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Human Rights Shabbat

12/15/2023 11:03:39 AM


This D'var Torah was written by one of our Next Gen Leaders, Mary Petracca.


This week's Torah portion is Mikeitz, in which Pharaoh is visited with unsettling dreams. In the first, seven fat, healthy cows emerge from the Nile only to be immediately devoured by seven lean, malnourished cows. In the second, seven healthy ears of grain are swallowed by seven parched ones. When none of his court magicians can tell him what the dreams mean, his chief cupbearer tells him of an imprisoned Hebrew who just might be able to help, and Joseph is freed from prison to interpret the dream. He tells Pharaoh that Egypt will be blessed with seven years of abundance immediately followed by seven years of famine and advises Pharaoh to store up as much grain as he can during the years of plenty so that his people will be fed during the years of hardship. Pharaoh makes Joseph his second in command and tasks him with overseeing the storage and subsequent distribution of grain, and when his prediction comes to pass, people come from far and wide to receive rations. Among these are Joseph's brothers, who do not recognize the brother they sold into slavery years ago. Joseph however, recognizes them. He accuses them of being spies and, after briefly imprisoning them, demands that they go home and come back with their youngest brother, Benjamin, who stayed behind with Jacob. He even keeps Simeon imprisoned in Egypt as collateral until they return and sends the rest home with sacks full of grain. When they return with Benjamin, Joseph instructs his servants to plant a silver cup in the youngest brother's bag. The Parashah ends with Joseph accusing Benjamin of theft. As punishment, he must remain in Egypt as Joseph's slave, but the rest of the brothers are once again sent home with an abundant supply of grain.

Reading this Parashah, one might wonder why the surrounding nations did not fortify their own food reserves during the years of plenty. According to Ramban, "It would appear to be implied in the verses that the abundance was only in the land of Egypt, even as it said, Seven years of great plenty throughout all the land of Egypt; likewise the verse, And he stored up all the food of the seven years which was in the land of Egypt. But the famine, on the other hand, was in all the lands. And so did Joseph interpret it when he said, And there shall arise after them seven years of famine, and did not mention the land of Egypt." (Ramban on Genesis 41:2) Egypt, in other words, occupied a position of privilege relative to the surrounding nations. They could easily have hoarded all the food for themselves, and according to some schools of thought, they would have been justified in doing so. After all, aren't they the ones who tilled the soil and sowed the seeds? If they were blessed with plenty while their neighbors reaped merely adequate harvests in the years preceding the famine, is this not a clear sign that they are in some way superior - harder workers, more diligent watchers of the weather, more advanced in their agricultural technique? Why should other, presumably inferior nations be entitled to the fruits of their hard labor? 

The Torah offers no clear reason as to why Egypt is blessed while their neighbors are not. Scripture is notorious for attributing wealth and success to moral or spiritual merit (and, conversely, attributing poverty and failure to having behaved unrighteously and lost the Lord's favor), but in this case, the explanation is left to the reader's imagination. Perhaps the answer is simple geography. Egypt was lucky enough to be located in a region highly favorable to agriculture, particularly compared to surrounding nations. The regular flooding of the Nile, for instance, contrasts sharply with the often destructive flooding of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and the unpredictable rains upon which Canaanite farmers depended. Inhabitants of these neighboring regions could work just as hard as, perhaps even harder than, the Egyptians and still reap a comparatively mediocre harvest. In addition to their geographical advantage, Egypt was the only nation that had the benefit of a reliable dream-interpreter backed by the one true God to warn them of the famine. It's entirely possible that surrounding leaders had dreams similar to Pharaoh's, but without a person like Joseph to explain the significance of these dreams, they had no way of knowing exactly what was to come. In the passage quoted earlier, Ramban goes on to speculate that they must have heard of the coming famine secondhand, but he provides no scriptural evidence to substantiate this, and even if his assessment is correct, a secondhand rumor is hardly as compelling a call to action as a firsthand warning from the very mouthpiece of God. Even if their harvests were comparable to those in Egypt, which we've established they were not, they were not given the same chance to prepare. While the Egyptians were no doubt knowledgeable farmers and hard workers, their seven years of unique success and their ability to accumulate massive stores of food in preparation for hardship cannot be attributed to that alone. It's simply a matter of chance - neither the Egyptians nor their less privileged neighbors had the opportunity to choose where or into what circumstances they were born. These neighbors, through no fault of their own, are left with no choice but to ask for help, and it is up to Joseph to decide how to respond. 

