By Elie Pollack
The Torah outlines the descent of the brothers into Egypt. It does not give much detail about how the situation decayed to the point that they were enslaved. Nevertheless, we can posit a tenable understanding of these events when we consider the following:
1. The Torah tells us that Yosef sustained his brothers “lechem l’phi hataf”—literally, bread according to the children. This is an awkward expression. If the Torah merely meant to convey that he gave food for each family in accordance with its size, then it could have stated that using the term labayis (according to the household), which is found in conjunction to the korban Pesach (Sh’mos 12:3-4), or lagulgoles (according to the persons [lit. skulls]), which is used in regards to the mon (Sh’mos 16:16). The expression used here comes across as awkward, wordy, and no more accurate than these alternatives; what message does it convey?
2. The Torah also relates that when the Egyptians ran out of money to buy food, Yosef told them to surrender their livestock to him instead. When these were also depleted, he said that he would feed them if they would sell themselves and their real estate to Pharaoh (Bereishis 47:15-23). This seems appalling; the Egyptians had put Yosef into power to help them survive the famine, and he took advantage of their weak position. Even if we assume that their servitude was not nearly as overbearing as the term implies,1 it still seems troublesome that Yosef took all of their property and at least some of their freedom. What makes this even more astonishing is that he was doling out the Egyptians’ own grain, which he had impounded for the purpose of ensuring their survival. How could he justify returning the grain only on terms that seem to have been grossly unfavorable to his subjects, thereby victimizing and extorting them?
3. At the very beginning of Vayechi, Rashi comments that the opening paragraph is setumah (closed off; it does not have the standard indentation that generally demarcates a new paragraph in the Torah). In his first explanation, Rashi suggests that this is because, upon Yaakov’s death (the main topic of Vayechi) the eyes of the Israelites were “plugged up” due to the inception of the servitude in Egypt (Bereishis 47:28). This is bothersome to many commentators; it is hard to fathom such a scenario as having played out, as Yosef remained in power for decades after his father’s demise. How could any subjugation have occurred during that period?
Let us look at the beginning of the book of Sh’mos, where the decay of the situation in Egypt occurs. The Torah opens its second paragraph with the phrase, “A new king arose upon Egypt who did not know Yosef” (Sh’mos 1:8). The Talmud gives two interpretations of this verse. According to the first view, the expression is to be taken literally, whereas the other view maintains that the old king merely changed his policies (Sotah 11a). The Talmud states that the impetus to read the verse in this unconventional manner is that the verse does not say, “He [the old king] died, and he [the new king] ruled in his place.” Since the Torah does not mention the demise of the old king, we can reinterpret the verse as saying that this king was not truly a new king, but actually the old king acting as though he were a new (i.e. different) monarch.2
The Ibn Ezra provides an alternative explanation, saying that the new ruler was not of the previous royal line. “He [the old king] died, and he [the new king] ruled in his place” could have led us to believe that the new king assumed the throne in the capacity of royal next-of-kin. Instead, the Torah chooses the expression, “A new king arose upon Egypt” which can more easily imply, “A new [line of] king[ship] arose upon Egypt.”
We could posit that had the new ruler been a scion of the previous dynasty, he would have been educated to appreciate the invaluable assets that the Jews were to his country, and what pivotal roles their talents had had in maintaining his empire. However, this Pharaoh was not of the old stock. Accordingly, the verse reads, “A new king arose upon Egypt who did not know Yosef.”
Taking this one step further, we could add that if indeed there had been a coup or a revolution in Egypt,3 then we can understand how the social position of the Jews in Egypt declined so drastically. Surely, the new leader must have ridden into power atop an army of those discontented with the previous administration. Once he had secured power, he had to cater to these cronies and minions by giving them high-level positions in his new government, and stripping remnants of the old power base (including the Jews) of any influence. The new regime, stacked with elements that were unhappy with their former masters, viewed the Jews with much distrust, as the verse emphasizes, “When a war occurs they too shall join our enemies4 and fight against us.” By virtue of their association with the ousted former ruling elite, the Jews were perceived as a threat. All this seems to follow from the understanding of the Ibn Ezra.
We may be able to gain a fuller understanding of this decay by returning to the original questions with which we opened our discussion. To understand why Yosef ran Egypt in the manner that he did, we must consider an important constraint on his benevolence: the food supply.
Despite the monumental efforts to collect, store, and preserve food, there was barely enough to go around. This is implicit from the text, “The abundance shall be forgotten in face of the famine that will [occur] afterwards, for it will be especially cumbersome” (Bereishis 41:31). According to Rashi (ad loc.), this was the interpretation of the final aspect of Pharaoh’s dream, that even after ingesting the robust meaty cows, the emaciated cows looked no fatter (i.e. no more nourished) than before. The Egyptians would eat during these latter seven years, but they would get no fatter, even as they consumed the preserved bounty from before. These years would indeed still be years of hunger, and thus, the abundance that they had replaced would truly be forgotten.
