Parashat Vayigash 5782

A D’var Torah for Parashat Vayigash
By Rabbi Doug Alpert (’12)

Click HERE for an audio recording of this D’var Torah

With this week’s Parashah we are neck-deep into the Joseph story. A prominent focus of the narrative has been, and continues to be, on Joseph’s relationship with his brothers. Was Joseph seeking revenge on his brothers by withholding his identity, fulfilling a Divine purpose set forth from his youth and/or simply following a series of dreams (his and others) as he interprets those dreams? Can the idea of dreams in Joseph’s case be a stand-in for ambition? All good questions for discussion, but I am drawn in more to how Joseph acts as leader and administrator.

In this week’s Parasha Joseph acts upon his interpretation of Pharoah’s dream predicting the famine to come. His administrative and problem solving acumen in devising a national plan to provide food during the famine leads him to a position of power in Egypt. He is second only to Pharoah in wielding power. In looking at this piece of the story, it is the efficacy of the plan that tends to get short shrift. The assumption is that famine is solved, end of story.

What is widely understood about Joseph’s plan is the collection of food during plentiful times to feed the people during the famine. But it is in the details (how the kosher sausage got made) wherein the plan’s long-term impact comes into question. “Joseph bought all of the land of Egypt for Pharoah, every Egyptian having sold his field because the famine was too much for them; thus, the land passed over to Pharaoh. And he [Joseph] removed the population town by town, from one end of Egypt’s border to the other. …Then Joseph said to the people…when the harvest comes you shall give one-fifth to Pharoah, and four-fifths shall be yours as seed for the fields and as food for you…”. (Genesis 47:20-21, 24)

This forced transfer of the rural population in Egypt can be viewed in two ways. One interpretation, which is reflected in the Masoretic Text, is that Joseph had instituted the nationalization of all the farmland with the goal of keeping everyone fed. Other versions with slightly variant wording suggest a very different meaning; that Joseph made the population into slaves. (See The Jewish Study Bible, ed. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, ftnt. to 47:21 at p. 94)

Nahmanides leans toward the former interpretation; that Joseph was nationalizing farmland and creating public storage as a means to preventing hoarding and private profiteering. Food could be rationed in a way to ensure that everyone was fed. (Ramban-Nachmanides: Commentary on the Torah Genesis, trans. and annotated Rabbi C. Chavel, at pp. 566-567)

Ellen Davis observes that, “Joseph has consolidated under his control all the grain supplies in Egypt; as the famine deepens he will acquire for Pharoah all the land that formerly belonged to peasants along with their labor…His personal story has come full circle from the day when he was thrown in the pit and sold as a slave bound for Egypt.” (Opening Israel’s Scriptures at p. 37).  For Davis the Torah here represents the disturbing realism of the day, that slavery was endemic to the ancient world. (Ibid.)

Gunther Plaut also requires that Joseph’s actions be understood within the context of time and place and the country’s complex political and economic development. (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, ed. W. Gunther Plaut, at p. 298). However, he has a far more benevolent perspective toward Joseph’s conduct than Davis. He focuses on the primary message we have always gleaned from the story: that Joseph saved the multitudes from starvation. Further informing Plaut’s view is the way in which Joseph’s conduct has been used as an antisemitic polemic. (As an aside one concern I always have regarding antisemitism is that it obstructs are ability to freely critique our conduct with the goal of self-improvement.)

Also tempering our view of Joseph in demonizing his conduct while in power is to see Joseph the human being. Ora Horn Prouser provides guidance for how we can view Joseph’s conduct by seeing it within the context of his giftedness. (Esau’s Blessing: How the Bible embraces those with Special Needs, Ora Horn Prouser pgs. 45-55). Behind all of our stories and our leaders are real human beings with all the imperfections that go into being us.

I will admit to taking a somewhat harsh view of Joseph’s conduct. Notwithstanding the many challenges in his life – slavery, imprisonment – or what drives him toward power, his ambition seems pretty unbridled. Maybe more to the point, the ensuing result – i.e., our own enslavement at the hands of the Pharoah who did not know Joseph – seems connected to Joseph’s creation of debt servitude as a means to fight the famine.

One could view the political/economic choices made by Joseph as a socialism vs. capitalism debate – i.e., the nationalization of farmland and public storage as socialism, or turning the population into slaves as capitalism. My takeaway from Joseph’s plan is more about the person in power than the political/economic system. “The image of Moses the liberator of slaves is more compelling, but we must not overlook this disconcerting portrait of Joseph… the concentration of power always has a deleterious effect on the community…” (Davis at p. 37). The concentration of power and the concentration of money in the hands of a few will always overcome any good intentions of those in power.

Rabbi Doug Alpert (AJR ’12) is the rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami-Kansas City’s urban, progressive synagogue. He is the immediate past president of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Kansas City as well as Missouri Healthcare for All.