I. We have three Pharaohs in our Torah. The first Pharaoh, less memorable, receives Abraham and Sarah and then sends them away. The second, the good Pharaoh, raises Joseph from imprisoned slave to ruler over all Egypt. Only the third one, who did not know Joseph, is called “melekh chadash,” “a new king” – new because he inaugurated a radically new political order.
The new Pharaoh’s first policy, based on fear of foreigners, is to cast the entire Hebrew people into slavery. His next policy is to cast the Hebrew male babies into the Nile, bringing God’s judgment upon himself and his nation. We begin to read his story in the book of Exodus this week, the day after inauguration, along with the story of Shifra and Puah, the Hebrews’ midwives who are the first to resist the third Pharaoh when they refuse to implement his policy of infanticide.
How different is the story of the second Pharaoh that we have been reading for the past three weeks in synagogue. He essentially becomes a pupil at Joseph’s feet, handing over to Joseph the reins of power. What Joseph does with that power is what enables the third Pharaoh to enslave Joseph’s people.
II. The second Pharaoh’s story is a story about a world turned upside down, first by Nature, then by Joseph. Seven years of extravagant abundance, swallowed up by seven years of deadly famine. And a young man, a Hebrew slave, who saved the world. Joseph gathers up enough grain during the seven fat years to supply the seven lean ones.
As a true believer, Joseph trusted the fate God set out for him, for Pharaoh, and for Egypt. He saw the divine hand in his brothers’ betrayal, reconciling himself to God’s will after being sold into slavery by his jealous brothers and sent to prison on false charges. “[When] you planned evil against me – Elohim (God) planned it for good…to keep alive a multitude of people.” (Gen 49:20)
Joseph, the tsadik, the righteous one, as he is traditionally known.
But is he righteous? During the seven destitute years, Joseph sold grain back to the Egyptian populace. During the first half of the first year, he gathered all their money in exchange for grain, and in the second half, all their animals. In the third year, he purchased not only their land, but the people themselves, making them all feudal slaves to Pharaoh. All this happened in the first two years of Egypt’s seven-year famine. (Gen 47:13-25)
Joseph turned what was a monarchy into the foundation of a fascist state, where Pharaoh was divinity, law, nation. How can Joseph be righteous, when this upside down reality was his creation?
Here’s a hypothesis: Joseph never cheated anyone. He gathered grain for seven years for next to nothing because it was so abundant. Joseph could have gouged the people when he sold it back to them, but he didn’t. He charged normal market prices, not famine prices. It never occurred to him that the job of government during famine was to distribute grain fairly and freely, so that people could remain (relatively) free on their land. So Joseph ran government like a business. His flaw, then, was that he never questioned the basic rules of the market, that if you want something, you need to give something to get it.
Even when he removed Egypt’s peasant families from lands they had farmed for centuries, transferring them from “one border edge of Egypt to its (other) edge” (Gen 47:21), it was “kosher” in everyone’s eyes, because Pharaoh’s feudal rights were purchased fair and square. This is the hardest to align with Joseph being righteous, but we can say that Joseph was a good citizen and a good person, a tzadik im pelz – a righteous person in a fur coat, to use the Yiddish expression, who doesn’t realize that other people are freezing.
III. During the famine years, the only Egyptians not dispossessed were the Egyptian priests. As part of Pharaoh’s household, the priests automatically received a grain allowance from Pharaoh’s storehouse, so they had no need to sell their land to survive. Similarly, in Goshen, where Joseph had settled his family and given them land, the Israelites kept their land, their money and their animals. Just as Pharaoh sustained the priests, Joseph sustained his own family. By his lights, he wasn’t treating the Israelites unfairly. He was simply running his family like a family, and his business like a business. He would have expected each Egyptian family to do the same, from Pharaoh to peasant.
Joseph created the framework for a fascist state, concentrating every ounce of power in Pharaoh’s hands, but his Pharaoh didn’t choose to use that power. However, when “a new king arose who had not known Joseph,” the world Joseph created was turned upside down again. Because of how Joseph had restructured society, the third Pharaoh was able in one stroke to enslave all the Israelites.
