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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Was Joseph Really Bad for the People?

Furthermore, we have an explicit condemnation of Joseph from Rabbi Meir ben Shmuel, known as the Rashbam, the grandson of Rashi, the great 11th-century commentator. The Rashbam compares Joseph not only to the king of Samuel's warnings, but also to the autocratic Achashverosh, the Persian king of the Book of Esther, and Sennacherib, the ruthless Assyrian invader (see II Kings 18). It seems that reservations about Joseph are not only the product of our own minds, educated in a democratic society, but also find echoes in some of the most authoritative sources of our tradition!
But ultimately, there are problems with this critical reading of Joseph. Our judgment of Joseph as an exploitative despot does not seem to be born out by other elements of the biblical text. After all, it is not under Joseph that the people experience excessive suffering, but under the Pharaoh "who did not know Joseph" at the beginning of Exodus.

Furthermore, Joseph's machinations fulfill critical elements of God's plan. His position, and Egypt's advantageous economic position, which Joseph brings about, are crucial to the brothers reuniting and establishing the continuity of Abraham's descendants. Finally, even after the most severe of Joseph's policies, the text tells us that the Israelites were "fertile and increased greatly (Genesis 47:27)," implying Joseph's centrality to the ultimate success of his people.

An Exception that Proves the Rule

This juxtaposition of Joseph's seemingly ruthless policies and their ultimate justification leave us with an uncomfortable question: is authoritarianism justified? But there is another prism through which we can view this seeming contradiction, suggested to us by Joseph's exalted role in the tradition as Yosef ha-tzaddik, Joseph the righteous leader. The root of the word "tzaddik" has another revealing connotation: balanced, literally, as in, for example, balanced scales, weights and measures.
To be sure, Joseph imposed austerity, but perhaps it was austerity without oppression, balanced by the pathos Joseph exhibits when he cries at being reunited with his brothers. Perhaps, through some combination of charisma and compassion, Joseph was the kind of extraordinary leader who could create a sense of common good and purpose that allowed people to embrace the sacrifices he mandated.

An apology for the text? Perhaps. A fantasy? Maybe. But a fantasy like this serves to refine our moral consciousness. Joseph just might be the exception that proves the rule. Joseph was a tzaddik because he could achieve this delicate balance--but we would be hard pressed to find another like him. We should always be wary of the uses and abuses of institutional power. Samuel's warning is perennially our own.

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Rabbi Justin David

Rabbi Justin David is the spiritual leader of Congregation B'nai Israel in Northampton, MA. He was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and is a graduate of Oberlin College. He lives in Northampton with his wife, Judith Wolf, and his sons Lior and Ezra.