Joseph’s Land Reform – Vayigash 5771

Wherever you see yourself on the political spectrum, I think you will probably agree with me that we are facing serious economic problems that need to be addressed.  Problems of long term debt, of expenditures that are far exceeding revenues.  Our elected leaders are going to have to do something pretty dramatic to deal with these problems.

And it has been so frustrating watching both parties in Congress  quibble over politics.  First the Republicans promise to block anything that President Obama sends their way, even if it is an idea that originated in the Republican Party, and then when he finally gets them to agree to a compromise, the Democrats refuse to accept it.

California is even worse.  We have seen the budgetary problems pushed off from one year to the next, with the State Legislature refusing to ever actually address the real issues.

Perhaps there is some wisdom to be gleaned from an ancient source.  We read this morning of one of the most remarkable, peaceful, successful, and well thought out national economic transformations in history.  And it all happens in just fourteen years.

7 years of plenty, 7 years of famine

Joseph was appointed as Prime Minister because of the plan that he outlined to Pharaoh after he interpreted his dreams

Let all the food of these good years that are coming be gathered, and let the grain be collected under Pharaoh’s authority as food to be stored in the cities.  Let that food be a reserve for the land for the seven years of famine which will come upon the land of Egypt, so that the land may not perish in the famine.  (41:35-36)

When the famine hits after seven years, Joseph, and the Egyptian government, are ready for it.  People start flocking in from all over the Egyptian empire, and even from surrounding lands.  Enough food was saved to feed everyone, even the foreigners.

The Torah describes how it played out.  First, the people bring their money to pay for the food.  When the money runs out, they pay for food with their livestock.  When the livestock all belong to Pharaoh, the people beg Joseph to feed them in exchange for their land and their selves.  They ask to become serfs to Pharaoh.  As part of this plan, the population of Egypt is resettled, town by town.    Joseph then gives the people seed to plant their crops, and requests that they turn over twenty percent of their yield to Pharaoh.  Only the Egyptian priests are allowed to keep their land, along with receiving their food allotment from the government.  The end of the account informs us of the Egyptian people’s gratefulness to Joseph for his successful guidance of them through the famine.  In a postscript, we are told that it is still the law “today” that one fifth of the produce belongs to Pharaoh, except that which is owned by the priests.

How do we read this story today?  One twentieth century Israeli writer called it “State Communism.”  “Control, centralization of food supply, and equal distribution accompanied by the nationalization of private property, first of money, then cattle, and finally, land.  Henceforth all the lessees of Pharaoh’s lands pay him “the state” ground rent, and live on the residue.”  (Nehama Leibovitch, New Studies in Bereshit, p. 525)

I think there is a modern tendency to read this story too negatively.  To blame Joseph for strengthening the power of the central government, and for ultimately turning the Egyptian people against the Israelites.  This sets the stage for the eventual enslavement of the Israelites by a populist, and possibly fascist Pharaoh who the Torah reports “did not know Joseph.”

Of course, interpretations like this reflect more about twentieth century political discourse than they do about the ancient world.  If we want to understand Jewish values, then we have to look at how this episode has been understood by our tradition.  We will find that the tradition views Joseph’s actions quite favorably.  It suggests something about the values that society and its leaders ought to bring to public crises such as the famine in ancient Egypt, and perhaps even the economic situation that we are facing today in California and in the United States.

There are some interesting details of Joseph’s plan that the midrash and commentators do not overlook, and nor should we.  The Torah notes that he had the grain collected and deposited “in the cities.”  The midrash explains that Joseph decentralized the food distribution system by locating the storehouses in local cities and towns.  That way, people did not have to travel all the way to the capital for food.

Another midrash describes how he collected all sorts of different kinds of foods, from various grains, to raisins and figs.  And each type was stored in a way that was most appropriate to avoid spoilage.

Joseph oversees the rationing system to make sure that everyone in society is able to get through the lean times.  Most of us in this room have not had to live through periods of food rationing.  The great twentieth Israeli Bible commentator, Nechama Leibowitz,  who knew scarcity, writes, “For those who have experienced one and even two world wars, Joseph’s rationing operations are no novelty, but for previous generations they were, and we may presume that they constituted something entirely revolutionary in his own time.”  (New Studies in Bereshit, p. 520)

Without the rationing, I think it is safe to assume that the wealthy would have gotten through ok, and the poor would have starved.  It seems to be the way of the world.

And without careful administration, profiteering would have been rampant.  Indeed, a midrash explains how Joseph prevented price gouging by restricting people to enough food for their own needs, but not extra that they would be able to sell on the black market.  Further, nobody was allowed to enter the country without first registering his name and that of his father and grandfather.  In other words, he established a passport control system.

But if everything was organized so well that nobody was left to starve, why does the Torah describe the Egyptians as crying “out to Pharaoh for bread”?  (41:55)  The 18th century commentary Or-Ha-hayyim answers that the cries were more for psychological reasons than for physical ones.  And Joseph responds to their cries appropriately:

Since a person who has bread in his or her basket cannot be compared to one who has not.  [Joseph] therefore meant to satisfy the psychological feeling of want by opening the granaries for them to see the plenty garnered there and rest secure .

