Parashat Vayigash – Between Saving and Enslaving

וַיֵּשֶׁב יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם בְּאֶרֶץ גֹּשֶׁן


Parashat Vayigash closes the story of Yosef and his brothers with the descent of Yaakov and all of his family to Egypt where he is united with Yosef. However, before the story of Yaakov’s blessings can begin, the Torah takes an aside to describe in detail the process of Yosef providing food for the people of Egypt runs out, selling it to them first for their animals, then for their land and their freedom (Bereishit 47:12-27). This story seems a little out of place, but it in fact serves to provide important details about Yosef’s place in the larger context of his rise to power in Paroah’s administration and the descent of his family to Egypt. Yosef is the hero of the story and thus this passage tells the reader a good deal about him. However, if we look beyond the immediate context to the bigger picture of the entirety of the Torah, the story begins to look somewhat different. The social laws and practices of Sefer Devarim would seem to be at odds with much of Yosef’s enactments, casting the passage from Bereishit 47 in a rather negative light. Similarly, the story of Yosef’s enslavement of the Egyptians sets the stage for the slavery of the Israelites at the beginning of Sefer Shemot. This bigger picture raises important questions not only about how we view Yosef’s actions, but also how we view the role of the Israelites, who play a passive but distinct role in the passage from Bereishit 47.

Bereishit 47:12-27 discusses in detail the way that Yosef feeds and sustains the people of Egypt. Initially they pay for the food he gives them, then when they run out of money they pay him with their livestock. When their livestock are inevitably all sold, they come to Yosef and offer to exchange their land and their freedom for food. Yosef accepts and tells them that, as servants of Paroah, they will receive seed to plant and will be responsible to give 1/5 of their produce to Paroah. The only exceptions to this story are the priests of Egypt, who seem to have been required to pay with money and livestock for their food, but by the decree of Paroah are allowed to keep their lands and their freedom.

In terms of how this story fits into the context of the Yosef stories, it seems decidedly positive. It not only serves to confirm the value of Yosef’s interpretation and suggestion from Bereishit 42:25-36, but it also confirms that Yosef is in fact the wise and understanding man (42:33, 39), the man filled with the spirit of ‘א (42:38), that Paroah needed to save Egypt. The text also serves to demonstrate his grateful loyalty to Paroah, certainly a positive trait, emphasizing that anything Yosef acquired was brought directly to Paroah (47:14, 20, 23-25).It further put him in position to position his family in the best part of the land and exempt them from needing to buy grain. Perhaps most significantly, it is a third manifestation of the way Yosef is a source of blessing for those around him, with the first two being Potiphar (Bereishit 39) and the head of the jail (Bereishit 40). This parallels Yaakov’s experience in Lavan’s house (Bereishit 30), and both are part of the larger scheme of the covenantal blessings from ‘א to his chosen family, who are told that they will be a blessing to the nations of the world (Bereishit 12:2-3, 26:4, 28:14, etc.). Thus this passage serves to demonstrate both the human values of loyalty and wisdom that Yosef possesses, but also the divine favor he is graced with as an interpreter of dreams and a source of blessing.

However, when looking out to the rest of the Torah, these positive aspects are somewhat overshadowed by some problematic perspectives of Yosef’s actions. The fifteenth chapter of Sefer Devarim focuses on the same issues dealt with in Bereishit 47:12-27, namely, the interplay between debtors, creditors, and the land they live on[1]. The chapter opens with the law of the Shemitah, which among other requirements mandates the release of all debts. This is immediately followed by the command, perhaps implied by the laws of Shemitah, to lend money to those in need. Thus where Yosef required people to give up even their freedom and their land in order to get the food they needed to live, Devarim demands that the Israelites lend money to those in need, even knowing that they might not be able to demand the repayment of the loan. Moreover, Devarim 15:12-18 makes it clear that any enslavement should only last six years, whereas Bereishit 47:26 would seem to indicate that the slavery of the Egyptian had no specified end date. Thus while Yosef’s plan saved Egypt in the short term, it would seem to fall well short of the Torah’s normative requirements[2].

