Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, December 23, 2017
Rabbi Michael Friedland
Sometimes the news events in a given week and the content of the weekly Torah portion are so closely linked that one wonders if it is a coincidence or the hidden hand of the Divine. That is, God offering rabbis a gift in order to write a last minute Davar Torah.
This week the Congress passed the most regressive tax reform package in US history. It rewards corporations, many of which are already awash in cash, and the financial elite of this nation, who have seen their stock portfolios soar as the market’s bull run has continued unabated, with huge tax cuts. Those who do not earn a wage but have the wherewithal to allow their money make money for them, benefit far more than those who work for a salary. The middle class and the poor receive small and temporary relief, if they receive relief at all. If you live in a high tax state, New York, or like my brother in Chicago, this plan may raise a person’s taxes. And to make these limited benefits even possible, Congress, led by the fiscal conservatives, have blown up our deficit by a trillion and a half dollars. Some leaders behind this tax reform have been quite open that the end game of this is to starve the government so that Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid will have to be scrapped or privatized because the government will be broke.
Now compare this passage from this morning’s parasha: There was no bread in all the world, for the famine was very severe; both the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan languished because of the famine. Joseph gathered in all the money that was to be found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, as payment for the rations that were being procured, and Joseph brought the money into Pharaoh’s palace. And when the money gave out in the land of Egypt and … Canaan, all the Egyptians came to Joseph and said, “Give us bread, lest we die before your very eyes; for the money is gone!” And Joseph said, “Bring your livestock, and I will sell to you against your livestock, if the money is gone.” So they brought their livestock to Joseph, …thus he provided them with bread that year in exchange for all their livestock. And when that year was ended, they came to him the next year and said to him, “… Let us not perish before your eyes, both we and our land. Take us and our land in exchange for bread, and we with our land will be serfs to Pharaoh; provide the seed, that we may live and not die, and that the land may not become a waste.” So Joseph gained possession of all the farm land of Egypt for Pharaoh, … Only the land of the priests he did not take over, for the priests had an allotment from Pharaoh... Then Joseph said to the people, “Whereas this day I have acquired you and your land for Pharaoh, here is seed for you to sow the land. And when harvest comes, you shall give 20% to Pharaoh, and 80% shall be yours as seed for the fields and as food for you and those in your households, and as nourishment for your children.” And they said, “You have saved our lives!
Now the two plans are not exactly the same. But both are regressive, in that they take from the wage earners and give to the very elite, in Egypt’s case – the Pharaoh. And that number 20% stood out to me since that happens to be the new corporate tax rate. In the Torah of course, it is the tax on the serf. Also the priests are exempt from losing their land – they are close to the Pharaoh, they are 1% of their day and are spared the harsh effects of Joseph’s plan. Also, the conclusion of the Torah narrative in which the Egyptians say “You have saved our lives” to Joseph for taking their land and enslaving them is what I believe Paul Ryan expected working Americans to respond as the social welfare state is being dismantled.
What is truly fascinating is how different generations interpret Torah narratives. Because as the Bible scholar Jon Levenson suggests the Torah does not seem to condemn Joseph for creating a feudal system in Egypt. The narrative appears to show Joseph as Egypt’s savior. Some medieval scholars pointed to how gracious and brilliant Joseph is. The people are starving, they need food, they have sold whatever liquid assets they had for food and Joseph instead of allowing famine to destroy Egypt, centralizes the economy and creates a food policy that allows the people to survive.
Ramban, Moses Nachmanides, pointed out that Joseph goes out of his way to keep the people from doing the most desperate acts – When the people offer their land and themselves to be slaves to Pharaoh, Joseph only takes their land. And Joseph is presented as upright, all his efforts are to nationalize land management. He does not take for himself.
Except that by centralizing the economy, it all comes under the control of Pharaoh. And the defenders of Joseph seem to have forgotten that he had insider information. Moshe Pava, head of Yeshiva University’s School of Business, noted that Joseph held on tightly to his knowledge that a seven year famine was coming after the seven years of plenty. “Why did Joseph abandon the policy of full disclosure"? An alternative solution clearly could have been to publicize his forecast and allow the market to solve the problem. Given the information that the seven good years would be followed by seven bad years, a free market could adjust, and, arguably, allocate food more efficiently than Joseph's central planning solution”.
Even some medieval commentators appear to criticize Joseph’s actions: Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, Rashbam, compares Joseph’s actions to the Assyrian King Sennacherib (2 Kings 18:32) by moving the people to centralized cities and away from their ancestral homes. The optimistic explanation would be that food could be more efficiently disbursed. Rashbam, however, explains that Joseph wanted to make sure that the Egyptians could not claim possession of their lands after having sold them (Rashbam to Genesis 47:21).
Rabbi Shai Held wonders if the Torah really is not critical of Joseph’s administration. One cannot help but recognize, he writes “The ironic turns in the text … Brought to Egypt as a slave, Joseph now becomes Egypt’s enslaver….Joseph displays remarkable administrative prowess, but he unleashes forces that eventually end up oppressing and degrading his own people. It is hard to imagine that the Torah makes no moral judgment at all on Joseph’s setting this destructive process in motion.”
Not only that but the Torah itself, when it comes to legislating land management for Israel, commits to rules that are opposed to what Joseph has done.
The Torah rejected political or Temple economies of the Ancient Near East as the Torah forbids landholding on the part of the king or the priestly cult. Priests were to hold residential areas, but neither they nor the king control the means of production in Israel. The Torah establishes new land ethics in the ancient world by promulgating a policy that avoids domination by a few elite of the society, as Israel’s land theory declares God to be the sole owner of the land and fairly distributes it to God’s people according to their needs. Kilnam Cha, a bible professor at Abilene Christian, concludes that in the Joseph story “Genesis neither presents Joseph as a role model to be emulated nor endorses Joseph’s economic policies.”
But of course we are looking at this narrative from our perspective. The Torah, even if it did not see Joseph’s policies as worthy of emulation, may still have been impressed with Joseph’s actions, proud that a ‘Member of the Tribe’ created the economic and land policy that the majority of the ancient world followed. But we look at this narrative and we are embarrassed – why is Joseph embracing policies that will enrich his patron and cause misery to thousands or hundreds of thousands? It is admirable that he is not enriching himself, but he is still promoting this horrid system. And to what purpose? By creating a system in which enslavement is normative, it is not a stretch for Egyptians to turn around and enslave Jews. We have seen this in our history – Jews set up as tax collectors for wealthy Polish noblemen in the Ukraine in the 17th century, or as money lenders in Europe in the Medieval period. They acted in these areas because they had to but in the end the Jewish people were identified with the cruel policies and all Jews suffered for it.
Different eras interpret Torah differently because the social-historical reality we live is not the same. What may have seemed normative or praiseworthy a thousand or two or three thousand years ago, is not normative today. The sanctity and the ability of Torah to remain an eternal guide to our people is that very flexibility. Each generation sees Torah with new eyes. May we learn to appreciate Torah not only with the insights of our ancestors but with clear eyed vision born of our experience, our environment and our reality.