How Joseph transferred Egypt’s wealth from the people to the state


By Stephen Berer

This week’s portion is Miketz, Genesis 41:1 to 44:17.

Miketz is second of the three-part Joseph novella embedded in our Torah. It is my belief that our Torah speaks new truths and makes new calls to action to every generation. So what can we learn now from Miketz?

In this portion, Joseph the dreamer becomes the dream interpreter. After years in Pharaoh’s dungeons, a stylist cuts his hair, a masseuse washes him and oils his skin and a tailor dresses him in proper servant’s attire.

In the light of day, squinting and bewildered, Joseph beholds the opulence that is pharaoh’s life. But Josef quickly regains his poise. He hears peasant-like dreams, but interprets them with a grand sweep that feeds the ruler’s ego.

“O Pharaoh, the God that speaks to me and interprets all mysteries, sees years of economic expansion followed by years of ecological disaster. But, O my king, my God tells me that both feast and famine will bring you increased power, if only you follow my advice. This is what you must do: in the years of plenty have your priests hoard the wealth, and in the years of ruin, have them trade a bag of grain for an acre of land. Soon you and your priesthood will own all of Egypt.”

Impressed and scheming, Pharaoh appoints this 30-year-old convict to act as viceroy over all of Egypt. For seven years, Pharaoh’s wealth grows, and for seven years Joseph’s power increases (although he never contacts his father, Jacob, back in Canaan).

Then, the ecological disaster descends, and all the countries of the region wither.

Jacob’s family comes seeking food and they find themselves in Joseph’s hands, just as Joseph was once was in their hands and thrown into the pit.

I suspect you have read this story many times and know it well. Our sages saw a falsely convicted Jew who was, in fact, a man of highest ethical values. They saw a Jewish hero who, with great sensitivity, extracted repentance from his brothers, and who perceived his own rise to power as a merciful act of God hidden in the injustice and randomness of human behavior.

But we can now see another story here. It is a darker story, in which Joseph saves his family, but indentures the entire population of Egypt. And not long after, a new Pharaoh will arise who knows not Joseph.

As you can see, a close reading of Miketz reveals striking similarities between Pharaoh’s dream-forecast of widespread drought and famine, and modern forecasts of similar environmental disasters brought on by global warming.

Perhaps even more pertinent is the prescient economic warning in Torah.

Pharaoh used the wealth he amassed during the times of abundance to usurp ownership of the land from the utterly dependent citizens during the subsequent famine. He transformed Egypt from a society of independent farm owners and small businesses to a feudal state of slaves and indentured servants ruled by an aristocracy of priests.

Our current circumstances are not so different. We are now living in the years of abundance, and yet already we see a generation of students indentured by debt. More widespread and extreme servitude may await us, if our government and its priesthood of giant corporations use the disasters that global warming will likely cause to strip us of our freedom and our economic mobility.

Stephen Berer is a writer working on the epic story of a Jewish Odysseus. He is also education coordinator at Shirat HaNefesh and a teacher at Tifereth Israel Congregation.

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