Vayigash: Never Let a Crisis Go To Waste

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    • Tzvi Chulsky 5 months ago

      In the midst of the 2008 financial crisis, President-elect Barack Obama was hopeful. “As the economic signs grow ever more grim,” wrote the Wall Street Journal, “the opportunities for the Obama administration to drive through its agenda actually are getting better.”[1] It was reporting in particular on something incoming White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel had said at a conference the Journal had organized for a group of corporate CEOs: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” Democrats were able to leverage the crisis to push through a significant chunk of their wishlist that had, until then, appeared unattainable, including massive healthcare reform. Little of what they envisioned or created (or destroyed) had anything to do with “fixing” the crisis.

      It is beyond unlikely that Yosef HaTzaddik has nefarious aims for Egypt, but it does appear as though he has aims beyond fixing the crisis, and the effects of his reforms on the country are documented at the end of our parashah. The crisis, of course, is the famine[2]. He has previously recommended, and then overseen, a policy of levying a tax to prepare for this famine, rather than simply presenting Egyptians with the information necessary to deal with it on their own[3]. Instead of then returning the taxed grain during the years of hunger[4], the government, under Yosef’s leadership, then sells the grain back to the people it was taxed from[5].

      Thus, Yosef is able to collect all the money in Egypt and transfer it to the government[6]. In effect, all silver is removed from internal circulation, only to be used by the government in its international dealings. (Something similar was done by Franklin Roosevelt in the US on April 5, 1933, when gold ownership, both coins and bars, was made illegal in the United States, punishable by up to ten years in prison; but that, and a general discussion of the gold standard, must be saved for a different day.) Suffice it to say that currency is wiped out[7].

      Yosef is then able to collect all Egyptian belongings for the government[8]. Once he is able to do this, the Egyptians, in crisis, themselves offer to give up their land and their very bodies and become slaves to the government[9]. Coronavirus has thoroughly demonstrated the propensity of people to willingly relinquish their freedom when they believe that they are in crisis, and the Egyptians, in an actual fight for their lives, with the means to support themselves now belonging to the government, feel that they have no choice but to become slaves. “Why,” they say, “should we die when we can become slaves?”[10]

      Thus Yosef has collected all Egyptians’ money, belongings and land for the government by selling back what was taxed away from them in the first place[11]. He now embarks on a resettlement policy, shifting the entire populace around geographically[12]. “All the land had become the property of the state,” writes Rav S.R. Hirsch, “and in order to give concrete form to this right newly acquired by the state, all [former] property owners in the country were ordered to leave the land they had owned.” Such policies have since been used by dictatorial regimes ranging from Nebuchadnezzar to the Soviet Union; they are effective at crushing a group’s sense of identity, and thus resistance. In Egypt, this also cements the fact that the land no longer belongs to the citizens.

      This clearly has nothing to do with the famine at this point. Why does Yosef do this? There are different ideas with regard to that. One idea in the Talmud is “דלא ליקרו לאחיו גלוותא”[13]—that his brothers not be called strangers, i.e. so that all would be strangers to avoid singling out Jews as strangers. Needing to please the Pharaoh is another possible explanation.

      As always with government programs, there are élites who do not suffer like the hoi polloi. Egypt has those in the form of priests, who receive a government subsidy all along, and thus are able to keep their belongings and land without starving[14].

      In a simple pshat reading, it sounds triumphant when Yosef announces הן קניתי אתכם היום ואת אדמתכם לפרעה—“Behold, I have purchased you and your land for Pharaoh today.”[15] The formerly self-sufficient Egyptians are now helpless, looking to the government for handouts. And the handouts come.

      Yosef gives the people seeds to plant[16]. He then announces that his 20% tax, which had originally been levied as a temporary measure to address the famine, shall now be permanent[17]. Truly, how little has changed in our time.

