It’s lonely at the top. Joseph may have been one of the most powerful men in Egypt, but his outsider status is evident when he dines with his brothers, as the Torah states in Genesis 43, “They served him by himself, and them by themselves, and the Egyptians who ate with him by themselves, for the Egyptians could not dine with the Hebrews, since that would be abhorrent to the Egyptians.”
Poor Joseph. Egyptian to his brothers, Hebrew to the Egyptians. Where does he fit in? As Egypt’s saviour, he attained unimaginable success in his adopted home, but his inner thoughts, expressed in the names he gives his sons, reveal his true sense of identity. Joseph named his first-born Manasseh because “God has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home,” while he named his second son Ephraim because “God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction” (Gen. 41:51-52).
Our next leader in Egypt, Moses, also expresses his identity when naming his son Gershom, stating, “I have been a stranger in a foreign land”(Exodus 2:20). So many generations after Joseph, Moses, who was raised in Egyptian privilege, is alienated from his land of birth and longs for his true home.
The power of Egypt sustained Joseph in a limited way. Having made peace with his situation, he forged a new identity for himself, though he is never fully comfortable in that role. Moses, raised in this same power and privilege, runs away from it, recovers his identity and discovers the means to free a people. The eternal light of Jewish identity burned within both of them. It is best expressed in the haftarah for Shabbat Hanukkah: “‘Not by might and not by power, but by My spirit,’ says the Lord of Hosts” (Zechariah 4:6).