Looking at the more practical outcomes of Bereishit 47:12-27, as opposed to theoretical comparisons to Devarim, Sefer Shemot would seem to indicate that the long-term effects of Yosef enslaving the Egyptians are very negative. Sefer Shemot begins with a list of the children of Yaakov who descended to Israel (Shemot 1:1-6), very reminiscent of the one that precedes Bereishit 47:12-27. This is immediately followed by a second parallel to the passage from Bereishit 47, “And the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them” (Shemot 1:7). Bereishit 47:27 says, “And Israel dwelt in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen; and they held their possessions therein, and were fruitful, and multiplied exceedingly,” which not only parallels the language of Shemot 1:7 (“fruitful,” “multiply”), but the juxtaposition of 47:27 at the end of the passage contrasts starkly with the impoverished state of the Egyptians in the rest of the passage, and Shemot 1:7-11 seems to indicate that this wealthy state of the Israelites created a jealousy in the Egyptians that led them to oppress the Israelites. On a more practical level, Yosef’s enactments are likely what make the enslavement of the Israelites possible. By the end of Bereishit 47:12-27, slavery is a nationwide institution in Egypt. All of the citizens are slaves of Paroah. Thus when Paroah suggests the enslavement of a full sector of the society, it’s not surprising. In fact, if you assume that most of the population is still enslaved at that point, it’s mostly surprising that Paroah didn’t enslave the Israelites earlier. And in terms of turning the Egyptians against the Israelites, this would have been made easier by the fact that Paroah could point out that they had originally been enslaved by an Israelite. Thus while Yosef plan may have saved Egypt and his family, it also set the stage for his descendants, and those of his brothers, to be enslaved.

Yosef’s actions are without a doubt positive in terms of their immediate context in the Torah. He created a plan that ensured not only the survival of all of Egypt but also the survival and wellbeing of his entire family. However, Sefer Bereishit does not exist in a vacuum[3]. Holding the story of Yosef’s saving Egypt against the backdrops of Sefer Devarim and Sefer Shemot leads to a comparison that is decidedly less positive. Yosef plan may have saved Egypt, but it did so in a manner that goes directly against the spirit, and perhaps the letter, of the laws of Devarim. Sharpening the point, the rationale given for these laws is that because Egyptian society and slavery are harsh and oppressive, Israelite society shouldn’t be. Moreover the slavery of the Israelites in Egypt, a slavery so harsh that it led to countless laws requiring good treatment of those in a position of weakness, was only possible because of the way Yosef enslaved the Egyptians. It’s hard to say Yosef should have done something different, as he did not have total freedom, he was subordinate to Paroah after all, and his plan seems to have solved all the immediate problems quite well. However, how we evaluate his actions should take the rest of the Torah into account. Moreover, how we understand the position of Yosef’s family during this whole story should take this into account. The torah is rather silent about them, saying only that they dwelled in Goshen, and that they multiplied rapidly. But what did they think about Yosef’s enslavement of the Egyptians. It certainly put them in a good position, and it seemed to have the divine imprimatur, so perhaps they felt that what Yosef had done was good. Or, looking beyond their immediate historical context, they may have realized the moral and societal implications of Yosef’s plan and thought bad of it. We can’t really know what they thought, but based on the rest of the Torah we can, perhaps, suggest what they ought to have felt. They didn’t live in a vacuum, and thus they ought to have taken the suffering of their fellow residents of Egypt into account. Things that are bad for part of society are likely bad for the rest of it, and even when they aren’t, immoral actions should be rejected, even when they don’t affect a group specifically. We don’t get to decide that because our own little enclave within the larger society is unaffected, we can ignore injustice on the larger scale. We have an obligation to speak up against oppression, to make our voices heard in the name of justice. Oppression in one part of society will likely become oppression in all of it, so minimally on a practical level we cannot ignore the cries the others in the world. But on a moral level, we should not be able to turn a blind eye, to ignore the evil we see.

[1] Vayikra 25 takes a different approach to these issues, with more explicit concern shown for ‘א’s ownership, and that would yield a slightly different result if compared to Bereishit 47:12-27. However, it would likely still be negative, and the comparison to Devarim 15 is enough for our purposes in any case.

[2] Another important law that Bereishit 47:12-27 violates is the Torah’s injunction that priests should not have land of their own (Devarim 18:1). However, a fuller examination of this would go beyond the scope of this composition, and is the work of Paroah, not Yosef, anyway.

[3] Alan Dershowitz has written a book, “The Genesis of Justice”, which argues that narratives of Sefer Bereishit serve as the basis for many of the later laws of the Torah.

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