Sunday, December 31, 2006

Thoughts on Parashat Miketz/Vayigash

These two parhiyot are so tightly integrated that I wish to treat them together. This year, going through, the whole family saga thing has not much caught my interest. I think its noteworthy that Joseph comes from a place where he recounts a dream he had and is immediately taken to task for its meaning - His family all speak the language of dreams, but in Egypt this ability is not a given. Joseph must interpret dreams for the Eqyptians.

Returning to a theme I wrote on last year, Joseph's assertion that Pharaoh's dreams are one dream is presaged in the following verse

וַיְסַפֵּר פַּרְעֹה לָהֶם אֶת־חֲלֹמוֹ וְאֵין־פּוֹתֵר אוֹתָם לְפַרְעֹה

And Pharaoh recounted to them his dream and none and there was no interpretating them for Pharaoh.

This is easier to understand in Hebrew than it is to render, because the participial form of פתר can mean "interpreter," "interpretation," or "interpretating." I have chosen the last, which is good English only in Appalachia, because it is the only one that does not demand the interpolation of a preposition where there is none in the Hebrew. However, the participle does not concern me. More interesting in this verse is the use of the plural direct object pronoun אותם with the singular referent חלומו. This hints at the single meaning of the multiple dreams.

וַיֹּאמֶר יוֹסֵף אֶל־הָעָם הֵן קָנִיתִי אֶתְכֶם הַיּוֹם וְאֶת־אַדְמַתְכֶם לְפַרְעֹה הֵא־לָכֶם זֶרַע וּזְרַעְתֶּם אֶת־הָאֲדָמָה: וְהָיָה בַּתְּבוּאֹת וּנְתַתֶּם חֲמִישִׁית לְפַרְעֹה וְאַרְבַּע הַיָּדֹת יִהְיֶה לָכֶם לְזֶרַע הַשָּׂדֶה וּלְאָכְלְכֶם וְלַאֲשֶׁר בְּבָתֵּיכֶם וְלֶאֱכֹל לְטַפְּכֶם: וַיֹּאמְרוּ הֶחֱיִתָנוּ נִמְצָא־חֵן בְּעֵינֵי אֲדֹנִי וְהָיִינוּ עֲבָדִים לְפַרְעֹה: וַיָּשֶׂם אֹתָהּ יוֹסֵף לְחֹק עַד־הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה עַל־אַדְמַת מִצְרַיִם לְפַרְעֹה לַחֹמֶשׁ רַק אַדְמַת הַכֹּהֲנִים לְבַדָּם לֹא הָיְתָה לְפַרְעֹה

And Joseph said to the people, "look, today I have purchased you and your land for Pharaoh. Here is seed for you, you shall sow the earth. It shall be in the harvest that you will give 1/5th to Pharaoh and four parts will be for you to sow the field and to eat and satisfy your households and feed your children." And they said "you have caused us to live, we will find grace in your eyes my lord, and we will be slaves to Pharaoh." And Joseph established it as a law until today over the land of Egypt for Pharaoh only the land of the Priests alone was not Pharaoh's.

I find myself troubled by this passage, so this year I decided to wrestle it to the ground to see what blessings it might have to give. The problem I have is this: In Miketz the Egyptians are freeholders. Joseph imposes a 20% tax on them for the purpose of laying up stores against the famine. The famine arrives and Joseph does not disburse the grain to them that they grew, but rather sells it back to them. When they no longer have silver, he buys their means of production for grain, and when they later need food, he buys them, making them sharecroppers on the land. To a contemporary economic and social liberal this seems appalling. Indeed, even Torah itself seems appalled; the institution of sabbatical years and Jubilee seem designed very much as a safeguard against this sort of thing happening in Israel.

So why does this happen? Some sources (Sifrei, Midrash HaGadol - cited in Feinstein) suggest that this transfer of wealth from individuals to Pharaoh, and Pharaoh's absolute ownership of all wealth means that when the Israelites left Egypt with articles belonging to their neighbors, it is in fact Pharaoh, not their neighbors that are being deprived. To my mind this explanation does not satisfy. It seems more indicative of the Rabbi's ethnocentric focus that explicatory of why the enslavement happens at all. Personally, I have wondered if the Israelite slavery could be viewed as a נגד כנגד response to this action of Joseph's. But this too does not satisfy.

Morgan has argued that this is a "just so story;" a legend to explain how a status quo has come to pass. Her proof is "וַיָּשֶׂם אֹתָהּ יוֹסֵף לְחֹק עַד־הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה" with "היום הזה" indicating the biblical narrator's present at which time Pharaoh still holds all the land. The idea that a legend would be required to explain this suggests that, from the point of view of the speakers society, the notion of a king holding all the land seemed aberrant. The state from which they descended to slavery - that of the freeholder, seems viewed by the narrator as normative.

But why would Joseph behave thus? Another suggestion of Morgan's - given the situation at court, with Joseph being a stranger regardless of how well he has blended, and a former slave regardless of how high he has ascended, he really cannot act in ways that do not accrue to the direct benefit of Pharaoh. Joseph must be ever mindful of the caprice of court life; given the fates met by the Baker and the Cupbearer. One can be arbitrarily jailed, and arbitrarily redeemed or hung. Thus Joseph's treatment of the Egyptians at large can be viewed as a mechanism of self defense.

But there is something else too. The whole region is having a famine. And while one might cynically say that Joseph has helped Pharaoh make a killing in grain futures, the value of these futures depends on the fact that the need is there to be met. And it is a vital need. Joseph is selling not only to the Egyptians and to the Israelites, but to all the surrounding nations. His foresight has saved the region from starvation. Returning it measure for measure to the people who grew it, "giving the surplus back to the people," as it were, would not have allowed him to do this.

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