4 Jan 2020

by Robert Freudenthal

This week’s parsha, Vayigash, is absolutely packed full of intriguing family drama and narrative twists and turns.  Joseph is now in Egypt and has a powerful position in the Egyptian government. At the beginning of the parsha, his brothers ask him for help, and still do not know that the official they asking help from is, in fact, Joseph.  The brothers had assumed that Joseph was no longer alive, after they had sold him into slavery so many years previously. Eventually, Joseph forgives his brothers when one of them, Judah, demonstrates immense self-sacrifice as he offers to be imprisoned instead of his younger brother Benjamin – which is the opposite action that he had taken when Joseph was originally sold into slavery all the years previously.

Joseph, so moved by his brother’s self-sacrifice, finally reveals his identity to his long-lost brothers, which leads to an outpouring of emotion and tears from the brothers.  The brothers then return to Canaan, where there is a famine, in order to bring their father Jacob to Egypt to join the family. Jacob, of course, is shocked, surprised and overwhelmed to hear that Joseph, he had thought had died many years previously, is still alive, and then travels back with his sons to meet again with his favoured son Joseph.

There is so much narrative material, and high family drama in this parsha, but I would also like us to focus on the last few verses of the parsha, which to me is much less familiar than the personal story of Joseph, and is also, in some ways, quite shocking as it runs counter to the familiar narrative of the Israelites being oppressed in Egypt, and suggests almost the opposite.

In this part of the parsha, we return to the story of the famine.  The famine is still raging in Egypt, and Joseph still controls the grain that he had previously stockpiled.  The Egyptians have already spent all their silver, which Joseph had collected on behalf of Pharoah. The Egyptians, now without silver, asked for food, which Joseph gave but only in exchange for their livestock – their sheep, cattle and donkeys.

This food kept the Egyptians alive for a year, but then when the food ran out they returned to Joseph, but this time with no money, and no animals.  Joseph then gave the Egyptians food in turn for their land, which he collected on behalf of Pharoah. When this food ran out, the now destitute, penniless and landless Egyptians had little else to offer other than their freedom, and so Joseph made them serfs, on behalf of Pharoah, and  insisted that one-fifth of what they grow on the land they no longer own is given to the Pharoah.

So what do we make of this?  The Rabinnic tradition of viewing the Israelites in the ‘best possible light’ would suggest that Joseph had come up with a solution to the Egyptian’s needs and helped them …. However this doesn’t quite ring true for me.  After all, Joseph had predicted the famine was going to continue, and each solution he offered the Egyptians was temporary and not sustainable, and he knew that they were likely to return in an even more desperate situation, until they were so desperate, and had such limited resources, that the Egyptians had to compromise their freedom and sell themselves into serfdom.

As a result of Joseph’s actions, the Pharoah was able to use the environmental catastrophe of the famine to centralise control of the land, money, livestock, and compromise the freedom of the Egyptians.  One would normally expect that if a ruler is unable to meet the basic needs of those that they are responsible for, that their rule may be weakened – however this is the opposite for the Pharoah who essentially, via Joseph, used the desperation caused by the famine, as a tool for him to consolidate and increase his power.  That power will then be used, by a future Pharoah “who did not know Joseph” to enslave the Israelites.

Of course, from Joseph’s perspective, his position was so secure with the Pharoah of his time that it would have been unthinkable to him that the Pharoah’s power, which he strengthened and consolidated, would later be used to enslave the Israelites.  Presumably, Joseph felt that the strength and trust of his relationship with Pharoah was enough to safeguard against him and the Israelites being on the wrong end of his oppressive power.

Whilst I think we should be exceedingly cautious in making parallels between this story and our current political situation in the UK, it is interesting to think that we live in a country which prides itself on not having a written constitution and behaviour of politicians and the royal family depending on ‘unwritten norms and traditions’ – whilst in this story from the Torah, the expected behaviour and relationships were discarded as soon as there was a Pharoah that “did not know Joseph”, which showed how weak the Israelite position was in Egypt, even when it seemed that they were doing well.  I wonder if this can teach us something about the strength of our own “informal/unwritten constitution”.

I would also like to consider the relationship between the Israelites and the Egyptians.  In some ways the Egyptians are the ultimate ‘other’ in Jewish practice. So much of our liturgy and ritual is based on “remembering we were once slaves in Egypt”, and for many Jews this ritual memory of having been slaves is a motivator for social action and acts of solidarity with people who are oppressed today.  But I wonder whether this text invites us to think that perhaps our relationship with Egypt and Egyptians is closer than we might think – uncomfortably close.

 After all, there are other ‘othered groups’ in the Torah that perhaps the Israelites are more in opposition with.  For example, the Amalekites are considered to be the ultimate enemy, and it is a commandment to “blot out the name of Amalek”, and there is a tradition of considering subsequent oppressors, such as Haman in the Purim story, as descended from Amalekites.  The Egyptians are never treated in quite this way.

Egypt is referred to in various biblical texts as the “house of bondage” – but perhaps it was not just a “house of bondage” for the Israelites, but for the Egyptians as well.  The Egypt of the Torah was an oppressive place for Israelites and Egyptians, and both Egyptians and Israelites were oppressed, albeit to different extents.  In the Exodus story some Egyptians joined the Israelites in their flight from Egypt and from slavery – for these Egyptians, their home country was very much an oppressive place.

There is a Hasidic story, from Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidism, in which an old rabbi asks his pupils how they could tell when the night has ended and the day has begun.

“could it be” asked one of the students “when you can see an animal in the distance and cannot tell whether it’s a sheep or a dog?”

“No,” answered the rabbi.

Another asked “is it when you can look at a tree in the distance and cannot tell whether it’s a fig tree or a peach tree?”

“No,” answered the rabbi

“then when is it?” the pupils demanded

“it is when you can look on the face of any man or woman and cannot see that it is your sister or brother.  Because if you cannot see this, it is still night”

For me, this is an absolutely key principle of our common humanity.  The Egyptians may have been distinct from the Israelites, and had a very different role in our Torah/Bible stories, but as we can see from this parsha, they also suffered and also had their freedom compromised, in part by the decisions taken by Joseph.

I feel that a tradition based upon remembering when we were enslaved, and when we were oppressed, is a powerful collective story that invites us to continue to fight against oppression wherever we see it.  But just as the memory of slavery, and more recent oppression of jews is absolutely vital to talk about, to keep alive, to motivate us to take action, this parsha reminds us that the fate of the Egyptians was absolutely wrapped up with the fate of the Israelites, and that as soon as freedom can be compromised and sold, as it was in this parsha, we are only a few steps away from becoming Egyptian oppressors ourselves.

Shabbat shalom!