Joseph’s Housing Policy

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Elliot Dine

The stories of our fathers are a sign to their descendants: This rabbinic idiom suggests that we are destined to relive the history of our forefathers, that the stories told in Breisheit reverberate throughout our own lives. The question then becomes whether the acts of our forefathers are commendable. When the situation arises once again in our lives should we mimic their decisions, or must we not repeat their mistakes when it is our turn to act.

This question becomes even more difficult to address when looking simply at the plain meaning of the stories in Breisheit, as these texts reveal little in terms of G-d’s judgment of our fathers actions. We are told simply about what occurs in each story and given no direction in our how should assess our forefathers choices.

Midrashim attempt to solve this problem by relating these narratives to the laws given later in the Torah. For example, according to Midrash Tanchuma the Torah requires the Kohen Gadol to bring two on Yom Kippur to repent for Yakov and Rivkah’s use of sheep to mislead Yitzchak and steal Esav’s blessing. This technique has in fact been around since the 2nd temple period as Sefer Yovelim makes explicit links between the laws of the inheritance of the firstborn in Devarim 21: 15-17 and Jacob’s refusal to give Reuven his proper inheritance (Thank you Ezra Newman for pointing this out to me.).

This method can help us figure out a seemingly extraneous passage in our Parasha. At the end of the Parasha we read how Yosef deals with the Egyptians during the period of the famine (Breishit 47:13-27). First, he collects all the Egyptians’ money as payment for the food rations. However, after one year the Egyptians are out of money and have nothing with which to pay for more food (13-15). So they offer their cattle and Joseph buys all the Egyptians’ cattle (16-17). Then, the next year, once again, the Egyptians cannot afford the food, so they offer to sell themselves and their land. Joseph happily agrees. Thus, Joseph buys all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh, turning the Egyptian population into sharecroppers in the process, at least according to the majority of commentators (17-21, and see the Parshanim’s comments on “ואת לערים אותו העביר העם”). It is difficult to figure out the purpose of this passage as it plays no role in advancing the main narrative in this section of Breishit, namely that of Yosef and the brothers. Moreover, we cannot tell whether this passage comes to praise Joseph’s wisdom in advancing Pharoah’s wealth or to disparage Joseph’s treatment of the Egyptian people.

The Torah provides a path to answer this question with a repeated phrase that comes at the end of the story. The Torah emphasizes that Joseph does not acquire the land of the Egyptian Kohanim three times (twice in verse 22 and verse 26), and that the Kohanim are the only class of people who now own land within Egyptian society. This stands in stark contrast with the laws of land ownership in the Torah, for as we know Kohanim and Leviim are the only class of people who cannot own land in Israelite society. And in fact if we look closer at this story it becomes clear that the policies Joseph puts in place are the polar opposite from what the Torah institutes for the land of Israel. The laws of Yovel in Vayikara 25 stand against the concept of sharecropping, making the claim that each person has a right to their own inheritance to their own piece of land and cannot be a servant in perpetuity. And numerous Midrashim pick up on these contrasts; for example Breishit Rabbah pokes fun at Pharaoh requiring 20% of all the produce from the land of Egypt, claiming that One with power only needs 10% and the extra 10% shows Pharaoh overcompensating. In sum, the rest of the Torah takes a clear stand choosing not to imitate Joseph’s decisions and in the process legislates more equitable laws of property.

Hopefully, this story manages to resonate with us. Although not ideological or political, the laws of the Torah take clear positions based on sets of fundamental principles regarding laws of property. In our times, I hope we can understand these principles and apply them to the the debates of today.

Elliot Dine (SBM 2010, 2015) is currently a first year graduate student in the Molecular Biology department at Princeton University.

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