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Parashat Vayigash: Was Yosef’s Economic Policy Also a Social Policy? by Yaakov Bieler

December 6, 2010 by  
Filed under New Posts, Tanach

                Once the years of plenty in Egypt, that were predicted in Pharoah’s two dreams (Beraishit  41:1-7, 25-32), are concluded, the years of famine begin (41:54). Not only does the lack of food affect the surrounding areas, including Canaan, but the residents of Egypt proper starve as well (41:55). While the measures imposed by Yosef with regard to food distribution in Egypt during the extreme food shortages are only hinted at in Parashat Miketz (41:56), they are spelled out in great detail in Parashat VaYigash (47:13 ff.)

The “enslavement” of the Egyptian people.

                A cursory reading of these verses would lead us to conclude that Yosef exploits the famine to transform practically the entire Egyptian population, with the exception of the priestly class (47:22, 26), into slaves serving Pharoah. While a totalitarian government dealing with a slave population might be the most efficient means by which to deal with a national crisis like a famine, must we assume that no alternative systems that are less morally problematic were available for Yosef’s considerations? In effect, in this case, do the ends justify the means? The Egyptians’ desperation to obtain food causes them in turn to first agree to hand over their money (47:14-15), then their livestock (47:16-17), and finally their land and their very selves (47:18-26).[1] It is difficult to comprehend why, if the enslavement of the Jews by the Egyptians, as described in Shemot 1 ff., is considered so reprehensible, that Yosef, HaTzaddik (the righteous) no less, would be the instrument to enslave the Egyptian people.[2] The fact that Yosef’s actions predate those of the Egyptians vis-à-vis the Jews could lead one to think that the principle of Mida KeNeged Mida (a perpetrator of sin receives punishment in accordance with the type or effect of his/her sin) is being applied by the Egyptians—or at least the “new Pharoah” (Shemot 1:8) to the Jews long after the famine ended.

Yosef’s possible personal agenda for wanting the Egyptian population to become slaves.

                RaShI on Beraishit 47:21, commenting on Yosef’s assigning the Egyptians to relocate to cities stretching from one end of Egypt to the other, suggests that such practices, as unsavory as they may seem to be, are all designed, in addition to controlling the Egyptian population for maximum food storage and distribution, to assure that Yosef’s immigrant family would not be looked upon askance by the native population. How could there be discrimination against those who have only recently come to Egypt, when the entire Egyptian population has been turned into displaced persons enslaved to a ruler, and who no longer reside in the immediate area in which they were raised from childhood?[3]

Yosef’s utilizing his position to change Egyptian society might not have stopped with turning the Egyptians into slaves.

RaShI’s approach to Yosef’s demands in Beraishit 47 is consistent with the Midrashic interpretation that the commentator invokes on 41:55. In this earlier verse, Pharoah instructs the Egyptian people to do whatever Yosef asks of them. Rather than assuming that this was part of the general mandate that Pharoah had already given to Yosef in 41:44, the Midrash posits that Pharoah is reacting to a specific appeal by the Egyptian people as a result of what they considered an untenable demand made by Yosef. The Midrash attributes to Yosef the requirement that Egyptian males undergo circumcision before he will give them food.[4] While RaShI describes the discussion between the Egyptians and Pharoah, leading him to command them to follow any and all of Yosef’s orders, the rationale for Yosef making such a requirement is not discussed by the commentator. The Midrashic commentary Yefat To’ar[5] suggests that Yosef’s demand was a reaction to the disregard with which the Egyptians held peoples who were circumcised;[6] in order to win respect not only for his family, but even for himself, the newly promoted Egyptian leader engaged in social engineering designed to make circumcision the standard practice of the culture, rather than allow it to be a stigma that would separate immigrants from the native born.[7]   But in light of what takes place in the beginning of Shemot, it is questionable whether even if there was a short-term benefit in terms of the acceptance of the Jews coming to Egypt and living in Goshen, that resentment against what Yosef had orchestrated did not fester and ultimately resulted in a most hostile backlash against the Jews in the coming generations.

