Vayigash: The Economics of Joseph

Image: An early Ramesside Period (1189-1077 BCE) mural painting from Deir el-Medina tomb depicts an Egyptian couple harvesting crops. (Wikimedia: public domain)

Parashat Vayigash – (pronounced – vah-yee-GOSH) is particularly fascinating to me, as I have a background in economics.

Joseph predicted a famine and proposed a program for surviving it in Genesis 41:33-36, when he interpreted Pharaoh’s dream. Joseph’s plan sounded painless: appoint an administrator to gather grain during the years of plenty as a reserve against the years of famine.

Now, in Genesis 47, we see what this program actually required. Once there was no bread “in all the world” (v.13) people bought grain from Pharaoh, and as a result, all the gold and silver in Egypt came into the king’s palace. The next year people had no money, so they traded their livestock to Pharaoh for food. The following year, they traded their land. That year, Joseph ordered a massive resettlement of the population. Every Egyptian family had to leave their home and move to a new location.  Radak teaches that Joseph did this so they would understand that the new homes were a gift from Pharaoh. Rashbam, however, compares his policy to that of the evil King of Assyria in 2 Kings 18. (It was Assyrian policy to resettle their enemies among peoples strange to them, so that they would never again be a threat. This is how the “10 Lost Tribes” were lost.)

In the final year of famine, the Egyptians became bondsmen to Pharaoh in exchange for food and seed for the coming year. So by the end of the famine, Joseph had preserved the lives of the Egyptians but at a very high price: every commoner among them was a penniless slave living on land granted by Pharaoh, and additionally paying a heavy tax.

Harold Kushner points out in Etz Chayim that a generation later, the Egyptians would take revenge on Joseph by enslaving the Hebrews. Economic policy in the ancient world, as in ours, has both short term and long term consequences.

As I write this, children are starving to death in Venezuela, despite it having the largest proven oil reserves in the world.  Our Congress is contemplating a tax bill that will be good for big business, on the promise that it will be good for us all. They might want to remember Joseph, whose economic policy seemed wise until the long term consequences caught up with his people.

This d’var Torah appeared in a slightly different form in the CCAR Newsletter.

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Let Us Connect! – Parashat Terumah

Image:  Model of the Mishkan at Timna, Israel on October 15 2008. Photo by Rafael Ben Ari/ Shutterstock. Notice that there are no human beings.

I’m always a little sad when we reach this week’s Torah portion, Terumah. I know that there is still plenty of Torah to find in the words and between the letters, but we’re out of great stories for a while. The child in me that loves stories misses Genesis and the first part of Exodus.

I normally begin the week by reading the Torah portion, and this week I was struck by all the things in this Torah portion. All of a sudden, God is into interior decorating: we’re going to build the Mishkan [Tabernacle] and it’s going to have a golden lamp, and here’s how the lamp will look, and it’s going to have a table, and a this, and a that. Then God is busy planning Aaron’s ordination: he’ll wear this, he’ll do that. Plans, plans, plans! This year, more than most years, I am irritated. I want stories. I want people.

I want connection.

 

Human beings need connection. We are social beings, even those of us for whom being social is difficult because of circumstances or disability. I think this is what distresses me about Parashat Terumah – suddenly Torah is all furniture and fixtures, just God dictating to Moses what is wanted in the new digs, and how Aaron’s ordination should go. I feel bereft.

Then, at the very end, God tells Moses:

The LORD spoke to Moses: See, I have singled out by name Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. I have endowed him with the Divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft; to make designs for work in gold, silver, and copper, to cut stones for setting and to carve wood—to work in every kind of craft.

