On Privilege and Injustice: Joseph’s Role in helping some while hurting others

Joseph could no longer control himself, the Torah tells us.

“Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants and he cried out, ‘Have everyone withdraw from me!’ So there was no one else about when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. His sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear, and so the news reached Pharaoh’s palace. Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph. Is my father still well?’ But his brothers could not answer him, so dumfounded were they on account of him. Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come forward to me.’” (Gen. 45:1-4).

Joseph reunites with his brothers. He is the hero and he is the savior, not just for his family, but for all of Egypt. Or so we are led to believe. Pharaoh responds by telling Joseph’s family that “the best of all the land of Egypt shall be yours” (Gen. 45:20). Pharaoh says, “the land of Egypt is open before you: settle your father and your brothers in the best part of the land” (Gen. 47:6). And in turn,  “Joseph sustained his father, and his brothers, and all his father’s household with bread, down to the little ones” (Gen. 47:12).

It seems everything works out. And Joseph saves all of Egypt from famine by supplying them with food that had been collected during seven years of plenty. It was a happily ever after conclusion to the story. As Andrew Lloyd Weber wrote and the ensemble of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat sang: “Joseph how can we ever say all that we want to about you, We’re so glad that you came our way; we would have perished without you.”

But the Torah tells us that Joseph wasn’t the savior that that is portrayed under the lights of Broadway. It wasn’t so happily ever after, at least not for those who weren’t a part of Joseph’s family. When the famine became so severe and there was no bread in the land, Egyptians began turning to the vizier of Egypt.  But Joseph wasn’t giving away “handouts.” This was not an act of tzedakah or charity. First, Joseph takes their money: “Joseph gathered all the money that was to be found in the land of Egypt” (Gen. 47:14). And when there was no money left Joseph said, “bring me your livestock” (Gen. 47:16).  And when no animals were left they were desperate for food and said: “take us and our land in exchange for bread” (Gen. 47:19).

As Rabbi Shai Held, Rosh Yeshiva of Mechon Hadar, points out: “Joseph is an adept manager, but he is also seemingly a ruthless one: He saves the Egyptians but, as we shall see, he also enslaves them.” Joseph ends up creating a system of indentured servitude. The Egyptians couldn’t pay for food. First, they gave their money, and then their cattle, and then their homes, and then finally themselves. Joseph is no tzedek. He is not giving out food during a humanitarian crisis, like we would expect FEMA or the Red Cross to do. He is taking advantage of the straits that the Egyptians find themselves in and acquires them. Joseph enslaves them.

We are often left wondering: how is it possible that a king could rise up at the beginning of Exodus who doesn’t know Joseph, who in turn enslaves the Israelites?!? But what if the Israelites were the last to be enslaved? As troubling as the exodus story is, and as essential as the exodus experience is to our communal memory, what if we read it differently? What if according to this understanding, all of Egypt were enslaved except for the Israelites. All had succumbed to the reality of serfdom while the Hebrew privilege, the privilege that came from being a relative of Joseph allowed the Israelites to live in the best of the land, never having to worry about where their next meal would come from. But then all of a sudden, we become enslaved and finally demand justice. Moses only speaks for God in referring to the Israelites when demanding “Let My People Go!” However, when everyone else was enslaved under Pharaoh’s rule, they were ignored.

We never acknowledge the discrimination, injustice, and enslavement of our neighbors in Egypt. We know others were enslaved. The Torah tells us that when the Israelites left Egypt, there was an erev rav, a mixed multitude of diverse individuals who joined in the Exodus with the Israelites. They were enslaved as well, marching with us side-by-side through a split sea to freedom. Yet, we ignore them – or at least ignored them – until we were the victims of an unjust system. What if the Israelites were apathetic – at best – to the injustices around them and directly responsible – at worst – for them?

The problem with the Exodus narrative that brings us such hope is that we only care about our own freedom and ignored the enslavement and injustice of others because it didn’t directly affect us.

Let’s not celebrate Joseph’s dreams coming true. Let’s not celebrate Joseph saving the day. Because he didn’t. Let’s remember Dr. King’s teaching that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. If we refuse to stand up to injustice when it happens to another, it will ultimately happen to us as well as well. And no one will be there to stand with us as allies. It shouldn’t then be a surprise that the Israelites were eventually enslaved if they were content with the enslavement of everyone else in Egypt.

We cannot only stand up and scream because of the rise of anti-Semitism in this country. It is deeply troubling, but if we only care about that, and aren’t equally concerned about the rise in hate crimes across the board – about the rise in Islamophobia, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and racism – then we can’t be shocked with the spike in hatred towards us. If we witness injustice happening all around us but are content because Pharaoh supplies us with bread on our tables and the best of the land of Egypt to live in, then we are just waiting for injustice to happen to us as well. Let us remember that your liberation is bound up with mine, and mine with yours. So let us work together to create a wholly just society, where no one’s success is the result of anyone else’s demise.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

 

1 Comment

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One response to “On Privilege and Injustice: Joseph’s Role in helping some while hurting others

  1. Joshua Schor

    Brilliant reading !! It’s a keeper. Thanks Reb O.

    Sent from my iPhone Joshua Schor, MD

    >

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