Now one might be inclined to assume that Joseph reserved special treatment for his own family.  After all, the Torah describes how he gave them the best land for raising livestock.  Not so, says the commentator Sforno.  The Torah states that “Joseph sustained his father, and his brothers, and all his father’s household with bread, down to the little ones.”  But Sforno quotes the Talmud to explain Joseph’s honesty.  “When the public experiences calamity, let no person say, I shall betake myself to eat and drink and couldn’t care less.”  (BT Ta’anit 11a)

Furthermore, the text describes how Joseph collects all of the money, and brought it faithfully to the house of Pharaoh.  He does not skim anything off the top to build up his own private hoard, explains medieval Spanish commentator Ramban.  Joseph is an honest civil servant.

When the Egyptian people beg to sell themselves into slavery, Ramban explains, Joseph actually refuses.  He purchases the land from them, but not their bodies.  Normally, Ramban claims, the King would keep eighty percent and the serf only twenty percent.  But he treats the Egyptian people like landowners, and the Pharaoh like the serf, reversing the relative percentages.

Ramban’s numbers are a bit exaggerated, but we do have some data from the ancient world.  A tax rate of twenty percent would not at all have been considered excessive.  During the reign of Hammurabi, the state received between half and two thirds of the net produce, after deduction of expenses.  Interest rates in Babylon for loans of produce were thirty three percent.(Nahum Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary:  Genesis, p. 322)  It seems that Joseph’s economic policies, in light of the times, were quite reasonable.

And I think we have to take the Torah at its word when it says that the Egyptian people were grateful to Joseph.

But is this the Torah’s final word?  Is it presenting for us an ideal model of the economic makeup of a society, or of how to get through a national crisis?  Is this a model that we ought to be looking at for moral guidance today?

There are some internal hints that suggest that the answer is no.    That the Israelite approach is different than the Egyptian one.  The first hint is in the role of the priests.  The Egyptian priests come off as a privileged elite.  They get to keep their land, and they continue to receive their regular allotment from Pharaoh.  Compare this to the tribe of the Levites, about whom it is written, “they shall have no territorial share among the Israelites.”  (Num. 18:23-24)  In exchange for their service on behalf of the nation, they receive tithe payments, but they do not get to own land.  So what is their inheritance?  According to Deuteronomy, “the Lord is their inheritance.”  (Deut. 10:9)  The Torah seems to be concerned with not allowing them to take advantage of their status to become overly powerful.

Another way in which the Torah signals that this is not the ideal is in subtly emphasizing the role of the Egyptian people in the economic transformation.  It is the people who offer themselves to be serfs to Pharaoh.  Rather than take responsibility for their own redemption, they willingly turn over responsibility to the state.  As Nahum Sarna explains:  “The peasants initiate the idea of their own enslavement and even express gratitude when it is implemented.”  (Ibid., p. 323)

In contrast, what does the Torah say about land ownership and serfdom in the land of Israel?  In Leviticus, God states:  “The land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.”  (Lev. 25:23)

And regarding serfdom, it states:  “for they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt; they may not give themselves over into servitude.”  (Lev. 25:42)

The ancient Israelite economic model is based on private ownership, with limits.  And it works pretty strongly to prevent citizens from becoming enslaved to one another.

Where does this leave us?  Do we find anything in Joseph’s shrewd leadership that might help us in our current predicament?

Well, everything I have been reading seems to suggest that the only way to really solve our economic woes is through pretty radical changes to some very expensive programs, as well as a significant reworking of our taxation system.  I don’t think anything that is currently before Congress or the State Legislature comes close.  When you compare it to about what Joseph managed to accomplish over a fourteen year period of time, it seems pretty remarkable.

The important thing to remember is that Joseph, at least the version of him that is presented by the Jewish interpretive tradition, is being guided by certain core values:  That nobody will be left to starve.  That regulation should prevent profiteers from taking advantage of the system.  And that special interests are not given special treatment.

It is also important for us to remember that the Torah’s ideal is  ultimately not what is to be found in Egypt, but rather that which is to be found in the Promised Land.  It is the establishment of a society in which the fundamental equality of all human life is valued, regardless of one’s socioeconomic status, and in which freedom is a core right.

I pray that sooner, rather than later, we will be able to responsibly, and effectively, address the current problems in our society with the same kind of courage, commitment to morals, and compassion for all human beings that our ancestor Joseph once did in Egypt.

2 thoughts on “Joseph’s Land Reform – Vayigash 5771

  1. Sorry, Rabbi, but Nehama Leibowitz is correct for ignoring the Rabbinic glosses on Joseph’s behavior. The people may have been grateful not to be starving but they accepted serfdom and paid 20% tax on their earnings in exchange. And, while you quote the Torah about land ownership and serfdom in the land of Israel, you overlook the Torah regarding an Eved Ivri, a Jewish serf!


    • Thanks for reading and commenting. While Leibowitz cites a modern commentator who describes Joseph’s reforms as “state communism,” she herself does not ignore the rabbinic interpretations and midrashim. Rather, she masterfully weaves them together with her own analysis.
      Regarding the eved ivri, the biblical system explicitly prevented serfdom from becoming a permanent institution by canceling all debts and freeing serfs every 7 years and returning land to its original holders every 50 years (At least in theory. It is questionable whether these ideals were carried out in practice.) This contrasts with the Egyptian system, which the Torah describes as being “still valid” (47:26) at the time of its writing.
      My overall approach about reading text is that it always has something to teach us, and it is permissible to interpret it from any given perspective – traditional, p’shat, midrash, socialist, feminist, revisionist, whatever – as long as we are clear with ourselves and others about which lens we are using. Different lenses will often result in different lessons emerging from the text. This is how I understand the concept of shiv’im panim la-Torah (seventy faces to the Torah). There is not a single “correct” interpretation.
      Again, thanks for reading and taking the time to respond


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