharaoh.

Joseph (Gen. 46:33) says to them: “Now it will be, when Pharaoh has you called and says to you, Ma maaseychem (What is your occupation), you shall answer: ‘your servants are breeders of livestock from the beginning until now, both we and our ancestors.’”

How did Joseph know that this was what Pharaoh would ask? And why did he instruct his brothers to answer the question this way?

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch – a 19th century German Rabbi and defender of Jewish tradition – writes: “In a state like Egypt, where caste prevailed and men were completely absorbed in their trade, and men were born as artisans, workers on the land, soldiers, etc., the first question was naturally about their profession.”

And so Joseph understood that “what do you do?” would be the first question they would be asked and so he briefed them on how to answer it.

When you read Hirsch’s commentary, it hits home, for what he says about Egypt, could very well be said about us. When we meet someone, we don’t ask: “What do you care about the most?” Or, “What kind of volunteer work do you do?” Or, “What are your values?”

Instead, we ask: “What do you do for a living,” as if that is the most important part of who you are. When you do that, you reduce a human being to what they do for a living as if that is the whole person. You read Hirsch and sense that we have not progressed very far from ancient Egypt.

Now let me show you a different way to get acquainted with strangers – not the Egyptian way, but the Jewish way. It’s found in a Midrash – which I learned from Danny Siegel, the great tzedaka teacher. He cites a Midrash in which the Sages of the Talmud say:

“When a person comes to the Seat of Judgment in the World To Come, the first question he will be asked is: ‘What did you do?’”

If the person answers; “I used to feed the hungry,” they will say to him: “This is the gate of the L-rd; you who fed the hungry may enter here”.

If the person answers: “I used to give water to the thirsty,” they will say to him: “This is the gate of the L-rd; you who gave water to the thirsty may enter here”.

If the person answers: “I clothed the naked”, they will say to him: “This is the gate of the L-rd; you who clothed the naked may enter here”.

And the same with those who raised orphans or gave tzedaka or did acts of kindness.

What is the difference between these two ways of answering the question: “What do you do?”

In the first, the Egyptian way, we are measured by what we do for a living. In the second, the Jewish way, we are measured by how we live. In the first way, the Egyptian way, we are measured by what we do professionally. In the second way, the Jewish way, we are measured by what we do that we don’t have to do – by what we do after hours, by what we do that makes a difference in this world.

It measures who we really are, not how we are artificially labeled.

I once heard this phrase: “It is the claim of Judaism that the purpose of life is to live a life that is full of purpose,” so that you can help perfect this world and grow your soul at the same time.

And therefore, what we do for a living is important, but it is not all important. It is not who we are! When we define a person simply by his trade or profession, we diminish the person.

We reduce the person from being a complex, many sided human being to being just a worker. The Jewish way is wiser. The Jewish way defines a human being more by the good that he does than by the goods that he accumulates.

So if this weekend someone at a party asks you: “What do you do?” Don’t tell them your trade or your profession. Tell them what your values are. Tell them what you care about the most. Tell them some of the mitzvot you do. Tell then that you daven at shul. For that is the way to measure a human being.

May we be blessed in this secular New Year with a life of purpose and meaning, a life that we’ll be proud to describe when asked: “What do you do?”

Mark Hillel Kunis is rabbi at Congregation Shaarei Shamayim in Atlanta.

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