The coup d’etat, the blow that placed absolute control over the state into Pharaoh’s hands, was Joseph’s policy of resettlement. A people without connection to the land has little power to resist tyranny. But even if they could have resisted the new policy, why would they? Imagine the Egyptian people, enslaved everywhere, uprooted from their ancestral lands, knowing that those foreign immigrants from Canaan remained free, while they became as destitute as the land was barren. If anything would seem fair to a downtrodden populace, it would have been the Israelites’ enslavement.
IV. Two Pharaohs, two opposing realities. Through Joseph, the office of Pharaoh had amassed unlimited power, but only the new Pharaoh, the one “who knew not Joseph,” become an autocratic tyrant.
What stopped Joseph’s Pharaoh from abusing his power? A subtle difference between the two Pharaohs may explain things, and it parallels a difference between our 44th president and the one about to be inaugurated.
After Joseph predicts the famine he advises Pharaoh to find someone to manage Egypt’s famine response. Pharaoh asks his court, “How can we find a man like this, who has the spirit of Elohim in him?…There is no one understanding and wise like you [Joseph].” (Gen 40:38-41:1) He had no delusion that he knew more than the generals, or the magicians (who were the scientists of that time), or prophets like Joseph.
The Pharaoh after him, the one who battled Moses, was the opposite. When he has the idea to enslave the Hebrews, he is already convinced that it’s the best and wisest idea: “Come, we will show how wise we can be with this people…” (Exod 1:10) When the magicians tell him it is “the finger of God” that has brought the plague of lice (8:15), he ignores them. Even when they admonish him, “Do you still not know that Egypt is destroyed?” (10:7), he still refuses to send away the Hebrew people.
Joseph’s Pharaoh was wise enough to recognize other people’s wisdom. There is a deeper clue about what this means in what seems like a minor vignette about Pharaoh welcoming Joseph’s brothers. When Joseph picks a few of his brothers to present to Pharaoh, he warns them, “When Pharoah asks, ‘What is your work?’ say, ‘Your servants were cattlemen from our youth and up to now,’ because all who herd sheep are an abomination for Egypt.” (Gen 46:34) Nevertheless, when Pharoah asks, “What is your work?” they say without hesitation, “Your servants are shepherds, so are we and so were our ancestors.” (47:3) Pharaoh receives their answer without skipping a beat, accepting both their difference, and their willingness to be different. He was ready to learn from people who were officially far beneath him.
As Ben Zoma teaches, “Who is wise? The one who learns from every person.” (Pirkei Avot 4) But someone who refuses to learn from other people, who has no humility, who thinks he is always the smartest person in the room, is neither wise, nor even smart.
V. The midrash tells us something surprising about the brothers Joseph chose to meet Pharaoh. It says that Joseph picked the five weakest brothers, so as not to scare Pharaoh or his advisers. (Rashi on Gen 47:2) Even so, those brothers were strong enough to speak the truth facing the most powerful human being in the world. This truthfulness, this integrity, earned Pharaoh’s trust and help.
The brothers were good enough and brave enough to expect justice for themselves and to challenge the system, but only where it affected them. But a new government came into power, and it was not enough to be good people. The fascist state consumed their freedom, just as the state had already consumed the freedom of the Egyptians. A revolution was needed, not good citizenship.
It took an atrocity worse than slavery, the drowning of babies, to force God’s hand. And God’s hand did not first appear in the form of a plague or miracle, but in the resistance of the midwives and the Hebrew women. What mattered was not being “good” but resisting.
VI. A new king is about to be inaugurated. A new resistance has risen up to confront him. The inauguration will be protested by women’s marches in cities throughout the country. When we transition from one book of the Torah to the next, as we did last shabbat, we say, “Chazak chazak v’nitchazeik” – “Be strong, strong, so may we make ourselves strong.” May this blessing that we pronounce be true for us, and for all who need to be blessed.
Rabbi David Seidenberg is the creator of neohasid.org, the author of Kabbalah and Ecology: God’s Image in the More-Than-Human World (kabbalahandecology.com) and the author of a Prayer for Voting, downloadable from http://neohasid.org/resources/