As Pharaoh had dreamed and Yosef had interpreted, the Land of Egypt was wracked by famine. Yosef’s initial economic advice was for Egypt to prepare for seven years of scarcity by stockpiling grain during seven years of surplus. But when it came time to address the population’s needs, things got dicey for the average Egyptian.
First, Yosef collects the entirety of Egyptian monetary assets in exchange for food rations. When that runs out, he demands the people’s livestock. At the end of the year, the people have nothing left to give, so they offer themselves and their land as serfs to Pharaoh. He removes the population town by town all across the land, but then gives them seed to sow the land. Twenty percent of the harvest goes automatically to the palace; the rest they can keep.
It’s not much of a deal if you’re an Egyptian, but the peoples’ response to Yosef is striking: “You have saved our lives! We are grateful to my lord…” (Genesis 47:25). It’s similar to the slave who gets whipped and says to his master, “Thank you, sir, may I have another?” Why, after being so harshly manipulated, do the Egyptian people express gratitude?
For an initial clue, look carefully at these verses from week’s parshah, Miketz. “And the seven years of famine began, as Joseph had said; and there was famine in all lands, but in all the land of Egypt there was bread. And all the land of Egypt was famished, and the people cried to Pharaoh for bread; and Pharaoh said to all the Egyptians, ‘Go to Joseph; do what he says to you.'” (Genesis 41:54-55).
On Shabbat morning, we’ll look at a midrash about Yosef’s economic policy, and consider what we can learn today from his strategy and from President Obama’s speech on the economy delivered on Wednesday.
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Wise