by Cantor Russ Jayne
(AJNews) – When kids in Hebrew School read the story of Joseph, he looks very good. He saves the lives of many Egyptians by storing grain in the fat years and dispensing it in the lean years, but when an adult reads the same verses, Joseph appears unscrupulous. We ask, “When the hungry people came to him during the years without crops, why was it necessary for them to sell him all their cattle?” Also, “When they come back a second time, did he have to make them sell him all their land and offer themselves to him as slaves?”
As moving as the reunion between Joseph and his brothers at the beginning of Parashat Vayigash is, even so, when I think about how Joseph manipulated and exploited the starving Egyptians, I am deeply troubled. Professor Jon D. Levenson comments in the Oxford Jewish Study Bible, “The cruelty of Joseph’s enslavement of Egypt does not seem to bother the narrator.” It may not bother them, but it bothers me.
Many traditional commentators explain this aspect of the story without judging Joseph. Rashi says that when the people asked Joseph for seed during the lean years, it was a sign that the famine was beginning to abate. Then later, when the Torah says that the entire land belonged to Pharoah because Joseph purchased it for him, Rashi merely comments on a grammatical point. He remains silent with regard to the morality of Joseph’s actions.
In contrast, Nahmanides, a very perceptive Medieval commentator, does seem troubled by Joseph’s exploitation of the Egyptians. He reads several verses closely in order to argue that after buying everything they owned, Joseph behaved kindly towards them. When the people offer themselves and their land to Pharoah in exchange for bread and seed, Joseph takes their land but does not take the people, themselves, as slaves. That is, he negotiates a deal in which they remain as tenant farmers on the land and may keep four-fifths of the yield, turning over only one-fifth to Pharoah. That is surely not the same as becoming slaves, says Nahmanides, even if they are legally bound to keep working the land, and for that reason they showed appreciation and love for Joseph who could have asked for much more but graciously settled for less.
I agree with Nahmanides that these verses do seem to be saying that the terms Joseph offered were not as severe as they could have been, but I still ask, what is this characterization of Joseph coming to teach us? That one may exploit the vulnerable when one is able to do so, as long as one stops a little short of making it as bad as could be?
Professor Nahum Sarna, in his Jewish Publication Society commentary on Genesis, suggests that in order to understand the lessons of the narrative one should not read it separately from the rest of the story. The book of Genesis tells the early history of the Jewish people. It is necessary for the Narrator to point out that Joseph had the interests of the Pharoah at heart, and turned over to him every penny he collected, because this allows the listener to be shocked and outraged when the book of Exodus states in its eighth verse that the new king of Egypt “did not know Joseph.” It is hard to imagine that Joseph could have been forgotten by a later Pharoah. To prepare the reader to grasp fully the horror of the Israelite enslavement in Egypt, it is necessary for the Narrator to show how devoted Joseph was to this Pharoah and hence how ungrateful the later Pharoah was. For the same reason, the Narrator also wishes to distinguish between the way Joseph enslaved the Egyptians and the way the later Pharoah would enslave the Israelites.
The way to read biblical narratives for moral and religious teachings is to look at the bigger picture, the unfolding story of the Israelite people and their long journey to the Promised Land. Only by doing so will we extricate ourselves from the quandary in which a close reading of the text, with adult eyes, sometimes places us.
Cantor Russ Jayne is the Kolbo and spiritual leader of Beth Tzedec Congregation, an egalitarian conservative synagogue in Calgary.