Perashat Vayigash – Despotism

Perashat Vayigash – Despotism

It has been observed by some who do not believe in the Torah that Yosef in his administration of Egypt was the archetype of despotic rulers. However, an objective study of the portion demonstrates the opposite. Instead we see remarkable leadership skills and impartiality towards his family. In Chapter 47 pasuk 12 we see that Yosef supported his family with bread enough for all of the offspring. He did not shower them with delicacies instead he gave them just enough to survive. This follows what we have been taught by our rabbis of blessed memory that in hard times a person should say that he will consume and be happy while others starve.

The Perasha continues with an account of how he sold the food which was stored up from the seven good years. In the beginning Yosef sold the food to the Egyptians for money. After they had no more money he told the Egyptians to bring their cattle in exchange for food. After there was cattle to exchange for food Yosef did not ask the people for their property or to sell themselves into slavery. Instead the people came and requested that Yosef confiscate their lands and enslave them so that they could plant seed for Pharo instead of dying. Being a just leader Yosef did not accept. He did acquire the land but did not enslave the people. In encouraging the people to continue working the land Yosef established serfdom whereby the people could work the land in exchange for one fifth of the production. It has been noted that under most fiefdoms the landlord receives three quarters while the serfs receive only one quarter.

It might be imagined that Yosef was really a tyrant because he then uprooted the entire population and made them work in different districts. Really this is a demonstration of his foresight. It would be easy for the farmers to claim ownership of the land that they sold to Pharo if they continued to work the same plots. Therefore Yosef had to force them to work different land in different districts. In moving the population he was careful to move communities together. Although all were living in a new place in order to reduce the trauma they still lived within the same community.

In addition to the above observation Jacobson comments on the differences between Egyptian customs and Torah law. In Egypt the priests did not sell their land because it is a law from Pharo that they should keep it. The priests occupied a special elitist class which gave nothing back to society. In Judaism the priestly tribe of Levy was excluded from inheriting any land. A Jewish priest’s job was to teach the people not to deprive them.

Torah law prevents the land from being permanently sold off as was done with Pharoh. This would prevent such a feudal situation which was thus established in Egypt. By Torah law land which was purchased must be returned during the Jubilee year which occurs every fifty years.