An alternative approach that rejects the assumption that the Egyptian populace were turned into slaves by Yosef.

                RaMBaN and Meshech Chachma believe that Yosef in fact did not maneuver the Egyptians into becoming slaves to Pharoah. They reach this conclusion by a particularly close reading and comparison of the verse in which the people offer themselves as opposed to the description of Yosef’s response to their offer. In 47:19, the Egyptians tell Yosef, “…Acquire us and our land in exchange for bread, and we and our land will be in servitude to Pharoah…”, but the text continues (47:20) “And Yosef acquired all of the land of Egypt for Pharoah, because each man of Egypt had sold his field…and the land became Pharoah’s.” And although Yosef subsequently states (47:23) “…And I have acquired you and your land for Pharoah this day…” his instruction (47:24) that 1/5 of what they grow on the land be given to Pharoah, while the people  are to keep 4/5 suggests that they are sharecroppers, rather than slaves. RaMBaN further explains that typically, the ratios would be reversed, with the sharecropper keeping the smaller share, and the bigger percentage turned over to the owner. However, Yosef was determined to deal kindly with them, not only in terms of refusing to allow them to become enslaved, but also with respect to the amount that they would be allowed to retain as a result of their agricultural efforts.

                Meshech Chachma is even more adamant regarding Yosef’s refusal to impinge upon the Egyptian people’s personal liberties, and suggests that while the land would belong to Pharoah, the people were being hired as “day workers”—(47:23) “…And I have acquired you and your land for Pharoah this day…”, i.e., only for a circumscribed period of time, as one would hire a laborer for a specific job and assure him a proper wage. Furthermore, the commentator asserts that such an arrangement accounts for Yosef’s transferring the Egyptians to cities, to prove to all that the only entity that permanently belonged to Pharoah was the land, but not the people. They would not be given the same legal status as had been attached to the land, i.e., Pharoah’s property.  

                According to RaMBaN and Meshech Chachma, rather than imposing draconian measures that could lead to resentment, Yosef’s policies could be understood as intended to win over the people. Furthermore no mention is made by these commentators of any intent to make the social environment more amenable to Yosef’s family. (One could argue that the assignment of a separate homeland for Yaakov and his extended clan, i.e., Goshen [45:10] made unnecessary any additional measures since the Jews would be geographically insulated from the Egyptians.)  This then leads to the conclusion regarding the beginning of Shemot, that, despite Yosef’s best efforts to both save the Egyptian people from famine and maintain their dignity and liberty,  at a later point, history was revised and not only Pharoah, but everyone throughout Egypt, deliberately “did not know Yosef” (Shemot 1:8).


                The differing approaches to the question of Yosef’s far-reaching intent with regard to the manner in which he distributed food, over and above simply providing nourishment for starving people, revolves around the question of whether slavery is a practical means, however disagreeable, to a desired end, in this case both distributing food as well as trying to make the period of  Jewish exile as palatable as possible,  or is the institution of slavery to be viewed as so heinous, that alternate means must be found, regardless of the direct and indirect social and economic benefits that slavery may offer. And what sort of sensibility should be attributed to Yosef—was he a particularist, committed first and foremost to the interests of his family and tradition, or a universalist, taking seriously the needs of the entire country over whom he has been appointed as administrator? After all, he personally had been a slave, imprisoned, slandered, and generally treated badly. Therefore, he may have wished to spare both his family as well as his fellow countrymen from such difficulties. Precisely because he had personally undergone the unpleasant experience of being a slave, he did not want anyone else to be subjected to similar treatment, even Egyptians, in the spirit of the Tora’s oft-repeated adjuration intended to warn Jews against perpetrating an experience on others that they found so reprehensible, (Devarim 5:14; 6:12; 15:15; 16:12; 24:18, 22) “Remember you were a slave in the land of Egypt.”  This intriguing  aspect of  Yosef’s tenure as Egyptian viceroy appears to pose more questions than it answers. 