Moreover, I have assigned to him Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan; and I have also granted skill to all who are skillful, that they may make everything that I have commanded you: the Tent of Meeting, the Ark for the Pact and the cover upon it, and all the furnishings of the Tent; the table and its utensils, the pure lampstand and all its fittings, and the altar of incense; the altar of burnt offering and all its utensils, and the laver and its stand; the service vestments, the sacral vestments of Aaron the priest and the vestments of his sons, for their service as priests; as well as the anointing oil and the aromatic incense for the sanctuary. Just as I have commanded you, they shall do. – Exodus 31:1-11
Suddenly, there is community again! Betzalel and his crew are going to be together, doing things, making things, empowered by “a divine spirit of skill, ability and knowledge in every kind of craft.” I imagine Betzalel with strong, calloused hands, he and his merry band of artisans, glowing with that divine spirit, the same ruach elohim that swept over the waters of creation:
בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃
וְהָאָ֗רֶץ הָיְתָ֥ה תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ וְחֹ֖שֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י תְה֑וֹם וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם׃
וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֖ים יְהִ֣י א֑וֹר וַֽיְהִי־אֽוֹר׃
When God began to create heaven and earth—
the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and the Divine spirit sweeping over the water— God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. – Genesis 1:1-3

The spirit of God, ruach Elohim, is not in things. It is not in golden furniture. It is not in great buildings. It is not in computers, and not in smartphones. In the modern Jewish world, we locate it in the actions of human beings who reach out to other human beings to do work, to learn, to love, and to struggle.

Let all who are able step out from behind our computer screens, look up from our smartphones, let us reach out to others for human connection. Let ruach Elohim, the spirit of the Divine, sweep over the boundaries between us.

Let us connect with our spouses, with our children, with the guy who carries away the garbage, with the lady at the cash register, with the guy wearing a baseball cap with a team insignia. Let us make eye contact, let us introduce ourselves, let us touch hands, let us connect.

For it is in those moments that we are filled with ruach Elohim, in those moments when we are most fully human, when we connect.

Shabbat Shalom! – Bereshit

Image: The first chapter of Genesis inscribed on an egg. In the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Photo by Sputnikcccp on April 22, 2003. Via wikimedia, some rights reserved.

We’re back at the beginning again, reading, “In the Beginning…” We begin the Torah with two creation stories that have many contradictions, and this week’s Torah portion has both of them. Which one is true? we might be tempted to ask, if we are accustomed to think that there is one correct answer to every question.

So perhaps the first lesson in this scroll is that a good question may have more than one correct answer. Any good mathematician will tell you that there are many problems with more than one right answer.

So it is with Jewish questions.

One may ask, why did we wave the lulav during Sukkot?

An anthropologist might answer, “Because the practice began as an ancient fertility rite, and it is intended to bring on the rain and renew the fertility of the earth.”

A student of the Bible might say, “Because we are commanded to wave it in Levitcus 23:40.”

A kabbalist might reply, “Because when we wave the lulav, we bring together the seven emanations of the Holy and unite them next to our heart.”

A different teacher might say, “Because the four species represent the four kinds of people in the world.”

And yet another Jew might say, “Because it is what my teacher of Torah taught me to do.”

… and they are all quite correct.

Here are some divrei Torah on Parashat Bereshit. Shabbat shalom!

Two Tales of Creation

This week we begin reading the Torah again from the beginning, starting with the two famous creation stories in Genesis 1 – 3. We call this first Torah portion in the Bible after its first word: Bereshit. (It’s pronounced buh-ray-SHEET.)

That’s right, two stories. They aren’t long. For this exercise, go read them both. One begins at Genesis 1:1, and the other starts at Genesis 2:4. Take notes as you read, just a quick list of what happens in each. Then compare the two lists for the two stories.

See anything interesting? These are two different stories! They contradict each other in many ways. We are often conditioned by Sunday school classes to “blend” the two stories to avoid seeing the differences, but I encourage you to look for those differences.

Now ask yourself: why are there two stories that contradict each other? (Please, I would love to hear your answers in the comments!)

OK, now I am going to be a pushy teacher and instead of leaving you with your own delightful thoughts about that question, I’m going to offer you an idea of my own about it. If you’d rather not, by all means, just stop reading at the little line below.

—–

My theory: those two conflicting stories are there as a clue that we were never intended to read these stories as history. They aren’t “what really happened” – they can’t be, they contradict.

What they are is a collection of  basic ideas about the world, a Jewish worldview:

  • The world is not chaos, there is an underlying Unity of some kind.
  • Human beings are constructed to live in relationship with one other.
  • Human beings  do not “own” creation.
  • Life is not easy.
  • … and many more.

