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LifeSavers and Enslavers

12/22/2023 03:50:24 PM


Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Vayigash, in which Joseph’s success in Egypt really comes to a peak. He settles his brothers in the land of Goshen, continues to prosper in Pharaoh’s palace, continues to feed those suffering in the famine, and continues to feed Pharaoh’s coffers with everything the Egyptians own as they come looking for food.

Apologies to those who already heard this d’var Torah on Sunday at the SEA Change gathering, but I’m going to repeat it now. It was written very much with our SEA Change experience in mind, but I think it’s pretty good - if I do say so myself - and the message widely applicable, and most of our congregation was not present to hear it on Sunday. 

Some years ago I had the pleasure of learning Torah with Rabbi Shai Held from the Hadar Institute as part of a T’ruah Rabbinic Convening. He shared a source sheet in which he illustrated all the ways that Joseph was a court Jew, and in particular highlighted verses from this coming week’s reading, Parashat Vayigash, in which we see Joseph more or less enslave the same Egyptian farmers he saved with his dream interpretations and rationing plan. It was something that has stuck with me these six years since that convening because I had never really considered that before. It’s one of those verses you kind of gloss over when you’re hitting the main points of the narrative, the parts that tradition wants you to focus on. 

Genesis 47:21 tells us that Joseph removed the people from their lands, town by town, throughout all of Egypt. Rashi seems to want to defend this behavior, saying that Joseph moved the populations of one town into another and mixed up neighbor sets in order to keep the now landless Egyptians from exerting privilege over Joseph’s brothers. For how could they - the Egyptians - say that they - the Israelites - were strangers when they - the Egyptians - were themselves now strangers in new towns and cities. But unlike Rashi, when I hear that a man in power is removing people from their ancestral lands and mixing up populations of generations-old neighbors, I read cultural genocide and think of leaders like the Assyrians (and much later, the Soviets) who did such things with the intent of denying people the familiarity of their neighbors that aids in organized rebellion. Rashbam agrees with me about the comparison with סַנְחֵרִ֤יב/Sennacherib but it is less clear if he shares my horror at that comparison. 

Two verses later in the Torah, Joseph tells the Egyptians, “I have acquired you.” The people, in their destitution, respond positively, crying that Joseph has saved their lives and that they will serve as slaves to Pharaoh. Joseph didn’t even have to ask for that last part. They just offered. Although I could not track back down the source sheet from the 2017 T’ruah convening, I did find a d’var Torah on the Hadar website in which Rabbi Held highlights some of these same verses, and he suggests that the language in Genesis 47:24 is evidence of Joseph’s charismatic savior persona, that he sees himself as a lifesaver and perhaps everyone else sees him that way too. But Rabbi Held is clearly as uncomfortable with that as I am. He points out the irony that Joseph came to Egypt as a slave, and now is facilitating the enslavement of others. And perhaps he is setting the precedent that will allow the enslavement of his descendants and those of his brothers in a few generations. 

I love how Rabbi Held’s d’var Torah on the subject again and again lifts up the complexity of this piece of Torah, and of Joseph’s character. My recollection from the text study was that it was much harsher on Joseph, which I also didn’t necessarily disagree with, but I appreciate the nuance of Joseph as both a lifesaver and an enslaver. To me, this truly illustrates how deeply and easily we can become entrenched in the power structures of the societies we find ourselves in, how quickly privilege starts to feel deserved, and how easy it is to overlook the problematic side effects of all our best efforts to help others. Even when we see ourselves as allies or co-conspirators, we may miss areas where we fail to live up to our most righteous potential, or we make assumptions about who needs allyship or co-conspiratorship. Joseph is still hailed as a hero, and probably did more good than bad in the world. And so can we be. As modern people, fully fleshed out breathing humans in the here and now, we can be better than Joseph. We live in a society with more equality and rights than ancient Egypt, and we can continue to push ourselves and our society further than our ancestors could have ever dreamed. May we always be mindful and open, may we offer assistance and solidarity without transactional demands, may we anticipate the needs of our communities, and may we serve them with love. 

Tue, July 23 2024 17 Tammuz 5784