Who is wise? Someone one who learns from every person.
I. We have three Pharaohs in our Torah. The first Pharaoh, less memorable, receives Abraham and Sarah and then sends them away. The second, the good Pharaoh, is the one who raises Joseph from imprisoned slave to ruler over all Egypt. Only the third one, who did not know Joseph, is called “melekh chadash,” “a new king” – new because he inaugurated a radically new political order.
The new Pharaoh’s first policy, based on fear of foreigners, was to cast the entire Hebrew people into slavery. His next policy was to kill the Hebrew male babies, bringing God’s judgment upon himself and his nation. We began his story when we began the book of Exodus, the day after Trump’s inauguration. Interwoven with his story is the story of Shifra and Puah, the Hebrews’ midwives, who inaugurate resistance to the Pharaoh of the Exodus when they refuse to implement his policy of male infanticide.
How different is the story of the second Pharaoh, Joseph’s Pharaoh, that comes at the end of Genesis? He essentially becomes a pupil at Joseph’s feet, handing over to Joseph the reins of power. We need to understand what Joseph did with that power if we want to understand how Egypt became a fascist state under the Pharaoh who never knew Joseph. In the same way, we need to understand how the use of power by progressive forces in the U.S. has helped set up the world of pain our country is now entering.
II. The story of Joseph’s Pharaoh is a story about a world turned upside down, first by Nature, then by Joseph himself. Seven years of extravagant abundance, swallowed up by seven years of deadly famine. And a young man, a Hebrew slave, who saved the world. Joseph gathered up enough grain during the seven fat years to supply the seven lean ones.
As a true believer, Joseph trusted the fate God set out for him, for Pharaoh, and for Egypt. He saw the divine hand in his brothers’ betrayal, reconciling himself to God’s will after being sold into slavery by his jealous brothers and sent to prison on false charges. “[When] you planned evil against me – Elohim (God) planned it for good … to keep alive a multitude of people.” (Gen 49:20)
Joseph is called the tsadik, the righteous one. But is he righteous? During the seven destitute years, Joseph sold grain back to the Egyptian populace. During the first half of the first year, he gathered all their money in exchange for grain, and in the second half, all their animals. In the third year, he purchased not only their land, but the people themselves, making them all feudal slaves to Pharaoh. All this happened in the first two years of Egypt’s seven-year famine. (Gen 47:13-25)
Joseph turned what was a monarchy into the foundation of a fascist state, where Pharaoh was divinity, law, nation. How can Joseph be righteous, when this upside down reality was his creation?
Here’s a hypothesis about Joseph’s righteousness: Joseph never cheated anyone. He gathered grain for seven years for next to nothing because it was so abundant. When the famine came, Joseph could have gouged the people when he sold the grain back to them, but he didn’t. He charged pre-famine market prices, not famine prices.
What went wrong is this: Joseph ran government like a business. It never occurred to Joseph that the job of government during famine was to distribute grain fairly and freely, so that people could remain (relatively) free on their land. Joseph’s flaw, then, was that he never questioned the basic rules of the market – the rules that say if you want something, you need to give up something to get it.
III. Joseph’s last policy mentioned in the Torah was to remove Egypt’s peasant families from lands they had farmed for centuries, transferring them from “one border edge of Egypt to its (other) edge” (Gen 47:21). This was “kosher” in everyone’s eyes, because Joseph purchased the feudal rights to the land fair and square. We would call that a kind of uprooting a cultural genocide, but that wasn’t how Joseph the businessman, his Pharaoh, or the peasants saw it.
This policy is almost impossible to align with calling Joseph righteous, but we can perhaps say that Joseph was a good citizen and a good person, a tzadik im pelz – a righteous person in a fur coat, to use the Yiddish expression – who doesn’t realize that other people are freezing. Or to use Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s expression, “a tzadik in the dark” (Godwrestling).
