Benevolent Dictatorship or Righteous Balance?
Joseph's actions in dealing with the famine challenge us to strive for a delicate balance of power and compassion.
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About a year ago, a congregant with a long career as a law professor and social activist approached me with an iconoclastic reading of Joseph. "Joseph isn't a tzaddik, a righteous leader," he said, "but a despot. He depletes the wealth of the towns, centralizes power in the cities, makes the people utterly dependent on him and then becomes responsible for enslaving them!" His interpretation gave me pause, and yet, it intrigued me.
I always give the benefit of the doubt to a novel interpretation--particularly one that heightens our awareness of totalitarianism. In Parashat Mikketz, Joseph does seem to impose draconian economic policies on the Egyptians.
A New Interpretation
Interpreting Pharoah's dream of seven robust cows followed by seven sickly ones, Joseph believes that Egypt's years of plenty will be followed by famine. His solution is well known: collect all the grain to be stored in the cities as a reserve. It is a drastic measure, to be sure, but one viewed as exceedingly wise. Joseph is rewarded with the office of Vizier under Pharaoh, effectively ruling all of Egypt with unchallenged authority.
Further along in the narrative, however, we read of Joseph's policies that threaten to compromise the security and well being of his people. After Joseph has invited his family to settle in Egypt (Genesis 47:11-27), the famine continues to the point where there is no bread left in the land.
As payment for the bread in the storehouses, which was originally the people's property, Joseph successively collects the people's money, livestock, and, finally, land. Dispossessed of all their property, the people declare themselves to be "slaves" to Pharaoh, and receive seed so that they may grow their own wheat and make their own bread. Joseph reduces them to being sharecroppers on their own land.
My congregant appears to be right. Joseph robs his people of their produce, robs them again so they can buy it back and then seizes their land, effectively enslaving them.
Other voices from the tradition denounce this kind of exploitation. When the Israelites plead with the prophet Samuel to install a king over them, Samuel warns them, "He will take a tithe of your seed and your vineyards, which he will give to his courtiers and servants…He will take a tithe of your flocks and render you his slaves.” (I Samuel 7:15-17) To a word, this seems to be exactly what Joseph does!