We now come to the terrible dilemma. There was a very limited amount of food in Egypt. The challenge of preserving the grain was not merely a challenge against mold, insects, rodents, or even criminals. It was a challenge against the fundamental nature of every citizen. How does one take food, the most basic staple of life, and apportion it in such a way as to ensure that it will not be squandered by an entire nation of hungry individuals who are each thinking of their own stomachs, and who are each sure that their own minor indulgences could not make a dent in the national “accumulated treasury like the sand of the seabank?” (Bereishis 41:49)
The Torah highlights Egypt as a quintessential example of an extremely licentious country (Vayikra 18:3, with Rashi and Ramban). During the plague of the firstborn, Rashi tells us that there was a great amount of confusion as to exactly who was a firstborn, since many did not know from whom they (or their “siblings”) were conceived (Sh’mos 12:30). In such an environment, it would have been impossible to institute a strict rationing system, for anyone could always claim an extra dependent in someone else’s house who would not receive care from that suspicious head-of-household in times of tight rationing. There would be no way to verify which of the hundreds of thousands of such claims from the unabashedly depraved people were true and which were not, and the entire hungry populace would have had vested interest in making such claims. The result would have been that millions of rations would have gone to waste on feeding the same person twice, or on feeding people that did not exist. Such a rationing system would have been a total disaster. If so, how could the grain be preserved and stretched so that the people would be able to subsist on it for seven years?
There was but one other way, and that was to ensure that everyone paid “top dollar” for every last morsel of grain that they receive. In this way, people would feel the sparseness of their own resources as they went to claim from the national treasury, and they would purchase their food accordingly (see Rabbeinu Bachaya to Bereishis 47:17). The system of forcing the Egyptians to pay and pay again, even as their last life savings and commodities were depleted, was not a form of extortion at all. Instead, this regulation was instituted for the Egyptians’ own benefit, as it was necessary to save the country.5
It seems that our premise, that it was integral to the success of the plan that the Egyptian people be supported at their own expense, was acknowledged by the populace itself. “They said, ‘you have granted us life, let us find favor in your eyes and be serfs to Pharaoh’” (Bereishis 47:25). The common folk recognized the equitability of Yosef’s policy, even as it stripped them of their last possessions and their independence.
There was one place, however, where all of this was not necessary. In the territory of Goshen there was a small enclave that was starkly different than the overall Egyptian population. The fledgling Jewish community was a small tractable group, whose number could be easily defined. On top of that, there was absolutely no infringement on the census data by children whose paternity was dubious, who could be subjects of over-reporting. The Torah attests to both of these points by giving its own census of the children of Yaakov just as they entered Egypt (Bereishis 46:9-27).
Perhaps even more significant was the moral discrepancy that set Goshen apart from its neighbors. When an Egyptian entered Goshen, he immediately could not help but notice the differences from everything he was accustomed to. The mode of dress was different, the mores of conversation were different. Any Egyptian understood that here was a population that adhered to its own principles and standards and thus did not need to be governed by a newly imposed set of rules.
Thus, what Yosef did in Egypt for his own family was not a form of favoritism or royal nepotism; he was merely doing for them what he would have done for his entire country, had they been capable of receiving such a form of assistance. The Torah accordingly emphasizes “bread according to the children,” meaning that it was given in accordance to each child, since each child could be positively and definitely identified as being supported through a single specific family entity which could collect the rations on his or her behalf . . . unlike the rest of the country, which could not be freely sustained in such a manner.
To be sure, the net result of all of this put the Jews at a tremendous advantage over their Egyptian neighbors. The final verse in Vayigash states, “The children of Israel settled in the land of Goshen and they took holding in it . . .” (Bereishis 47:27). The term “took holding” implies an absolute ownership, which entitles the proprietor to bequeath his property to his heirs afterwards. The Jews, whose rations were being subsidized, did not have to sell their domains as the Egyptians did (Bechor Shor to Bereishis 47:28 states this explicitly). On the contrary, they were likely in a position to buy things that were being sold in desperation. But that generation of Egyptians understood the circumstances that had created the situation and they accepted that reality for what is was. v
(To be continued)
Ellie Pollack is a rabbinical student in Torah V’daas.
1. See, for instance, Ohr HaChaim to Bereishis 47:23-25 who interprets it as a form of employment.
2. Da’as Zekainim (Sh’mos 1:8) cites a Midrash (Sh’mos Rabbah 1:8, Tanchuma Sh’mos 5 also cited in Yalkut Shimoni ad loc.) that Pharaoh was deposed by dissidents who were opposed to his government’s favorable relationship with the Jews. He was unable to retain power until he agreed to change his policy to persecute them. According to this view, much of what we will say here may be applicable even within the framework of the opinion that he was not actually a new Pharaoh.
3. This may be implicit in Ibn Ezra’s cross-referencing of the term “arose” in our verse with a counterpart in I Shmuel 22:8. Kli Yakar here also points out that the term “arose” can imply a violent confrontation although his understanding is not the same as our suggestion here.
4. This might be a reference to ousted affiliates of the previous royal administration, who were now in exile, to whom the Jews had favorable ties. Along this line of possibility, perhaps the Torah deliberately omits mention of the old king’s death because he was alive himself, attempting to reconstruct his forces and hoping to fight his way back into Egypt.
5. It may still be that Yosef required the Egyptians to declare how many dependents they were purchasing for. It would be disadvantageous for anyone to claim any dependents that they were not planning to feed. When any family went bankrupt, the government could take the family as an entire unit into serfdom, presumably based on the number of dependents it had claimed. Under their new servile status, perhaps the government was more capable of monitoring these families. It is also possible that the newly established serf families could be sent to another part of the country (see Bereishis 47:21). In this way they could be separated, both geographically and “on paper,” from any extra children they may have attempted to double-claim. Any remaining unclaimed children who were not self-sufficient could then be supported by the crown directly in a manner that could ensure that they were fed once and once only.