Friday, December 26, 2014

Vayigash

“Joseph the Provider”

In this week’s parashah, Joseph at long last reveals himself to his brothers and thereby begins the long-delayed process of reconciliation. During this same period of time, he attains the height of his activity as vizier to Pharaoh, conceiving a plan whereby the Egyptian people can survive the seven years of famine which had been revealed to him in his dreams. Yosef appears here, not only as an interpreter of dreams, but as a master economic planner.

His plan, at heart, is a simple one: during the seven years of plenty, the Egyptian monarchy, under Yosef’s guidance, gathered the surplus of food in huge silos and warehouses. Thereafter, during the years of want, this produce was sold to the people so that they could eat—first in exchange for money, then in exchange for their cattle and flocks, thereafter for their land, and finally, in exchange for their very bodes. Thus, everything and everyone in the entire country would ultimately belong to Pharaoh. In this way the people were able to endure the hardships of famine, but at what a price: “and the land belonged to Pharaoh” (Gen 47:20). A capitalist dream!

Having been raised with principles closer to those of socialism than to those of capitalism, I always found something extremely disquieting and distasteful in this whole story. After all, the land and its produce originally belonged to the peasants, to the little people who cultivated the land with their hard work, harnessing the blessings of the overflowing Nile to grow food. During the good years, they sold their surplus produce at reasonable, but probably not particularly high, prices. Then, as things got bad, they were forced to sell everything they owned—beginning with their flocks and land, and ending with themselves—at terms dictated from above. The central government, guided by Joseph, took advantage of their need, thanks to one simple, fortuitous fact—that they knew in advance that there would be years of famine. Thus, when the famine struck, they were able to sell the surplus produce of the good years back to the “little people” who had themselves grown it, at exorbitant prices.

Joseph could have made the news of the famine known to everyone, and told the people to put aside some of their excess produce against the bad years which were coming. But he did not; he kept the secret between himself and Pharaoh and their immediate circle, thereby benefiting from this “inside information.”

There are those who have compared Joseph’s role in this situation to that of FDR—Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the American president who guided the United States through the worst economic crisis in its history, the Great Depression of the 1930’s. Roosevelt set up the Social Security system, the works administration which provided jobs (and the dignity that goes with working and from earning one’s own living rather than living off the dole), and a series of other social measures that helped the ordinary people who were hit hard by the Depression. For Americans of my parents’ generation—even those far Left of him politically—Roosevelt was a revered and beloved father figure, larger than life, who saved the common man by introducing the concept of “hands-on” governmental involvement to help protect the ordinary person, insofar as possible, from such economic catastrophes. Many of the measures he introduced are with us to this day.

Some critics have suggested that Joseph may be compared to FDR. Indeed, Thomas Mann, in the final section of his monumental four-part novel retelling the saga of the patriarchs, Joseph and His Brothers, hints at such a parallel. But is it so?

Every year when I read this parashah I am deeply troubled by Joseph’s behavior. Rather than comparing him to FDR, one might compare him to the “Court Jew” of the Middle Ages and of early modern times, who advised the powerful how best to manage situations to their own advantage—and were generously rewarded for these efforts. How then are we to understand Yosef?

Without Joseph’s vision, without his interpretation of Pharaoh’s prophetic dream— which the Torah tells us was a direct message from the Divine—the Egyptian people would have died of starvation. He saved them. But at what price?! And could it have been in a different, more egalitarian, “democratic” fashion?


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