The Genesis:3 Project
Pharaoh said to his brothers, “What is your occupation?” They answered Pharaoh, “We your servants are shepherds, as were also our fathers. Genesis 47:3
I live near Washington, DC, and I work in the city, overwhelmingly with people in government. When I meet someone for the first time, I rarely escape from the conversation without the question “what do you do?” Sometimes I am the one asking it, but mostly it is asked of me. (The subtle ones say, “Do you have a card?”)
When the word “rabbi” creeps into the answer, the combination of eyebrow raising and noise indicating interest, surprise or disapproval provides the only entertainment in the exchange. I almost always wish I still had the sarcastic bent to say, “I play the concertina, I tend the garden, I scuba dive” or any of the other activities my friends can claim.
Israelis like to make fun of Americans for this tendency to define a new acquaintance by their job. They claim to be much more interested in who a person is than in what a person does. Are you Ashkenazi or Sefardi? Are you religious or secular? Are you a member of my political party or an enemy of the state? Are you from Haifa, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Beersheva or Miami? Those kinds of things.
Of course, even the question “who are you” is fraught with peril in some societies. In hierarchal societies with some genetic or economic caste system, interaction with someone outside your group can carry a stigma.
But “what do you do?” is, as you can see, as old as the Bible. The answer that the brothers offer to Pharaoh, who seems as awkward in social situations as I feel, is not quite the one Joseph suggested they use. Shepherds, it seems, were anathema to the Egyptians. Joseph suggested that they claim to be cattle ranchers, a more acceptable position of higher prestige.
And perhaps that illustrates what is wrong with the question. In our time, we are too familiar with the tendency to inflate a resume or embellish a title. Roseanne Barr used “domestic goddess” for laughs, but almost every day we hear of someone who claimed a college degree that was never earned, boasted of a job that was never held, invented an award that was never received. Depending on who is asking the question, the circumstances and the desired outcome, the temptation is to stretch the facts (or invent them) to curry favor with the company the individual wishes to keep.
That seems especially true when seeking benefits that come with closeness to power or with seeking the power itself. If the answer to “what do you do” is “I make money to spend,” the truth is less appealing than, “I create jobs, I build buildings, and I give away millions of dollars to people in need.”
The sons of Jacob may have been startled into their truthfulness or they may have decided that their proclivity to prevaricate had reached its limit. At the moment, it resulted in the best possible outcome: a means of support and enough land to establish themselves as a community. But answering the question truthfully also provided Pharaoh with another insight about the clan. They were people of honor and integrity, willing to own not only what they do (the DC standard), but who they are (the Jerusalem standard).
And when you have the honest answers to those questions, you have the basis for building an honest relationship.