The Saving of Egypt
This week’s parsha spends no less than 14 pesukim describing Yoseph’s radical agrarian policies and how he helped Egypt survive the remaining five years of famine.
First, Yoseph sold the Egyptians crops with all their silver; the wealth he transferred to Pharaoh (Berehit 47:14). When the Egyptians had no more money, he bartered the crops for all their livestock (ibid 16-17). When the Egyptians had nothing else to give, they sold their land and themselves to Pharaoh (ibid 20). In the wake of the nationalization of land, Yoseph organizes a huge population transfer and allows the Egyptians to work the land, on condition that a fifth of all their crops go to Pharaoh (ibid 24).
All this did not apply to the priests, who by law “had an allotment from Pharaoh” (ibid 22) and so, did not have to sell their lands. It also did not apply to his family since Yoseph “sustained his father and his brothers and his father's entire household” (ibid 12). Therefore, as well as having been given the “best of the land” (ibid 6), the children of Israel “acquired holdings in it, and they were prolific and multiplied greatly” ibid 27).
Some commentators explain that the purpose of this lengthy description is to emphasize the ingratitude that Egypt later showed Israel. While the Egyptians declare to Yoseph: “You have saved our lives” (ibid 25) and Yoseph had brought Pharaoh great wealth and power, Pharaoh returns the favor enslaving the children of Israel!!
However, perhaps the opposite is true.
God had promised Avraham that his children could only inherit the land in the fourth generation, as “the sin of the Emori will not be complete until then” (ibid 15:16). The Emori (and the rest of the Canaanites) did not yet deserve to lose their holding in Canaan. However, why would the nation amongst whom Israel resided: “enslave them and oppress them”? (ibid 13).
Perhaps, it is because of Yoseph’s actions that Israel were enslaved. “Let us find favor in my lord's eyes, and we will be slaves to Pharaoh” (ibid 47:25). Yoseph essentially enslaved the Egyptians to Pharaoh, who became their feudal lord: In a measure for measure act, Israel themselves were enslaved to the Egyptians.
We can possibly even find a criticism of Yoseph in laws that the Torah later enacted. Unlike the laws Yoseph approved, slaves could not be slaves forever, land could not be sold in perpetuity and priests could not be landowners.
Last years' Sedra Short on Parshat VaYigash, entitled: "Confrontation and Reconciliation" appears at http://parshablog.blogspot.com/2006_01_01_parshablog_archive.html.