While later chapters of the Torah contain sundry examples of Egyptian authorities' maltreatment of foreigners, the thought of denying sustenance to members of surrounding nations does not even appear to cross Joseph's mind. People from as far away as the land of Canaan make the journey to Egypt in hopes of obtaining food, and if any of them are turned away, the Torah makes no mention of it. Evidently, there is enough to go around, and Joseph sees no reason to allow his neighbors to go hungry when it is within his power to prevent it. He does not ask whether they "deserve" help, whether they've worked hard enough or contributed enough to society (whatever that means) to earn the reward of having their basic needs met. This is true even when the boundaries of his altruism are tested by the unexpected arrival of perhaps the only group of people who he might arguably have been justified in turning away: his own brothers who had sold him into slavery. Even as he uses his newfound power to inflict psychological anguish upon them, he ensures that they return to Canaan with as much grain as they can carry. 

When we discuss the ethical imperative to help those who are less privileged than ourselves, we often fall into the rhetorical trap of framing these people as "deserving" of our help by way of their apparent innocence. Humanitarian campaigns for famine relief and refugee aid tend to focus on affected children because their innocence is unimpeachable. Even adults who are victimized by circumstances beyond their control are often infantilized, reduced to helpless, "perfect victims," incapable of wrongdoing. The fact is, though, that no one can truly live up to this standard of perfect victimhood. While there are many disadvantaged people who are civil, likeable, and morally upstanding, there are also many who are rude, unlikeable, and amoral at best, and most are somewhere in between. In other words, they are human. A person's level of socioeconomic privilege is entirely unrelated to their level of righteousness, and our ethical obligation to help a person in need is not lessened because we find them unpleasant, abrasive, or even downright condemnable. Do Joseph's brothers "deserve" what they are given? Perhaps not, but how would it reflect on Joseph's character if he were to send them home empty-handed? If we extend aid only to those who we deem, based on a standard inevitably warped by our privileged lens, righteous enough to "deserve" it, can we truly claim to be altruistic? 

The idea of deserving is a double-edged sword. When we are blessed with good fortune, it allows us to believe that we are being justly rewarded for some good we've done, but when we encounter adversity or tragedy, it tells us to hide our faces in shame and ruminate on what we must have done wrong. Worse still, it enables us to go through life blinded by ego, standing in judgment of others, asking "What have they done to earn my help?" rather than "What can I do for them in their time of need?" The "just world" fallacy may be attractive, or at least easier to swallow than the reality that life is often brutally and senselessly unfair, but it ultimately stalls social progress by letting us believe that a more equitable world is impossible or even undesirable. We would do better to follow Joseph's example and remove the word "deserve" from our collective vocabulary. I am not suggesting that wrongdoing should be free of consequences. Joseph does not let his brothers escape entirely unpunished for the grievous wrong done to him years before, but even as he makes them feel as small and uncertain of the future as they once made him feel, he acknowledges and honors their most basic human needs. True righteousness demands more of us than to help only those rare people who fit neatly into the "perfect victim" box. It demands that we extend grace even when it is arguably not "deserved." If God were only present for the "deserving," the divine presence would have been utterly removed from our lives long ago, and are we not made in God's image? May we all find that divine spark within ourselves and let it shine through.

Shabbat Shalom. 

Tue, July 23 2024 17 Tammuz 5784