IV. It wasn’t only cultural genocide everywhere, though. During the famine years, two groups kept their culture and their freedom. One was the Egyptian priests. As part of Pharaoh’s household, his family, the priests automatically received a grain allowance from Pharaoh, so they never needed to sell their land to survive. Similarly, in Goshen, where Joseph had settled his family, the Israelites kept the land they had been given along with their money and their animals.
Just as Pharaoh sustained the priests as part of Pharaoh’s family, so too did Joseph sustain his own family. I don’t think by his lights that Joseph was treating the Israelites or the priests unequally from the rest of Egypt. I think he was simply running his family like a family, and his business like a business. He would have expected each Egyptian family to do the same, from Pharaoh to peasant.
The end result was that Joseph created the framework for a fascist state, concentrating every ounce of power in Pharaoh’s hands. The blow that placed absolute control over the state into Pharaoh’s hands was Joseph’s policy of resettlement. A people without connection to the land has little power to resist tyranny. When “a new king arose who had not known Joseph,” he was easily able to enslave all the Israelites.
But even if Egyptian society could have resisted the new policy of enslaving the Israelites, why would they? Imagine the Egyptian people, enslaved everywhere, uprooted from their ancestral lands, knowing that those foreign immigrants from Canaan remained free, while they became as destitute as the land was barren. If anything would seem fair to a downtrodden populace, it would have been the Israelites’ enslavement.
V. Two Pharaohs, two opposing realities. Through Joseph, the office of Pharaoh had amassed unlimited power, but Joseph’s Pharaoh never chose to use that power. Only the new Pharaoh, the one “who knew not Joseph,” become an autocratic tyrant.
What stopped Joseph’s Pharaoh from abusing his power? A subtle difference between the two Pharaohs helps explain things, and it parallels a difference between Obama or any rational leader, and Trump.
After Joseph predicts the famine, he advises Pharaoh to find someone to manage Egypt’s famine response. Pharaoh asks his court, “How can we find a man like this, who has the spirit of Elohim in him? … There is no one understanding and wise like you [Joseph].” (Gen 40:38-41:1) This Pharaoh had no delusion that he knew more than the generals, or the magicians (who were the scientists of that time), or prophets like Joseph.
But the next Pharaoh, the one who battled Moses, was the opposite. When he has the idea to enslave the Hebrews, he is already convinced that it’s the best and wisest idea: “Come, we will show how wise we can be with this people …” (Exod 1:10) When he wants to feel justified about his policies, his advisors supply him with “alternative facts,” claiming that the plagues are just magic tricks.
When the magicians finally tell him it is “the finger of God” that has brought the plague of lice (8:15), that it is no trick, he ignores them. Even when they admonish him in parshat Bo (read on February 4), “Do you not yet know that Egypt is destroyed?” (10:7), he still refuses to send away the Hebrew people, thereby bringing on the last three plagues, the locusts, darkness, and the slaying of the firstborn, the final one a direct punishment for the drowning of the Hebrew babies.
VI. I have said that Joseph’s Pharaoh was wise enough to recognize other people’s wisdom. There is a deeper clue about what this means in what seems like a minor vignette about Pharaoh welcoming Joseph’s brothers. When Joseph picks a handful of his brothers to present to Pharaoh, he warns them, “When Pharaoh asks, ‘What is your work?’ say, ‘Your servants were cattlemen from our youth and up to now,’ because all who herd sheep are an abomination for Egypt.” (Gen 46:34) Nevertheless, when Pharaoh asks, “What is your work?” they say, without hesitation, “Your servants are shepherds, so are we and so were our ancestors.” (47:3)
Pharaoh received their answer without skipping a beat, accepting both their difference from his culture, and their willingness to announce that they are different. He was ready to learn from people who were officially far beneath him, and he even valued their honesty when they told him things he may not have wanted to hear.
As Ben Zoma teaches, “Who is wise? The one who learns from every person.” (Pirkei Avot 4) But someone who refuses to learn from other people, who has no humility, who thinks he is always the smartest person in the room, is neither wise, nor even smart.
