And if it comes to pass that Pharaoh calls you and asks, ‘What is your occupation?’ You shall say, ‘Your servants have been owners of livestock from our youth until now, both we and our ancestors,’ so that you may dwell in the land of Goshen, because all shepherds are (TOEVA) abhorrent to the Egyptians.” (Breishis 46:43-44)
…are abhorrent to the Egyptians: Because they (the sheep) are their gods.- Rashi
Yosef takes the first opportunity to coach his brothers who were also impressive personalities, so that they wouldn’t get drafted into governmental duties and public life like him. Incredibly so, all the while he was playing out the drama that would bring his father Yaakov down to Egypt, he was arranging and rearranging the entirety of Egypt.
Everyone in Egypt was relocated. Everybody was in fact now a stranger, in fulfillment of the promise given to Avraham that his children will “strangers in a strange land”. Not only was the land strange to the Children of Israel but so it was for the Egyptians. This was orchestrated partially so his brothers should feel less like foreigners and more primarily so that they could live separately in Goshen, the first self-imposed ghetto, in order to preserve their unique identity and familial mission.
So Yosef told them to present themselves as shepherds and only shepherds. That is the only trade they and their ancestors know. Yosef gives another reason to tell them that they are Shepherds. This way the Egyptian culture will repel them as well. It’s not enough that the Children of Israel learn not to be lured into Egyptian culture. If the Egyptian society rejects them, then that’s double protection.
Yosef tells his brother s that shepherds are a TOEVA- abhorrent to the Egyptians. That’s odd! Why are shepherds considered disgusting to Egyptians? What’s so bad about shepherds!? Why are they worse than any other profession?
Rashi gives an answer that needs more explanation. He says that the sheep were considered a god to the Egyptians. Ok! How does that help?
Remember what made Haman hot under the collar and caused him to lose his cool!? Yes! Every time he saw Mordechai the Jew not bowing down to him it provoked his anger. The verse testifies that he considered everything he had (and he had plenty) as worthless every time as long as he sees Mordechai the Jew sitting in the gate.
With that spark of rage he sought to destroy all the Jews- Yehudim. At that time Mordechai was call Ish HaYehudi and the Talmud tells us that the name Yehudi means someone who denies the validity of idolatry. He sees the hand of single G-d controlling all the forces in the world and there are no independent forces other than HASHEM.
Why does that outlook on life trouble Haman so? Imagine a child winning big in a game of monopoly against his brothers and sisters. He’s feeling like a world champion. Then the mother comes in and reminds the children to put away the game. The pieces of paper are now reduced to mere monopoly money. The sight of the parent standing there breaks the illusion that this power is real. His illusion is exposed. He is stripped of everything.
That image of the Wizard of Oz exposed by Toto the barking dog and the “all-powerful wizard” telling everyone “don’t mind the man behind the curtain!” as he in vein attempts to cover himself. That’s a painful unveiling of the lie he is projecting.
So too the Egyptians knew that anyone who worked with sheep understood the emptiness of their esteem for sheep. These creatures do what all creatures do and then they die. They are not real gods, and anyone who sees through their dark secret is a threat. Deep down, they know it themselves. Those deep feelings of hatred for the shepherd help protect such a fragile fiction.