Joseph, the star of the last 14 chapters of Genesis, is called Yosef Hatzadik, “Joseph the Righteous.” However, the political story buried at the end of the parasha, after the moving family reconciliation, makes him out to be a rasha’, a wicked ruler. But there is an antidote to his viciously oppressive policies, and it represents precisely the sort of corrective that we need in the crises we face now.
Joseph rose to power in Egypt because of his skill at dream interpretation. Remember? Pharaoh dreamed of cows and stalks, and Joseph interpreted them as signifying seven fat years of abundance followed by seven lean ones of drought and famine (Gen. 41). Joseph then goes one further and becomes development consultant to the crown:
Let Pharaoh …appoint overseers over the land, and organize the land of Egypt in the seven years of plenty. And let them gather all the food …to be stored in the cities. …so that the land may not perish in the famine (Gen 41:34-36).
Foresight and good management, right? But after the seven good years, where surplus yields are collected by the government overseen by Joseph, come the lean years, where the people’s food is sold back to them. It doesn’t seem to raise an eyebrow that widespread disaster relief is not freely given, that the vast stores collected precisely for this purpose are monetized, and that the royals engage in the meanest form of profiteering.
Nor is there transparency in this hierarchical system of command and control: Joseph and Pharaoh are privy to the divine prognostication that has allowed them to corner the grain markets, and make ruthless use of their monopoly. The crucial information of the changing availability of grain has been withheld from the citizens, preventing them from making rationally strategic economic decisions.
Space does not permit quoting in full the complete dismantlement of Egyptian society that is the result of Joseph’s shrewdness: see Gen. 47:13-26. But it is catastrophic and total. First, all the money, the hard-earned savings of the people, runs out, so they pay with their livestock. After that, with nothing left, they enter into complete subjugation — “Buy us and our land for bread” (47:19) — allowing for the complete nationalization of the land, the removal of rural populations, and a grain tax in perpetuity. The oppressiveness of this plan did not escape traditional commentators – see e.g., Rashbam on 47:21, where Joseph’s actions are compared to those of the evil conqueror Sennacharib (I’m indebted for much of this analysis to Rabbi Micha Odenheimer and his essay “A Jewish Response to Globalization” (which first appeared in Eretz Acheret magazine, and can be found in Righteous Indignation: a Jewish Call for Justice, edited by Or Rose, Jo Ellen Green Keiser, and Margie Klein, Jewish Lights, 2008)).
Is it any wonder that this is the society that later on enslaved the Israelites? In fact, their slavery was intimately bound up with the regime of accumulation that so characterized post-Joseph Egypt: according to the biblical narrative, it was not the pyramids that Israelites built, but the great store cities of Pithom and Raamses (Ex. 1:11).
Thus the Bible documents the first boom and bust business cycle — and what happens when a canny tycoon is given both insider info and the keys to the kingdom. While the resulting hyper-feudal system is far from capitalism, the regime of amassing and hoarding is a precursor of Karl Marx’s famous dictum: “Accumulate, accumulate! This is Moses and the Prophets!” (Capital, vol. 1). Or since both capital and the means of production were appropriated here, shall we say: ‘This is Joseph and the Pharaohs?’
This is the original “seven-year plan” connected to agricultural fertility, property regime, and abundance and scarcity. This is what the Torah’s vision of a compassionate society is meant to negate. But before we can understand that other vision of an established, sustainable society, with its alternative idea of a seven-year cycle, there is an important intermediate link, a transitional period from the House of Bondage to the Land of Milk and Honey.
What does it mean “to leave Egypt?” This “Egypt” isn’t a place, it’s a system of beliefs, a conceptual framework, a paradigm. For Israel to leave “this Egypt,” they need a paradigm shift. What can lead to a paradigm shift among this newly liberated people, who has only known slavery and dependence, and a single response to fear and scarcity: stockpile, hoard, concentrate and oppress? What would represent and symbolize the opposite: anti-accumulation, anti-control, anti-Egypt?
It would have to change the experience of their day-to-day sustenance, of what it is and how it is gotten. Food would have to be a gift freely given, enjoyed equally by all, that can’t be stockpiled or owned, or even bought and sold. It must exist to fulfill need, not greed. This sounds like it would take a miracle – like manna from heaven.
And indeed, it is that miraculous, mythical manna that is the contradiction to Egypt and all it represents. Manna is given by God to feed the people in the desert (Exodus 16). It falls every day, and crucially, it can’t be hoarded: neither over-collected (v. 17-18), nor stored (v. 19-20). Everybody gets exactly what they need, no more no less, and those who don’t trust the system, and try to salt some away get only stench and maggots. As Odenheimer observes, gathering manna is implicitly contrasted with the brick-making of slavery, each with their daily quota (devar yom beyomo). For slavery, the daily quota was a minimum to be produced for the overlords, for the manna, the daily portion is a maximum, limiting personal acquisition and consumption.