I imagine you can distill other ideas from these stories, ideas about the world and our place in it. I hope you’ll share those ideas in the comments.

The Creation of Jewish Time

The Jewish “day” begins at sundown. This is something that takes some getting used to, if you don’t grow up with it:  the day begins when the sun dips below the horizon.  The fact that you’ve been up for hours has nothing to do with anything.

Jewish living is like that, tilted 90 or 270 degrees from Western secular life.  The day begins at sundown.  The year begins in the fall.  (Also in the middle of winter and in the springtime.)  Sunday is yom rishon, the first day of the week (and it begins on Saturday night.)  The whole thing is cockeyed.

Why not accommodate?  Why not assimilate?  Why not go with the flow, for crying out loud?

We stick with it because in Judaism, time is sacred.  The traditional story is that the day begins at sundown because Genesis says so.  But we could as well read it the opposite direction:  we have that story to explain, to remind us, to keep stepping to that Jewish drummer:  it was evening, it was morning, it was the first day.  The creation story doesn’t tell us “how the world was made,” it tells us how to look at the world.  It’s easy to say, the day begins when I get up in the morning — then the world revolves around my state of consciousness. It’s easy to say, the day begins at midnight, because the government and mutual agreement say so.  But Genesis says, “It was evening, it was morning,” to throw us off balance, to say, “Stop!  Look!  Think!  PAY ATTENTION!”

Notice the passage of time.

Notice the cycle of seasons.

Notice when the sun goes down and comes up, and that will require you to take your eyes off the computer screen, off the TV, off your own navel, and out to the horizon.  Live out of step with the ordinary, so that you will step lively.  Pay attention!

Pay attention, because as Chaim Stern z”l wrote for Gates of Prayer:

“Days pass and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles.  Lord, fill our eyes with seeing and our minds with knowing; let there be moments when Your Presence, like lightning, illumines the darkness in which we walk.  Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that the bush burns unconsumed.   And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness, and exclaim in wonder:  How filled with awe is this place, and we did not know it!  Blessed is the Eternal One, the holy God!”

It is In Our Power: Creating a Better World

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. – Genesis 1:1-3

Chapter 1 of Genesis teaches us that words create worlds.

That’s all. You can get hung up on “days” or evolution if you wish, but the message there is plain as day: words create worlds.

Jewish tradition teaches us that this kind of creation did not stop with the first Shabbat: each of us has this beautiful, terrible power to create realities with our words. Jewish tradition teaches us that saying embarrassing words can cause wounds so real that they are the equivalent of murder.

Recently I saw a clip of a 1962 speech by Malcolm X, and in it he elucidates the ways in which our media create a reality that frames the way we interpret violence. His point was very Jewish: words create reality. If most of what we see of African Americans in the news is about criminal activity, then we are less inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to any African American who is arrested or injured by police. If any good news about an African American is framed as a “remarkable accomplishment,” then we are inclined to think that most are not capable or not willing.

Words create worlds. When I hear that someone has been stopped for questioning, do I assume that they are guilty of something? What if I hear that a person I know has been stopped? What if I hear that a person like me has been stopped? And what if I hear that a person from a stigmatized category has been stopped? What do I think then?

We have to fight for the world in which we wish to live. We have to create a good world every day, with our speech and with the words to which we choose to listen. We have to speak that world, live that world, will that world into being. We have to root out the remnants of any other world from the dusty corners of our psyches and say: Begone! For only then will we be free enough to fulfill the command:

 Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof: Justice, Justice, you shall pursue! – Deuteronomy 16:20

Vayeshev: What Changed Joseph?

This post was given as a sermon at Congregation Ner Tamid in Henderson, Nevada on December 12, 2014, Shabbat Vayeshev. The sermon begins at 1.01.05.

I’m going to start tonight with a personal question, a question I want you to answer only in your own heart:

Was there ever been a time in your life when you felt utterly abandoned by everyone? A time when you felt that the people you depended on had failed you, or turned on you? When you had no friends at all, and you were in awful trouble?

Maybe you have been fortunate, and have never had that experience. If that’s the case, I ask you to imagine it.

