Joseph Stallin’?: Vayigash 2018

by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Pre-Game Chatter: Do you have a particular political leaning? Do you think your philosophy — be it liberal, conservative, or middle-of-the-road — should be applied to every society, or do different societies need different approaches to running their respective governments? Can we apply modern political ideas to stories of ancient communities?

As Joseph wields his power over Egypt during seven years of famine, his strategy for keeping the people fed is bold, and perhaps controversial:

The Pitch: “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, and Joseph gave them bread in exchange for the horses, for the stocks of sheep and cattle, and the asses; thus he provided them with bread that year in exchange for all their livestock. … And they said, ‘You have saved our lives! We are grateful to my lord, and we shall be serfs to Pharaoh.’” – Genesis 47:16-17, 25

Swing #1: “We have here the first example of land nationalisation or as a contemporary writer expresses it (‘State Communism,’ Dr. Israel Eldad: Hegyonot Ha-mikra), control, centralisation of food supply, and equal distribution accompanied by the nationalisation of private property, first of money, then cattle, and finally, land. Henceforth all the lessees of Pharaoh’s lands pay him ‘the state’ ground rent, and live on the residue.” – Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Bereshit – Genesis

Swing #2: “While there is no way to cultivate identity without making distinctions, the danger of distinctions is that they may breed contempt for others. That disdain confronted our ancestors when they moved into ancient Egypt, where Joseph reported to his brothers that ‘all shepherds are abhorrent to Egyptians.’  … While we can accept the fact of their scorn, Joseph never explains why the shepherds were the objects of Egyptian hatred. … [A] possible reading of Joseph’s warning is that Joseph sees that his brothers are now wealthy because of his gifts. Wealth often brings unexpected tensions. Worried that his brothers might feel the pressures of their wealth, and therefore begin to quarrel about how they live together, Joseph urges his brothers not to allow money to divide them.” – Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, The Bedside Torah

Swing #3: “The events of this section are not attested historically in Egyptian records. Perhaps they have been included here to confirm Yosef’s stature as Rescuer, not only of his family but of all Egypt as well. The description of Yosef’s power is now complete: just as the brothers were ready to ‘become my lord’s servants’ (Genesis 44:9), so now are the Egyptians (47:25). Some have seen the episode as an ironic reversal of what is to come in Exodus, with the Egyptians’ enslavement of the Israelites; if so, this interlude may have been an amusing one to ancient Israelite audiences.” – Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses

Late-Inning Questions: Are Joseph’s actions ruthless, wise, or both? What does this episode say about his character? Can we admire difficult decisions even if they are unfair to some people?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: If you haven’t already done so, check out our CinEmanu-El video and let me know other topics you’d like to see on the screen. One way to do that is to take our Adult Education survey.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of political stances, earlier this year, the Atlanta Braves co-hosted a campaign event for Brian Kemp, the Republican gubernatorial candidate in Georgia. The Braves, who said they would also make a contribution to Kemp’s Democratic opponent, Stacey Abrams, claimed that this was not a political endorsement. Is it wise for sports franchises to align themselves with political candidates? What are the potential rewards and risks of doing so?

Shabbat Shalom!