VII. The midrash tells us something surprising about the five brothers Joseph chose to meet Pharaoh. It says that Joseph picked the five weakest brothers, so as not to scare Pharaoh or his advisers. (Rashi on Gen 47:2) Even so, those brothers were strong enough to speak the truth while facing the most powerful human being in the world. This truthfulness, this integrity, earned Pharaoh’s trust and help.
The brothers were good enough and brave enough to expect justice for themselves and to challenge the system to accept them, but they only advocated for themselves. That’s exactly how much integrity they had. They didn’t resist when their own brother uprooted legions of Egyptians.
When a new government came into power, being good people was not enough. What mattered for redemption was not being “good citizens,” but resisting. Without any allies, without any preparation for resistance, the fascist state consumed the Israelites’ freedom, just as the state had already consumed the freedom of the Egyptians. A revolution was needed.
VIII. Here’s where it all hits the fan, or the road, so to speak. In a very short span of time, our country’s new president has demonstrated with ferocity that we are in a new era. Trump doesn’t have the capacity to recognize the good work of anyone who came before him or anyone who isn’t for him. He is not just a “melekh chadash” but a “davar chadash,” an entirely new phenomenon.
Joseph set up the worst Pharaoh imaginable, the one who was willing to destroy Egypt for his own pride. We should be afraid of the ways we are like Joseph, the ways we have set up our own demise.
Many pundits have talked about what went wrong with the election, but that’s not what I mean. With all the mistakes, if there weren’t both a conspiracy by Russia and a conspiracy by the FBI, we would probably have our first female president. (By FBI, I don’t mean Comey, but the agents who probably colluded with people like Guiliani to manipulate Comey, so that he would send his election-tampering letter close enough to the election to sway the vote.) What we really need to think about, though, is how we and the people entrusted with our hopes prepared the ground so that Trump was even a possibility.
How did conditions become so ripe? How many times was there a Joseph moment, or series of moments, where what was done was legal but not right, or where some ideal was left unfulfilled, that led us to where we are now? Many others have asked and will continue to ask this question. I would like to explore three spheres of action and influence where we and our repositories of leadership – the Obama administration, the political left, and the Jewish community – acted like Joseph.
IX. Does the analogy work between Joseph and Obama, or the left, or the Jews? To start with President Obama, when did Obama, with all his goodness and soaring rhetoric, hold back from pursuing the highest goals in order to keep business running “as usual”?
One moment was when the Wall St. banks, like the priests of Egypt, received their TARP bailouts in 2009. Why was there no national suspension of foreclosures at the same time, so that families would be spared the tragedy of losing their homes? (This of course would have also instantly shored up the housing market.) Nor were bank leaders held criminally responsible. More generally, why hasn’t class, which includes poor whites as much as poor blacks and other people of color, been an explicit and overriding concern? Why do Democrats talk about helping the middle class instead of ending poverty? What would have happened if a Sanders-style agenda had been taken up years ago in response to the Tea Party?
We could also ask, Why did Obama press for the Affordable Care Act before first passing a carbon tax, cap-and-trade, or some other related measure that would move the whole economy toward climate stability? If he had, instead of 20 million people worried about losing insurance, we would have had 20 million people worried about losing jobs – a much more formidable electoral force. And we would have changed our culture – the ACA mostly enabled the insurance and drug industry norms to remain in place.
About coal mining jobs: Who thinks it would be good enough to replace back-breaking heartbreaking work like coal mining with working as a solar panel installer or in a Walmart? Coal workers need extraordinary solidarity to create strong-enough unions, and they have a multi-generational culture of sacrifice that involves the belief that one is taking on risks on behalf of the nation. As long as Democrats think of a good job as a matter of money only, they miss the whole point of the politics of meaning that Tikkun has championed for decades. People need a restoral of meaning, and Trump has paradoxically provided that for his supporters.