That’s exactly the situation our ancestor Joseph is in at the end of this week’s Torah portion. He is sitting in prison. His brothers debated killing him, and instead sold him into slavery. He managed to rise to a position of trust in the household of an important man, and his employer’s wife turned on him. He managed to make an influential friend in prison, and that friend has forgotten him.

There is no question that Joseph started out as a foolish young man.

He was spoiled by his father. When at age 17 he went to his father to tattle on his brothers, Jacob did not teach him about lashon harah. He did not teach Joseph not to talk about others. Instead, Jacob gave him a fancy coat.

Joseph was so naive that it never occurred to him that his brothers’ hatred was serious business.

Those who should have taught him and protected him failed him again and again: His father did not teach him. His brothers turned on him in anger.

And let’s face it, the boy seems to have been pretty clueless.

So he winds up in Egypt, a slave. He has one piece of luck: he is purchased by an important man, Potiphar. He rises to a position of trust in the household. But then, because he is young and foolish, because he has no one to advise him, he makes another mistake.

Just as he failed to see the danger in his brother’s anger, he fails to see the danger in the desire of Potiphar’s wife.

A wiser man would never be alone in the house with her. A wiser man might have made sure there were other servants around at all times. After all, he was the steward of the household! He gave the orders!

Instead, he was accused of a terrible crime for which he had no alibi. His master, furious, put him in prison.

And there he sat, without friends, without family. He was a foreigner. He had been accused of a terrible crime. He had no way to prove his innocence.

Even when he made a friend – Even when it looked like there might be hope, he was forgotten. He had been left to rot.

The chapter ends with Joseph in jail, abandoned.

The next chapter begins two years later, and Joseph seems to be a different man. As foolish as he had been before, Joseph became wise.

The text leaves us to wonder what happened during those two years sitting in Pharaoh’s jail?

When there is a gap in the Biblical story we look to Midrash, to the stories of the rabbis to help us understand.

Midrash tells us that Joseph spent his time in jail learning.

He learned the languages of all the men imprisoned there. 

He reflected upon the lessons of his father Jacob,

who had taught him about the One God who demands that we act with justice and kindness.

So the boy who was sold into slavery

The boy who was only interested in himself

Became a man who was interested in other people.

Became a man who learned languages so that he could understand people.

He became a man who reflected not on his own dreams but upon the dreams of others.

Joseph the spoiled brat became Yosef Ha-Tzaddik, Joseph the Righteous Man.

So what’s the lesson here? What’s the point?

One thing we can learn is what to do when, like Joseph, we feel that we have been abandoned by everyone, when everything is hopeless.

We can learn.

Instead of focusing on what others have done to us, we can do what Joseph did: we can learn how to listen and how to talk with others.

Instead of allowing bitterness to fill our souls, or worse yet, plotting our revenge, we can reflect on a God who commands that we act with justice and kindness.

We can learn to let go of “me, me, me” and look beyond ourselves and our own aggrandizement.

Psalm 1 tells us this about the tzaddik, the righteous person:

“His delight is in the Torah of the Eternal; and in God’s Torah he meditates day and night.”

Torah is often translated “Law” but it is more correctly translated “Teaching.” And what Joseph teaches us, and the Psalmist underlines, is that when we feel that things can get no worse, the best thing we can do is learn.

By this I don’t mean “learn our lesson,” although sometimes, that’s one thing we need to do. Rather, I mean something much larger: we need to learn everything we can about how to connect to other people. Because when we are sitting in that lowest place one of the things that has gone wrong is our connections to others.

Torah teaches us many ways to connect:

Abraham teaches hospitality.

Isaac teaches how to get along with angry neighbors.

Jacob teaches us how (and how not to!) deal with our relatives.

Joseph taught us many things, but in his great moment of teshuvah in the prison, he taught us the most important lessons of all:

Learn Torah.

Learn about ourselves and our mistakes.

Learn about others.

Learn how to speak and to listen to people different from ourselves.

Learn new ways to be with others.

Learn.

For it is by learning that we grow, it is in learning that we expand our horizons.

It is in learning that we begin to connect with the world outside ourselves.

If we can do that, if we can learn how to go from the narrow prison to the wider world,

We can become agents of our own change,

agents of Torah in the wider world.  

Shabbat shalom.