By Simon Gordon
When does slavery in Egypt begin? You might assume not until the events of Parashat Shemot. Yet today’s sedrah recounts that slavery began much earlier – and Joseph was the instigator.
As we read last week, Joseph becomes vizier after interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams to predict seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. To survive the downturn, Joseph recommends what we might now call a counter-cyclical fiscal policy: gathering up a surplus of corn during the good years for the people to consume during the bad years.
But when the famine hits, Joseph doesn’t give the corn to the people. Instead, he sells it to them. The people exchange first their money, then their livestock. Finally, they offer their land and their freedom: “Buy us and our land for bread, and we and our land will be bondmen unto Pharaoh.”
Joseph proceeds to uproot the people and force them to sow the land, demanding 20% of their produce: “At the ingatherings, ye shall give a fifth unto Pharaoh.” Curiously, a 20% tithe was what Joseph had originally recommended to Pharaoh to stave off the effects of the famine: “Take up the fifth part of the land of Egypt in the seven years of plenty.” Joseph uses the tax that was supposed to support the people through the famine to enrich Pharaoh at their expense.
Meanwhile, what were the Israelites doing?
Having arrived in Egypt, Joseph’s family are invited to settle in the plush land of Goshen. Pharaoh instructs Joseph: “Take your father and your households, and come unto me; and I will give you the good of the land of Egypt, and ye shall eat the fat of the land.”
Along with the Israelites, only one other social group is not enslaved: the priests. They too are Joseph’s relatives – since his wife is the daughter of Poti-Phera, priest of On. By the end of Vayigash, Joseph has turned his entire extended family into a rentier class, living off the labour of a chattel population.
Yet Joseph’s social engineering comes back to bite the Israelites. By doing Pharaoh’s bidding, Joseph allows Pharaoh to amass power and wealth surreptitiously. Come Shemot, a later Pharaoh can then deny responsibility, and blame the country’s ills on Joseph’s Israelite kin. Machiavelli advises his Prince to make similar use of a tyrannical stooge.
The commentators admire Joseph for his faith. Yet it is telling that the emissary who delivers the Israelites from slavery is his antithesis. Whereas Joseph is an Israelite turned Egyptian aristocrat, Moses is an Egyptian aristocrat turned Israelite. Whereas Joseph has childhood dreams of power, Moses begs not to be chosen to lead.
Moreover, the social model that the Torah prescribes is precisely the opposite of what Joseph institutes in Egypt. We are told to free our slaves every seven years (a resonant number), and to restore plots to their original titleholders at the end of every seventh seven-year cycle. We are reminded that the land ultimately belongs to God, not to false human gods like Pharaoh. We are instructed to feed the hungry by leaving them a proportion of our fields directly, not by trusting the intermediation of an avaricious State.
The Torah often enjoins us to remember that we were slaves in Egypt. We should also remember the system that made our slavery possible, and who designed it.
Simon Gordon is a professional writer and a former assistant editor of Mosaic Magazine. He is a member of Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue.