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Famine in Egypt — Parallels to Today

With Passover approaching, the themes of freedom and liberation from bondage tend to be in the front of our minds. However, any true analysis of liberation must first ask the question of how and why we were put into the state of bondage in the first place. In order to be truly free, we must consider not only our current state of subjugation, but come to understand the causes of that subjugation in order to reconcile the exile and not repeat the same mistakes again in the future. Chapter 47 of Genesis, which describes the Children of Jacob settling in the land of Egypt and the plight of the Egyptians and Canaanites during the famine, provides some amazing parallels to our current state of global unrest. In un-packing this challenging chapter of Torah, I hope to shine a light on some of the injustices in our current global economic & environmental systems. Through honest appraisal of our history, we can work toward making the world a better place for all people rather than repeating the mistakes of the past.

Chapter 47 of Genesis provides a striking contrast between the fortunes of the Children of Jacob and the fortunes of the Egyptians and Canaanites who are suffering through a seven year famine. In this chapter, the famine in Canaan and the earlier revelation of Joseph’s position of power have led the Children of Jacob to emigrate to Egypt, where they are set up with food and land holdings in the Goshen area, which is described as the “best of the land.”

"Then Joseph settled his father and his brothers and gave them a possession in the land of Egypt, in the best of the land, in the land of Rameses, as Pharaoh had commanded. And Joseph provided his father, his brothers, and all his father’s household with food, according to the number of their dependents." (Gen 47:11-12).

Although not able to live in the land of their promised inheritance, the Children of Jacob enjoy a high standard of living and material comforts after moving to Egypt. “Thus Israel settled in the land of Egypt,in the land of Goshen. And they gained possessions in it, and were fruitful and multiplied greatly.” (Gen 47:27) This position of enjoying great material comforts while living in Diaspora is not unlike the position many American Jews find themselves in today. American Jews certainly have risen to positions of influence and great material wealth that living in the world’s “greatest super-power” has provided. Just as Egypt was the super-power of that time and provided food for the rest of the world, so America has been the super-power of the 20th century, and has provided the majority of the world’s grain supplies from the 1930’s onward, thus earning it the title of “Breadbasket of the World”.

In sharp contrast to this state of comfort and security, the other inhabitants of Egypt are reduced to a state of indentured servitude as a result of Joseph’s economic policies during the seven years of famine. Joseph had wisely advised Pharaoh to stockpile grain during the seven years of plenty in order to have enough in store for the seven years of famine that lay ahead. Now that the seven years of famine had begun, Joseph exploited these stockpiles of food in order to concentrate all wealth, land, and power into the hands of the Pharaoh. During the first year of the famine, Joseph sold the food for all the money in Egypt and Canaan. Once the money had run out, Joseph traded food for livestock and herds of animals. Once the money and livestock had all been concentrated in Pharaoh’s hands, Joseph then acquired all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh, and made all the people into servants. Joseph then allowed the people to plant seeds, but mandated that 20% of everything they grew would belong to the Pharaoh, thus keeping them in a position of serfdom. (Gen 47:13-26). This story here described mimics what is happening worldwide today with regard to the consolidation of wealth, land, and power in the hands of a few over the welfare of the world’s population as a whole. Today, banks, multi-national corporations and corrupt governments have taken on the role of Pharaoh in ammassing enormous wealth at the expense of the world’s poor.

To be fair, Joseph did indeed save people from starvation, and for this the rabbis often praise him in his handling of the affair. However, Jospeh was also directly responsible for the poverty, enslavement and land appropriation of these people into the hands of Pharaoh. Could not a more equitable and egalitarian approach have been taken regarding planning for this catastrophe and its aftermath? What if Joseph had announced to everyone that there would be 7 good years proceeded by 7 years of famine, so that the people could stockpile food for themselves? What if Joseph had sold the food at a lower cost so that people would not starve but also would not be bankrupted? Perhaps this would not have generated great wealth for Pharaoh, but it would have been a more compassionate approach towards those who were suffering from hunger.