A double portion is only given on Friday, to obviate work on Shabbat. “Setting aside” is allowed for the sake of spiritual regeneration, but not for amassing wealth. This linkage of manna and Shabbat is highly significant in the understanding of the deeper narrative context of the ultimate seven-year cycle, the idea of shemitah: the year of non-cultivation, collectivization of food resources and release from debts.
When did the manna end? When the Israelites tasted of the bounty of the Land of Israel: “On that same day when they ate of the produce of the land, the manna ceased. The Israelites got no more manna; that year they ate of the yield of the land of Canaan” (Joshua 5:12).
And that is exactly when the shemitah cycle began. Leviticus 25 states explicitly that immediately upon entering the land, the Israelite nation is meant to observe shemitah: “When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a sabbath of the Lord” (25:2). Putting the two together, you get a whole nation going straight from being manna-eaters to being shemitah-observers.
What is shemitah? In one sense, it is a continuation of the manna paradigm for one year every seven. If you are forbidden from tilling the land and commercializing what grows of itself, then you transition into a gatherer economy. With the laws against stockpiling shemitah produce, even fencing in property, not to mention forgiving loans and getting people out of debt – and you get a year-long anti-Egypt, that the manna was only a foretaste of. In Egypt the regime centralized production and distribution and sunk people hopelessly into debt – the shemitah paradigm does the exact opposite on all counts.
There is a key insight that connects the weekly Shabbat cycle with the seven-yearly shemitah cycle. Each of them is a cycle, and so it’s hard to know where the loop begins. We think that Shabbat comes at the end of the cycle: work all week, and then rest up to go back to the daily grind. The Western economical-rational approach says that rest is merely a means for the sake of the end of productive labor.
That would be thinking like an Egyptian, and significantly, it is false. A wonderful midrash (B. Sanhedrin 38a) asks the simple question: why was Adam created last in the order of creation? One answer is so that they enter immediately into a mitzvah, Shabbat. But why go directly into Shabbat rest? Their batteries were fresh from the divine shop, they needed no recharging.
Shabbat, then, is not a means to be able to work more productively, but a spiritual ideal to be obtained. Shabbat is not the end of the week, but its ends. This stands the “work/life balance” on its head. It implies “being” over “doing,” and certainly over “having.” And that is the connection with shemitah, for as we saw above, the Land gets its Shabbat immediately upon the entrance of the Israelites. They do not need to work it for six years first. Just like Shabbat, shemitah begins the cycle, and is its end goal.
The true objective of the Exodus, the ultimate anti-Egypt, the core social-economic teaching of the Jewish tradition is that a society based on Jewish ethics can’t tolerate endless accumulation and the concentration of wealth in a few hands, with a growing social gap to the grave detriment of large parts of the population.
As Odenheimer notes:
Seen in the light of the narrative arc stretching from Eden to the manna, the meaning and direction of the economic justice legislation of the Torah becomes more readily apparent. The Torah’s purpose is to create an anti-Egypt, in which exploitation is not allowed free reign because land, wealth, and the means of production have not been concentrated in the hands of the few. (Odenheimer, op. cit.).
The values and practicalities that shemitah symbolizes and embodies are not a socialist agenda, but a way to allow all to retain an equal footing and to partake of a society of small free-holders responsible to society and to one another.
In her Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible, biblical scholar Ellen Davis frames the contemporary challenge:
Our own social world is clearly discontinuous with that of ancient Israel in multiple ways: economic organization under the domination of multinational corporations rather than under kings and empires, the extent of our technological domination of natural systems and the corresponding extent of their degradation (even though the ancients themselves experienced significant ecological degradation), the size of the human population, and the growing predominance of cities worldwide. Writing about the Bible as a resource for economic ethics, Norman Gottwald (The Hebrew Bible in Its Social World and in Ours) aptly observes “So we are left with the logically perplexing but morally empowering paradox that the Bible is both grossly irrelevant in direct application to current economic problems and incredibly relevant in vision and principle for grasping opportunities and obligations to make the whole earth and its bounty serve the welfare of the whole human family.”
Our globalized world, with its widening social gaps, more wealth concentrated in fewer hands, accompanied by grinding poverty, as well as fanatic “accumulationism,” which we call consumer culture, is looking more and like that Egypt every day.
Rightly understood, the values of Shabbat and shemitah, with their deep critiques of our society and economy, are truly subversive. In the words of Rabbi Amichai Lau Lavie, implementing them on a large scale would truly be an act of Shabbatage.
Note: This essay has been inspired in part by teachings of many, in particular, study with Rabbis Nina Beth Cardin and Micha Odenheimer.