The emotional climax of the Joseph narrative the disclosure of Joseph’s identity to his brothers and their peaceful reunion. But that is not the end of the story. In what some see as an epilogue to the story, Joseph uses his power during the famine he had predicted to claim the land of ordinary Egyptians in the name of the state. Since they’re starving and have run out of money to pay for the food Joseph controls, in desperation they give their land, and indeed their very lives to till it. As a sign of their desperation, they even express gratitude to the Pharaoh for allowing them to live.
“With all the money and animal stocks consigned to my lord, nothing is left at my lord’s disposal save our persons and our farmland. Let us not perish before your eyes, both we and our land. Take us and our land in exchange for the bread, and we and our land will be serfs to Pharaoh. We are grateful to my lord, and we shall be serfs to Pharaoh. (Genesis 47:18-19, 25)
Joseph’s actions were certainly shrewd but were they unethical? Did this man, whom the Talmudic sages call Yosef HaTzadik, Joseph the Righteous One, actually do something that was very much unrighteous? Some commentators certainly think so:
“The insulting point of the story is that Joseph sells back the grain that he first confiscated. There is no justification for what Joseph did. Under the ‘Joseph Plan,’ the civilians were doomed from the start. The ‘Joseph Plan’ is nothing new. Calls for government action to save us from impending economic catastrophes and the supposed inborn self-destructive mechanisms in the private ownership society/capitalism abound everywhere. If Joseph had respected private property, they not only would have survived, they would have prospered. Joseph effectively sent Egypt back to the Stone Age. A once advanced civilization was reduced to slavery in the space of a few years. (Scott Wallace Brians, The Joseph Plan and the Road to Serfdom)
Some commentators even speculate that Joseph’s actions were not only unethical but set the stage for the future enslavement of his own people by establishing the precedent that the state could confiscate people’s lives:
“Joseph averted overwhelming famine and death, but at a price. In some respects, the sociological consequences – landless economic serfdom – are reminiscent of the changes that took place in Britain at the time of the Enclosure Acts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and in modern Mexico among the Mixtec and Zapotec peoples. The net results of Joseph’s actions were not only the avoidance of terrible famine but the centralization of power in a country where it had previously been dispersed, as well as the loss of liberty for most of its inhabitants. Paradoxically, he also set the stage for the creation of a powerful regime which eventually enslaved his own descendants.” (David Ehrenfeld, The Joseph Strategy)
The Joseph narrative opens our eyes to the perils of tyrannical, dictatorial leadership, a theme we will encounter even more boldly in the Book of Exodus. It also opens our eyes to the perils of a society that at best overlooks and at worst crushes those who are struggling to support themselves. Joseph’s plan was unethical not only because he had cornered hungry people, it was immoral because a decent society has an obligation to embrace everyone and lend a helping hand to those who need it the most.
Setting aside the results of the presidential election (I promise not to air my views here), one thing we were reminded of in 2016 is that a great many people in this country are suffering and their pain is often overlooked and ignored by those who have what they need and more. A colleague of mine put it this way:
“There is the suffering of those who watch their trade become obsolete, their work unnecessary, as if they themselves are unnecessary. The suffering of those who cannot support their families or afford a reasonable place to live. And there is the suffering of those who have lost their sense of self-respect and dignity because no matter how hard they try, they cannot make a decent life. Not this year, not last year, not for decades.” (Rabbi Noa Kushner)
So let’s not let apathy or indifference set in this year. Let’s redouble our efforts to reach out to those who have less, who suffer, who need food and clothing and a safe, comfortable place to live. Let’s dedicate ourselves to the most basic lesson of our humanity, that all we have in this world is each other and that we will be judged on how much compassion we offer to those who need it the most.