In the most direct line to Trump, it seems in hindsight that Obama set up the downfall of liberal politics worldwide when he decided that his red line in Syria wasn’t so red, when he chose not to retaliate against Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians. Accepting Russia’s solution meant opening the door to a longer civil war where Russia bombed hospitals and U.S. allies, where attacking Assad was permanently off the table because he had Russia’s immediate military protection, and where Assad could carry out further atrocities. Whence the extremes of the Syrian refugee crisis, the right-wing backlash in countries like Hungary, the rise of the anti-immigrant right throughout Europe and in the United States, Brexit, and the rise of Trump.
X. What about us? Looking through the lens of Joseph’s mistakes also means looking at ourselves. The political left has so often been consumed by identity politics that people are ready to straitjacket freedom of speech. By constantly valorizing the most-oppressed, the left has fostered a self-sabotaging elitism of oppression. Has that been a healthy way to overcome white privilege? How does it work to expect and demand that poorer white people in economically-depressed areas should feel guilt about white privilege, when they hardly can see themselves benefiting from it? Was it the left’s emphasis on guilt that led to the right seeing as its champion a man incapable of feeling guilt, even about the most obvious of sins?
And to the Jewish community, the real descendants of Joseph: putting vast communal resources toward nurturing an anti-democratic Israeli government has helped the rise of neofascist elements here and in Israel. Pro-terrorist “price-tag” settlers in places like Yizhar (in the Shomron) should not only be deported from the West Bank. If they are from chutz la’aretz (meaning, if they made aliyah from other countries), they should be deported back to the places they came from. Instead, the Jewish community’s mainstream has been willing to tolerate racism against Arabs not only in the sh’tachim (territories) but in Israel proper, even against Bedouin who serve in the IDF like the villagers of Umm al-Hiran, whose homes are being destroyed in order to build a Jewish town.
That part of the Jewish community that will support any expansionist policy that Israel carries out includes court Jews like Trump’s David Friedman. By putting survival of the tribe, i.e. family, over essential things like universal human rights, our Jewish leaders have helped to create a world where Israel is spiraling down, and where the worst elements here, like the alt-right and Breitbart, are emboldened.
Now that Trump has engaged in what Deborah Lipstadt called “softcore Holocaust denial,“ the ZOA has spoken up, but they have spoken up like a mouse, not a lion. After a third round of bomb threats to JCC’s and Federations, the Jewish right should be holding Trump’s feet to the fire. Instead, we have a Jewish community half of whose leadership is so desperate for the U.S. to blindly support Israel’s government that it accepts the Trump administration’s refusal to take a hardcore stand against neofascism in the U.S.
If we can learn from what happened after Joseph, it should be that there is no playing nice, no court intrigue, that will protect us. Nor will an Esther, a glamorous high-placed leader, be enough to save us. Only by standing up for everyone’s rights do we stand a chance.
XI. It took an atrocity worse than slavery, the threat of killing the male babies, to force God’s hand, to spark revolution. And God’s hand did not first appear in the form of a plague or miracle, but in the resistance of the midwives, who refused to kill the newborns.
A new would-be-king was inaugurated a few weeks ago. It’s hard to hold in mind all that has happened since then. But the day after Trump’s inauguration, a new resistance rose up to confront him. The resistance began with women leading marches in cities throughout the country. Resistance has taken flight in airports across the country, where hundreds and thousands gathered to support refugees. We need to be vigilant to strengthen whatever comes next.
Our new president is not yet a Pharaoh, or even a king, though he acts like he wants to be both. But if he can be stopped, it will be because we stopped him from getting there. With God’s help maybe we will even avert most of the plagues that he would have brought our way.
When we transitioned from Joseph’s Pharaoh to the new king three weeks ago, we also transitioned from one book of the Torah to the next. When we do that we say, “Chazak chazak v’nitchazeik” – “Be strong, strong, so may we make ourselves strong.” We have transitioned from one book of life to a different book, and from one era to another. May this blessing that we pronounce in shul be true for all of us now and for all who need to be blessed: may we make each other strong. As we resist a new king, may we help prepare each other to continue resisting.
An earlier version of this article was published in the Jewish Journal. Rabbi David Seidenberg is the author of Kabbalah and Ecology and the creator of neohasid.org.
Who is wise? Someone one who learns from every person.