The contrast between the material comforts of the Israelites in Goshen compared to the poverty and suffering of the Egyptians during this same period is not often discussed by Rabbinnic authorities or others. For in admitting that the Israelites had cush lives that they had acquired through nepotism, while the rest of Egypt went through radical totalitarian upheaval, is not an easy situation to confront. Jewish people today often reflect on the hardships of slavery while in Egypt, and yet neglect to mention these years of material abundance that preceeded them, even as we were witnesses (and perhaps accessories) to the enslavement of the Egyptians during that time. Perhaps we should just chalk up this whole affair to “Divine Providence” and thus wash our hands of any collective responsibility we might share through Joseph’s actions for the enslavement of other people. Perhaps our own cognitive dissonance would rather remain undisturbed than to admit that Joseph was the instrumental player in enslaving the Egyptians into Pharaoh’s hands.

However, if we are to learn from this story and apply it to our lives today, we must confront the actions of Joseph in an honest and critical way. For while Joseph and the Israelites were successful and materially comfortable for a period of time, eventually this time of prosperity subsided and a new King arose who “knew not Joseph.” (Exodus 1:8) In time, the Israelite were also made into slaves of the Egyptian empire, just as others had been during Joseph’s reign. The Torah thus illustrates the Karmic principle of “that which you do unto others you do onto yourself.” Their positions of wealth and comfort having fallen abruptly by the wayside, the children of Israel were then subjected to 400 years of degrading slavery, which began to forge them into the nation that they were to become. We must ask whether it was not Joseph’s actions of enslaving people during the famine that caused us to later become slave ourselves. Had Joseph divined a more equitable solution to the problem of food distribution during times of famine, perhaps the Israelites would have been spared the experience of slavery themselves. Of course, we cannot answer these hypothetical questions definitively, but they are worth considering. In this day and age, we face many similar circumstances to that period in Egypt, so we would be advised to learn from our history lest we be doomed to repeat it.

The lessons from this period in our history seem incredibly applicable to the current economic and environmental context of today. As mentioned previously, American Jewry of today has had a good share of material prosperity not unlike that during our initial time in Goshen. Just as the enormous wealth of Egypt was consolidated into the hands of the Pharaoh through Joseph’s policies, so to today enormous quantities of wealth are being stockpiled in the hands of banks, multi-national corporations and governments that do not represent their people. Even the control of seeds themselves, which Joseph acquired and then leveraged to force people into servitude is again playing itself out in the form of corporate control of the global food supply through genetic modification of seed and the patent laws which protect such stockpiling. So too the speculators, commodities traders and government subsidies cause the price of food to be artificially high and thus generate enormous profits for themselves even while hundreds of thousands of people the world over cannot afford to feed themselves. Just as the famine in Egypt was ‘severe on the land’, we are now facing a depletion of water resources of epic proportions which could well cause famines in the future.

We would all do well to recognize the moral of this story; that the concentration of wealth, power and food cannot continue indefinitely without terrible results. We cannot remain forever immune to the deleterious effects that such policies have on people the world over. Just as the Israelites were made into slaves only after first witnessing the Egyptians being forced into slavery, so today must we recognize the patterns of injustice inherent in the current military/industrial/global petro-chemical system going on around us, even if we have not yet fallen prey to this system ourselves. By proactively recognizing and addressing these injustices, we can attempt to alter the system before it is too late. Should the concentration of wealth and resources continue to be monoplized by the powerful at the expense of the world’s poor, as it has been for some time now, we can at least take some solace from the ultimate fate of Pharaoh, who suffered through the ten plagues and was finally washed away in the Sea of Reeds, his wealth and empire decimated. However, better than waiting for the eventual destruction of those who have profitted from exploitation, is to end the systems of exploitation in the first place. Such reform is only possible through honest introspection into our own complicity in these systems of tyranny. Let us learn from the Torah and reflect on the successes as well as the shortcomings of our forefathers, in order to navigate a better way forward for ourselves and all humanity. Our future depends on it.

1 Comment
1 Reply
  • Deborah Klee Wenger
    April 24, 2011 (7:43 am)

    The challenge of being Jewish is discerning the right thing to do in each generation. We tell our stories over and over in order to learn from the past. Awe of Heaven, love of our fellow human beings, social justice, stewardship of creation … this is what we are called to do. Pesach reminds us to search out and follow the path from enslavement to holy freedom.


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