      Historically, people stripped of their rights through the political process often initially respond with gratitude. Now that the land belongs to the government, will the Egyptians see the 20% tax as, instead, unexpected permission to keep 80% of the fruit of their labors? This is exactly what the Torah shows us here, as the Egyptians, their property now fully expropriated, say החיתנו נמצא-חן בעיני אדני והיינו עבדים לפרעה—“You have kept us alive; may we find favor in the eyes of our lord and be slaves to Pharaoh.”[18]

      How similar the picture can be in the Western world, when the government uses minimum wage laws to remove opportunities for poor and uneducated people to obtain employment and gain experience and then offers them welfare; when the government taxes and regulates industries until they become insolvent and then offers companies bailouts; when the government destroys jobs with coronavirus mitigation measures and then offers people unemployment. All this serves to impoverish the society and to dramatically increase the power of the government to pick who wins and who loses, who is wealthy and who is poor. The Torah does not mince words: it refers to this as slavery.

      Yosef ultimately finds only deep disappointment in his Egyptian reforms. Egypt does not become a fertile ground for the Jewish mission; instead, it is the miracle of our escape from there that now forms part of the core of our identity. Toward the end of his life, Yosef sees that Egypt is a hopeless place for the Jewish mission[19].

      “One day,” he says to his brothers right before his death, “God will remember you and bring you out of here…. [Promise me that] you will bring my bones out of here [with you].”[20]. These may have been deeply painful words for Yosef HaTzaddik.

      Yosef keeps his focus on the true Jewish mission, and understands that things have gone horribly wrong, that his work to reform Egyptian society was all in vain, but that the Jews are now entrenched there; that extracting the Jews from this land and returning them to Israel is now of utmost importance and will now require a miracle. Here, yet again, he shows himself to be infinitely wiser and more righteous than Jews like Rahm Emanuel who follow in his footsteps today, gleefully and obliviously destroying countries in galut in their quest for utopia.

      Often, we assume that Yosef is the victim in the right and his brothers are in the wrong; there is truth to many forms of that assertion, but perhaps here, we should take the side of the rest of the brothers. It should be no surprise that the Jews became enslaved in Egypt; we ourselves played a role in that enslavement, and we were not the only ones, nor the first ones, enslaved. The Torah describes a recurring theme in Jewish history, last repeated in the Soviet Union, and unfolding now in the United States—may it be interrupted by the coming geulah.

      And thus we must ask ourselves: are we working to bring about geulah, or are we participating in the destruction of our galut hosts? The latter can look deceptively like the former, especially to those with an insufficient or overly superficial religious education—many Russian Jews of the early 20<sup>th</sup> century thought they were creating a new and perfect socialist world. The key, perhaps, is to look at our mentality: are we thinking like free people, or like slaves? Are we advocating for a society where everybody is required to “fall into line,” in whatever way the “leader” declares, or are we advocating for a society where each of us is the master of his own life?

      The next time we say ברוך אתה ה’ אלקינו מלך העולם, שלא עשני עבד (שפחה), let us ask ourselves the uncomfortable questions: God did not make me a slave, but am I making myself one by thinking like one? Do my positions on current issues—vaccine mandates, freedom of speech / hate speech, seat belt laws, health insurance mandates, gun control, safe spaces, etc.—reveal a subconscious slave mentality of which I was not aware? Can I, in good faith, say this line, answer Amen to this line, with no plan to address this?

      [1] Gerald F. Seib for the Wall Street Journal, Nov. 21, 2008
      [2] Breishit 47:13, where we begin our current analysis
      [3] We should, of course, be aware of midrashim, including Rashi to Breishit 41:55, that suggest that private initiative was, in fact, not discouraged. We do not by any means dismiss the pshat of these midrashim—אלו ואלו דברי אלוקים חיים—but in this analysis we do not take them literally, opting instead for the pshat of the Torah text, which also should not be dismissed. In any case, there is no denying that the tax is mandatory and enforced. We return to this midrash below.
      [4] Somewhat like what the Social Security program is theoretically supposed to do
      [5] Breishit 41:56-57
      [6] ibid. 47:14
      [7] ibid. 47:15
      [8] ibid. vv. 16-17
      [9] v. 18
      [10] v. 19
      [11] v. 20
      [12] v. 21
      [13] At the very bottom of Chullin 60b
      [14] Breishit 47:22
      [15] ibid. 47:23
      [16] v. 23
      [17] v. 24
      [18] v. 25
      [19] Here we can return to the Rashi on Breishit 41:55, the main thrust of which is that Yosef orders Egyptians to circumcise themselves; one interpretation of such a midrash is that Yosef is trying to create a home for the Jewish mission in Egypt.
      [20] Breishit 50:25

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