[1]The circumstances under which the Egyptians sell themselves to Pharoah in exchange for food  is reminiscent of the manner in which Yaakov “purchases” the birthright from his brother Eisav (25:31-34). Aside from the question of whether a birthright can be bought and sold, taking advantage of someone else’s fears of imminent death due to starvation (25:32) in order to extract from him something that he values very much and otherwise would not be expected to willingly give up, would appear to be morally questionable. While the Talmud (Bava Batra 47b) concludes that if a person is made to sell something under duress (“Talyuhu VeZavin”), as long as he is properly compensated in the end, the sale is legal, this would appear to be in compliance with the letter rather than the spirit of the law.  

[2] A distinction could be made regarding whether the slavery engineered by Yosef entailed no more than belonging to Pharoah, or included the ability to assign “Avoda BeFarech” (lit. breaking work) (Shemot 1:13) as well. Pharoah clearly was threatened by the extreme growth of the Jewish people in Egypt (Ibid. 1:9-10) and imposed the severe labor as an attempt to limit the population growth. In contrast, Yosef appears to seek out the most efficient manner by which to grow and distribute food so that the Egyptian population would be able to best survive the famine with as few losses as possible. Nevertheless, the text gives no indication that once the threat was past, the Egyptians’ freedom was restored to them, suggesting that Pharoah remained in control of his constituency and its property.

[3]Administering a large nation meets with less resistance when the indigenous population is resettled in new areas. Yosef’s policy for Egypt calls to mind Sancherev’s approach to managing the Assyrian empire:  

Berachot 28a

Sennacherib king of Assyria long ago went up and mixed up all the nations, as it says, (Yeshayahu 10:13) “I have removed the bounds of the peoples and have robbed their treasures and have brought down as one mighty their inhabitants.”

Shlomo is also described as applying an administrative reorganization of the land of Israel to create an equitable manner by which to tax the people with respect to supporting the royal entourage—see I Melachim 4:7 MaLBIM. In addition to trying to achieve fairness, this approach can be simultaneously understood as an attempt  to reorganize the country in a manner that would no longer focus upon tribal differentiations, which had proven in the past to be a barrier to creating a sense of national unity.

[4]A story to which this Midrashic interpretation harks back is the negotiation between Yaakov’s family and the  inhabitants of Shechem following the rape of Dina (Beraishit 34:15). However, whereas in the case of the Shechemites, it appears that the objective was for them to refuse and thereby supply a pretense for the recovery of Dina, the Midrash assumes that Yosef appears to successfully require the Egyptians to actually go through with this ritual.  

[5] The comment is made in connection with R. Aba bar Kahana’s view cited in Beraishit Rabba 90:6.

[6] This is in contrast to the approach of the Jews to the non-circumcised, particularly the Philistines—see Shoftim 14:3; I Shmuel 14:6; II Shmuel 1:20, etc.

[7] Midrash HaGadol speculates that Yosef made a different request: when people would come to obtain food, he would tell them that they must deny belief in their idolatrous gods, and instead give thanks to the true God who is responsible for the food with which they are being provided. Consequently, this Midrash sees Yosef as proselytizing rather than looking to narrow the gap between the indigenous population and the Jewish immigrants.  The precursor of such a story would appear to be the activities of Avraham that are described in association with the “Eishel” that he establishes in Be’er Sheva. Here too, food and hospitality is utilized as a means by which to secure a change from polytheistic to monotheistic belief. See RaShI on 21:33. Pharoah’s ratification of Yosef’s demand for the Egyptian people to become monotheistic, says the Midrash, earns for Pharoah length of days, until he becomes excessively arrogant (Shemot 1:8, with the assumption that this is the same Pharoah with new policies, rather than a successor to the throne—see the disagreement between Rav and Shmuel cited by RaShI on this verse) and eventually dies (2:23).

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