Good Intentions & Bad Outcomes

Joseph meant well when he convinced his family to move to Egypt.

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Sometimes the best of intentions can lead to tragic outcomes. In Parashat Vayigash, Joseph has his hands full managing the seven years of catastrophic famine that have followed seven years of prosperity. The Egyptian people are starving while Pharaoh has food, having stored much of the harvest during years of plenty. But the people’s ability to buy grain disappears along with their savings. The famine has yet to play out its course, so Joseph begins to collect their possessions for the king: first their livestock, then their land and finally their personhood. To avoid death, the Egyptian people become slaves to Pharaoh, foreshadowing the Israelite enslavement in Exodus.
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Despite our own moral indignation that the price of avoiding starvation is slavery, The Torah does not condemn Joseph for his actions. The commentator Nahum Sarna suggests that the biblical text "shift[s] the onus of responsibility for the fate of the peasants from Joseph to the Egyptians themselves. The peasants initiate the idea of their own enslavement (v. 19) and even express gratitude when it is implemented!"

Silent on Moral Implications

Traditional Jewish commentators see Joseph's strategy as an example of his successful leadership and are silent on its moral implications, but modern commentators are deeply uncomfortable with Joseph’s approach. Some suggest that the Egyptians’ subsequent enslavement of the Israelites stems from their memory of this time: they can remember only their servitude and not their escape from starvation. The ethicist Leon Kass is even more directly critical, condemning Joseph for introducing into Egypt the idea that human beings can be owned by the state:

"Israel is…cursed by Joseph’s policies…Joseph’s consolidation of Pharaoh's power will result in the practice of wholesale slavery. Thanks to Joseph’s agrarian policies, Egypt is transformed into a nation of slaves and Pharaoh becomes Egypt’s absolute master."

Another especially problematic aspect of Joseph's "solution" is the long-term impact, which extends a system of indebtedness and servitude to future generations. Joseph’s moral choices leave a lot to be desired.

Unfortunately, intergenerational debt bondage is not just an ancient problem. This form of slavery is the most prevalent found today, with more than half of modern slaves serving as bonded laborers. And while it is most often found in India and southeast Asia, incidents of debt bondage can be found around the world.  Like Egypt’s seven years of famine, debt bondage often starts with a short-term financial crisis. Faced with an urgent medical issue or a lackluster harvest, a person borrows a small sum.

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Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster

Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster is director of education and outreach for Rabbis for Human Rights--North America. She was ordained in 2008 from the Jewish Theological Seminary, where she also received her MA and BA in Midrash. She is a contributor to The Jew and the Carrot and serves on the boards of Hazon and the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.