December 11, 2010 - 4 Tevet 5771
Annual: Genesis 44:18-47:27 (Etz Hayim, p. 274; Hertz p. 169)
Triennial: Genesis 44:18-45:27 (Etz Hayim, p. 274; Hertz p. 169)
Haftarah: Ezekiel 37:15 - 28 (Etz Hayim, p. 291; Hertz p. 178)
Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
Baldwin, New York
Torah Reading Summary
Judah delivers an impassioned appeal to Joseph on behalf of Benjamin, offering to submit to
slavery personally in his youngest brother's stead. He does so, he says, to spare both
Benjamin, for whom he has pledged personal responsibility, and his father. Joseph is moved to
tears by his brother's selfless and eloquent appeal. Dismissing all but his brothers from his
presence, Joseph finally reveals his identity, immediately inquiring about his father's wellbeing.
He attributes his sale into slavery at his brothers' hands to Providence. Embracing his
brothers, he instructs them to return to Canaan and then to come back, with Jacob, to settle in
News of Joseph's reunion with his brothers spreads to Pharaoh and his court. The brothers,
supplied with wagons and provisions, return home and tell Jacob that his beloved son is still
alive and has risen to high office in Egypt. On the return trip to Egypt God appears to Jacob in
a vision, assuring him that going back down to Egypt is the proper course, while not
mentioning the enslavement that is his nation's destiny. The seventy Israelites taking up
residence in Egypt are listed, and Joseph is tearfully reunited with Jacob. He reports his
family's arrival to Pharaoh, to whom he introduces them. Jacob has a private audience with
Pharaoh and details for him the personal adversity he has long endured.
Joseph's brothers, against his express instructions, inform Pharaoh that they are shepherds.
Joseph settles his families in Goshen, setting the stage for future events. Despite his generous
treatment of his family, Joseph is ruthless in his economic administration of Egypt. After
depleting the financial resources of Pharaoh's subjects through the sale of the grain and food
under his control, next he takes their livestock in exchange for supplies, and finally he usurps
their only remaining material resource, their land. The only land Joseph allows to remain in
private ownership belongs to the priests.
Once he has secured a royal monopoly on both Egypt's land and its livestock for Pharaoh,
Joseph imposes further economic duties on the populace: they owe Pharaoh one fifth of each
harvest. Deprived of private land and livestock, and impoverished through the sale of grain over which Joseph had exercised such visionary but shrewd control, the Egyptians
nevertheless are thankful for surviving the famine: â€œYou have saved our lives! We are grateful
to our lord, and we shall be serfs to Pharaoh.â€
The parshah concludes by contrasting the impoverished Egyptian populace under a despotic
regime with Israel's growing prosperity: â€œThey acquired holdings in [Goshen], and were
fertile and increased greatly.â€ This description anticipates the opening of the Book of Exodus,
and the ethnic tensions that led to the Israelites' enslavement.
Theme #1: â€œIt's not about youâ€
â€œI am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt. Now, do not be distressed or
reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of
youâ€¦. God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival... It was not you who sent me
here, but God.â€ (Genesis 45:4-5, 7-8)
- â€œJoseph's speech is a luminous illustration of the Bible's double system of causation,
human and divine. Commentators have tended to tilt the balance to one side, making Joseph a
mouthpiece of piety here. His recognition of a providential plan may well be admirablefrom
the viewpoint of monotheistic faith, but there is no reason to assume that Joseph has lost the
sense of his own brilliant initiative in all that he has accomplished, and so when he says â€˜God'
he also means Joseph.â€ (Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses)
- â€œHow could closeness be established between brothers, when one of them claims to be
God's own instrument and appointed savior of the rest? Even when he tries to be brotherly, he
cannot help but parade his superiority. A close reading of the motion of the speech makes this
clear. Joseph begins by asserting equality: â€˜I am your brother.' But you are morally beneath
me, for you have acted unjustly and unbrotherly: â€˜whom you sold into Egypt.' Yet, never
mind, do not feel guilty; for you are not really morally beneath me, as we are both, in this
matter, equally instruments of God: â€˜God sent me before you.'â€ (Leon R. Kass, The Beginning
of Wisdom: Reading Genesis)
- â€œJoseph finds himself in relation to his brothers: his story is balanced on the axis of â€˜I -
you' and â€˜You - me' It is an honest but discriminating account of what they did and did not do
to him, of the limits of their responsibility for his disappearance: â€˜You sold me hither' but â€˜it
was not you who sent me here.' The nexus between their realities is God, who has
choreographed their relationships, their absences and losses, in order to â€˜save life.' He is the
One who â€˜sent' Joseph to Egypt. The word is used three times, to express God's purposeful
perception. From God's perspective [Joseph] has been just where he was meant to be.â€ (Avivah
Gottlieb Zornberg, Genesis: The Beginning of Desire)
Questions for Discussion
Is Joseph a self-effacing mouthpiece of piety or does he suffer from a superiority complex, as
suggested by both Professors Kass and Alter? Has Joseph grown and learned and changed? Or
is he the same self-important, ambitious operator as in his youth, unable to relate to his
brothers in a healthy manner?
