“Joseph’s Intense Economic Policies”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayigash, Judah’s appeal to Joseph to release his brother Benjamin has a powerful impact, causing Joseph to reveal himself to his brothers.

After learning that Joseph is now the viceroy to Pharaoh in Egypt, Joseph’s father, Jacob, and his family journey to Egypt to reunite with their long-lost son and brother.

Parashat Vayigash closes with details of the famine in Egypt and Joseph’s handling of the national crisis.

Soon after their arrival in Egypt, Jacob and his sons are invited to an audience with Pharaoh. At the audience, the Egyptian monarch warmly welcomes Jacob and his sons to Egypt, offering them the best parts of the land. Pharaoh even proposes that the brothers serve as the monarch’s personal shepherds. At the behest of Pharaoh, Joseph settles his family in the best of the land, in the region of Rameses, and sustains them with adequate food.

As the famine intensifies, the Egyptian people became “weary” from hunger. Joseph opens the storehouses of grain that had been collected during the seven years of plenty and sells the food to the hungry Egyptians, undoubtedly, dramatically enriching the royal coffers. However, when the people could no longer pay and again plead for food, Joseph insists that they give up their flocks as payment for food. In return for the bread that Joseph gives the people, he collects all the horses, the flocks of sheep, the herds of cattle and donkeys and all of the peoples’ livestock, nationalizing them as the property of Pharaoh and Royal government.

In the third year, with no money and with no flocks, the people offer all their personal real estate as payment for food, and pledge to serve as Pharaoh’s slaves.

The Torah, in Genesis 47:20 states, וַיִּקֶן יוֹסֵף אֶת כָּל אַדְמַת מִצְרַיִם לְפַרְעֹה, כִּי מָכְרוּ מִצְרַיִם אִישׁ שָׂדֵהוּ, כִּי חָזַק עֲלֵהֶם הָרָעָב, וַתְּהִי הָאָרֶץ לְפַרְעֹה, Thus Joseph acquired all of the land of Egypt for Pharaoh–for every Egyptian sold his field because the famine had overwhelmed them; and the land became Pharaoh’s.

Joseph also resettled the people by cities, from one end of Egypt’s borders to the other. The only citizens exempted from these decrees were the priests, who, in addition, received a special monetary stipend from Pharaoh and retained personal ownership of their lands.

Joseph heightened political instincts are on display as he offers the Egyptians both honey and sting. He first reminds the citizens that he has acquired them and their lands for Pharaoh. He then offers the people seed to plant, a gesture that was considered truly magnanimous by the people. While the Egyptians may keep four parts of the produce they harvest for themselves, they will be required to give a fifth of the harvest to Pharaoh.

The Torah, in Genesis 47:25 records the heartfelt expression of gratitude of the Egyptian people to Joseph, וַיֹּאמְרוּ הֶחֱיִתָנוּ, נִמְצָא חֵן בְּעֵינֵי אֲדֹנִי וְהָיִינוּ עֲבָדִים לְפַרְעֹה, And they said, “You have saved our lives; may we find favor in your eyes, my lord, and we will be servants to Pharaoh.”

The Torah’s description of Joseph’s edicts regarding the land of Egypt and all the property of its citizens, underscores Joseph’s incredible talents as a leader and administrator. Slowly and subtly he dispossesses the people of Egypt from everything they own–their money, their land, their animal stock. He cleverly takes everything from them. Despite their plea to become slaves to Pharaoh, Joseph wisely determines that it is best for them to remain free, in this manner, convincing the people that he is benevolent and truly concerned for their well being! The people shout out with great enthusiasm, הֶחֱיִתָנוּ, “You have given us life!” Despite the fact that Joseph has cleaned them out of everything they possess, they are so grateful to him for keeping them alive.

Some of the commentators suggest that Joseph collected the wealth of Egypt in order to make possible the fulfillment of G-d’s prophecy that when the Israelites will leave Egypt, they will take all of the wealth of Egypt with them. Apparently not only the private wealth will transfer to Jewish ownership, but public wealth as well.

Joseph’s political astuteness is particularly apparent when he avoids upsetting the clergy. Joseph recognizes that if the clergy are kept happy, the people will not rebel. (This is something that the Shah of Iran should have learned from Joseph. Never start with the clergy!)

It is interesting to note how Joseph’s policies play out in future generations. While Joseph is publicly acknowledged as the savior of Egypt by the people because they were grateful to be alive, they were, apparently, inwardly resentful of losing all their possessions. Could it be that they were only too eager to later enslave the Jews because it was the Jewish leader, representing Pharaoh of course, who confiscated all of their wealth? It was the Jew who impoverished them!

On the other hand, the Pharaohs, who should have been most grateful to Joseph because of the wealth Joseph had amassed for them, express no gratitude. Rather than praise Joseph for not only saving the land and the people, and adding untold wealth to their royal coffers, the Torah soon tells us, in Exodus 1:8, וַיָּקָם מֶלֶךְ חָדָשׁ עַל מִצְרָיִם, אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָדַע אֶת יוֹסֵף, A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know of Joseph. He saw the Jewish people as a threat, as a fifth column.

What impact do Joseph’s economic policies have on the people?

The Biblical scholar, W. Gunther Plaut, cites in his notes,

Because of the careful and unemotional accounting of the disenfranchisement of the Egyptian people and its apparent approval of Joseph’s role in it, this section [describing Joseph’s harsh edicts] has been made “a showpiece of anti-Semitic polemic.” Here is the Bible, it has been said, Jewry’s sacred book, and look at the immorality, by its exaltation of Joseph, it obviously endorses.

Plaut responds to these charges by stating that it is incorrect to harshly judge Joseph’s actions by imposing contemporary standards of social and political morality on this story. Joseph’s actions indeed save the multitudes from starvation, which was apparently worth any price to the people, including mortgaging their freedom. People in those days, suggests Plaut, did not really value freedom. And that is perhaps why the land of Egypt was known as “the house of bondage,” not only by Jews, but because the Egyptians failed to appreciate their freedom, or saw their own bondage as a normal condition of life.

Be that as it may, Joseph’s actions on behalf of Pharaoh, apparently, created significant pent-up resentment among the Egyptian people, who later participated in the enslavement of the Hebrews. His contributions to the enrichment of the monarchs were also unappreciated, and his harsh decrees provided much fodder (although unjustified) to many future generations of anti-Semites.

May you be blessed.