Daniel G. Saunders

Vayigash: Yosef’s Mistake

At the end of this week’s sedra is a strange passage that seems out of place. After describing the descent of Yaakov (Jacob) and the Children of Israel to the land of Egypt and Yosef’s (Joseph’s) supporting of them during the famine, the Torah turns to the Egyptian masses and their lives during the famine. At first, they buy food from Yosef’s store of grain in exchange for silver. When that is gone, they sell their livestock. Finally, they have nothing to sell except their land and their selves as slaves to Pharaoh.

One can see this as somewhat similar to the seventeenth century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ view of the state. Hobbes, who lived through the social collapse of the English Civil Wars, thought that the natural state of mankind was conflict. People therefore handed over all their independence to a strong leader who would maintain order. In our sedra, it is not violence, but the need for food that makes the Egyptians hand over their property and lives to Pharaoh.

An example of this sort of society was medieval feudalism.  In medieval society, everyone owed loyalty to someone higher up the social chain: the serf to the knight, the knight to the lord and the lord to the king. The king owed his loyalty to God. As loyalty passed up the chain, protection against violence passed down it, God protecting the king, the king protecting the lords and so on.

We could even suggest that Yosef attempted to create a society like this for a religious reason. If the feudal mindset understood society to be a chain that culminated in a single God, perhaps Yosef hoped that making Egyptians dependent on Pharaoh would introduce a kind of monotheism into Egyptian society, so that, instead of seeing Pharaoh as a divine being, the people would worship the God Who Pharaoh relied on. However, if this was Yosef’s intention, his plan did not succeed. Egypt remained pagan.[1] In fact, the plan foreshadows elements of the enslavement of the Israelites by the Egyptians in Sefer Shemot (The Book of Exodus), perhaps hinting that Yosef must take some of the blame for that because he strengthened the institution of slavery in Egypt.

Rabbi Lord Sacks z”tzl suggests several reasons why Yosef may have done this and why the Torah tells us about it:

It may be that the Torah intends no criticism of Joseph whatsoever. He was acting loyally to Pharaoh and judiciously to Egypt as a whole. Or it may be that there is an implied criticism of his character. As a child, he dreamt of power; as an adult he exercised it; but Judaism is critical of power and those who seek it. Another possibility: the Torah is warning us of the hazards and obscurities of politics. A policy that seems wise in one generation discloses itself as dangerous in the next. Or perhaps Leon Kass is right when he says, “Joseph’s sagacity is technical and managerial, not moral and political. He is long on forethought and planning but short on understanding the souls of men.”[2]

An alternative understanding might be provided by the Rebbes of Izbitz-Radyn in nineteenth century Poland as understood by Batya Hefter. She argues that they used an approach that is primarily psychological, albeit expressed in kabbalistic language, to present Yosef as a person who served God through din, justice. [3] Din represents the concepts of strict justice, boundaries and responsibility. We might say that to Yosef, justice demanded that every gift is paid for and if a person has no means to pay, he has to work off the debt with his labour, as a slave. There is literally no such thing as a free lunch.

Anyone who has had experience with modern state bureaucracy, welfare or socialised healthcare organisations can understand this. Bureaucracies, even when trying to help a person, are forced to be dispassionate, even callous, to treat everyone as a number, not a person. It is the only way to support an entire population and to ensure that everyone receives the same level of care and that there is no favouritism, even if it is dehumanising.

However, this is not an approach that Judaism feels comfortable with. Ultimately, the kingship, the government of the ancient Israelite state, went to the tribe of Yehudah (Judah), not Yosef, a source of much discontent and eventually rebellion. Yehudah represents an approach to life that is more rooted in penitence and forgiveness. King David, the first king of Yehudah, is the paragon of teshuvah, repentance, as vocalised in Tehillim (Psalms). Perhaps this provided flexibility in the administration of government, allowing it to understand and adapt to the weaknesses of human beings rather than to impose on them.

With this story, far from interrupting the narrative of Yosef and his family with an unrelated matter, the Torah is already setting the stage for the drama of the early chapters of Shemot and, indeed, much of the rest of Tanakh which revolves around the question of how to construct a state and a society that is stable and powerful, but which also respects the human being created in the image of God.

[1] Some people see the Pharaoh of the Yosef story as Akhenaten, the Pharaoh who tried to convert Egypt to monotheism, or at least monolatrism (believing in many gods, but only worshiping one). There may be some truth in this, but Akhenaten’s religious reforms did not outlive his life. They had no lasting effect on Egyptian society.

[2] Rabbi Lord Sacks, Joseph and the Risks of Power

[3] Batya Hefter, An Ishbitz-Radyn Reading of the Joseph Narrative: The Light of Reason and the Flaw of Perfection

About the Author
Daniel Saunders is an office administrator, proofreader and copy editor living in London with his wife. He has a BA in Modern History from the University of Oxford and an MA in Library and Information Management.
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