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Drash on Vayigash 2023

Rabbi George Mordecai

Emanuel Synagogue

There is something profound that occurs in this week’s parsha which is often overlooked, even by many of our classical commentators. At this point in our story, we are all familiar with Joseph, his ability to interpret dreams and how his interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams saves Egypt. As a result, Joseph becomes the viceroy of Egypt answerable only to Pharaoh; however, the story does not end here. Despite Joseph’s wise economic strategy in counselling Pharaoh to store grain for the lean years, the famine continued with devastating consequences. As a result of the continuing famine, the Egyptian farmers and peasants, desperate and hungry, sold their livestock to Pharaoh for bread. The Egyptians were able to avoid starvation for a year. The famine still did not abate in the following year and this time the people sold all their property to Pharaoh who provided them food in return. As a result of this process, the Egyptians became indentured servants – serfs – to Pharaoh.

A couple of important points in the journey from Joseph’s success at the end of the book of Genesis to enslavement of the Israelites at the beginning of the book of Exodus slip by us here. We learn at the beginning of the book of Exodus that there was a ‘Pharaoh who didn’t know Joseph.”  This Pharaoh was responsible for enslaving the Israelites but we also see in vayigash that the Egyptians became serfs or indentured servants to Pharaoh before the Israelites were enslaved. During the years of hardship brought on by natural disaster, power shifted from a system whereby Egyptian farmers and peasants had access to the commons to a system where centralisation of all power and wealth was transferred to Pharaoh. Through this process Pharaoh had become an absolute ruler with all the resources of the Empire firmly in his hands. Additionally, I believe that the Torah is subtly indicating to us that it might have been this process which eventually led to the enslavement of the Israelites. Once absolute totalitarian power is established, every community within its grasp is at risk.

If it was the Torah’s intention to only take us through Joseph’s transformation from a brilliant but selfish young man to a mature leader who understood his role as a conduit for the Divine, and additionally if the Torah was only concerned with a “happily ever after narrative” of brothers and family reconciled, there would be no need to insert these important verses into the story. Furthermore, these verses appear only a few chapters before the grand epic of Israelite enslavement and freedom begin.

The Torah’s message is crucially important to us today, as we see many democracies – both nascent and mature – slide into authoritarian modes of power as a result of wide economic disparity and institutional instability. It also points to the intimate relationship we have with our environment and the importance of realising that we are part of this planet, not separate from it. The disasters we bring on due to our lifestyles and greed will not just affect the environment through a warming of the planet, but the natural disasters, war and chaos that follow will lead to the loss of our freedom and centralisation of power and resources in the hands of the few. This is already the case in many parts of the world and it is getting worse.

These few verses embedded in our parsha (Genesis 47:13-26) can be so easily overlooked and yet I believe they hold the key to a most important teaching for our time. Pay attention to the warning signs in our environment, our socio-economic policies and body politic. The Torah is not a political or economic manifesto but I strongly believe that its authors would have been appalled by how far humanity has strayed from its central goal of building a sacred, caring and compassionate community based of the principles of justice and reciprocity. However, even though times and circumstances change, the essential core value of our tradition remains constant: to create a just society. The cautionary tales embedded in our Torah guide us all in our efforts to resist authoritarianism, especially in times of distress when we are more vulnerable to it. The Torah calls upon us to build an Olam Chesed, a world full of justice and lovingkindness.

Find more Parashat Hashavua