In what ways does Joseph's view of his suffering as part of a greater plan of Providence
provide a model for understanding Jewish history? Is it a useful personal model for processing
the adversity we encounter as people or as families?
Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg seems to say that Joseph's statement to his brothers is balanced and
fair, and sensitive to God's role in the unfolding of Joseph's experience. What does it mean for
God to be the â€œnexusâ€ of a family dynamic, when the relationships within that family are
flawed, manipulative, and ultimately unresolved? Does the assertion that Joseph was â€œjust
where he was meant to beâ€ justify his actions or validate his self-perception? Can flawed or
even morally corrupt people be instruments of God?
How would Joseph's reunion with his brothers have been different if it had occurred earlier -
say, during the years of prosperity preceding the famine, when Joseph's life-saving role was
still only a matter of his own predictions? At what point in his life did Joseph come to terms
with his theology? With his view of Providence and of God's plans for him in particular?
Theme #2: â€œGoing Out of Business Saleâ€
â€œWith all the money and animal stocks consigned to my lord, nothing is left at my lord's
disposal save our persons and our farmland. Let us not perish before your eyes, both we and
our land. Take us and our land in exchange for the bread, and we and our land will be serfs to
Pharaohâ€¦ We are grateful to my lord, and we shall be serfs to Pharaoh.â€ (Genesis 47:18-19, 25)
- â€œMore than one modern writer has found in this report of the enslavement of the Egyptian
peasant shocking proof of Joseph's inhumanity. But, as has been stressed repeatedly by more
objective students, such censorious comments show little understanding of either history or
literature. The Egyptian concept of state, whereby the king was viewed as a god, made the
pharaoh an absolute ruler from the start, and hence the owner of all he surveyedâ€¦.The
agrarian changes that are here described may reflect actual socio-economic developmentsâ€¦
That they should be credited in this narrative to Joseph is part and parcel of his idealized
historical image.â€ (E. A. Speiser, Anchor Bible Commentary)
- â€œThe insulting point of the story is that Joseph sells back the grain that he first confiscated.
There is no justification for what Joseph did. Under the â€˜Joseph Plan,' the civilians were
doomed from the start. The â€˜Joseph Plan' is nothing new. Calls for government action to save
us from impending economic catastrophes and the supposed inborn self-destructive
mechanisms in the private ownership society/capitalism abound everywhere. If Joseph had
respected private property, they not only would have survived, they would have prospered.
Joseph effectively sent Egypt back to the Stone Age. A once advanced civilization was
reduced to slavery in the space of a few years.â€ (Scott Wallace Brians, The Joseph Plan and the
Road to Serfdom)
- â€œJoseph averted overwhelming famine and death, but at a price. In some respects, the
sociological consequences - landless economic serfdom - are reminiscent of the changes that
took place in Britain at the time of the Enclosure Acts of the eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries, and in modern Mexico among the Mixtec and Zapotec peoples. The net results of
Joseph's actions were not only the avoidance of terrible famine but the centralization of power
in a country where it had previously been dispersed, as well as the loss of liberty for most of
its inhabitants. Paradoxically, he also set the stage for the creation of a powerful regime which
eventually enslaved his own descendants.â€ (David Ehrenfeld, The Joseph Strategy)
Questions for Discussion
Speiser simultaneously says that Joseph's economic measures reflect his â€œidealizedâ€ image
and that they are based on an idolatrous political system with a god-king at its center! Is it
possible to justify Joseph's totalitarianism as simply consonant with his historical and
cultural reality? Is this the act of â€œmore objective studentsâ€ of Bible and history or is it
merely an act of moral relativism?
What way - if any - is Joseph's economic leadership relevant to this contemporary
discussion? Does the biblical text offer solutions? Is it a cautionary tale? How does
someone's political loyalties and biases impact his or her reading of our parshah?
How might it shape Brians' analysis of the text?
Ehrenfeld's assertion that Joseph's actions set the stage for Israel's enslavement in
Egypt is a harsh indictment. If he is correct, is that enslavement a punishment for
Joseph's despotism or for his brother's sale of him into Egyptian bondage? What role
might Joseph's harsh economic policies (and - in Ehrenfeld's scheme - the resultant
national suffering) be intended to play in the national development and education of
the Jewish people?
Two explanations of the name Joseph are provided in Genesis 30:23-24â€¦ â€œGod has
taken away (asaf) my disgraceâ€â€¦ and â€œMay the Lord add (yosef) another son.â€ How
might these etymologies affect our reading of the narrative describing Joseph's
national and economic leadership?
God's promise to Jacob that He personally will â€œbring you backâ€ to the Land of
Israel is fulfilled both personally (Jacob's burial) and nationally (possession of the
Promised Land). Arranging for burial in Israel still is considered an act of piety and
affection for the Land. Rabbi Isaac Klein even permits exhumation for this purpose.
Placing earth from the land of Israel into a grave in the diaspora at the time of burial
is a gesture of the same affection for the Holy Land and a recognition of its unique
sanctity and its centrality to Jewish spiritual life.
The record of Joseph's exploitative administration of Egypt's resources and populace
is read on December 11, 2010. On December 11, 1792, King Louis XVI was put on
trial for treason, following a famously despotic reign over hungry and impoverished