If you read too quickly, Parashat Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27) looks like the Torah portion of happy endings. Judah demonstrates his repentance for the mistakes of the past, Joseph forgives his brothers, Jacob is reunited with his long lost son, the family survives the famine by moving down to Egypt where Joseph is the second-most powerful man in the government … What could go wrong?
But if you’ve ever read the book of Exodus, you know – we should be worried. We know what’s coming, even if Joseph has no inkling. We know that the Children of Israel won’t return to the Promised Land when the famine ends. We know that only after 400 years of slavery, a series of supernatural disasters, and the miraculous parting of the Sea of Reeds will they even begin their journey back to Canaan.
This week, the seeds of that story are planted. And not just for the reason you might think. You see the problem wasn’t just that the Israelites came to Egypt. The problem, hiding in chapter 47 of Genesis, is that during this week’s parashah, widespread slavery came to Egypt.
And I have more bad news I’m afraid. It seems that one of the primary architects of the Egyptian slavery system was Joseph.
You see after his family came down and settled, the famine continued for several more years. At first, the people brought money to procure rations. And Joseph gathered all the money for Pharaoh. When the money ran out, they brought all of their livestock. And then, when they had sold all of their possessions, in desperation they said, “Take us and our land in exchange for bread, and we will be serfs to Pharaoh, that we may live and not die and that the land may not become a waste.” So Joseph gained possession of all the farmland and all of the people of Egypt for Pharaoh (excepting the priestly class). He gave them seed to plant, but he passed a law that forever after, Pharaoh would own the land and the people and take one fifth of the harvest.
Yes. The difficult truth seems to be that Joseph used his position to enrich his boss and institute a powerful system of exploitation. When his descendants generations later find themselves trapped and toiling in anguish, they are the victims of a structural injustice that their own forefather instituted in a moment when he had power and the rest of the world was on its knees. Little did Joseph imagine, the system of inequality he cemented while he was on top would come to crush his great great grandchildren when they had their turn at the bottom.
I was telling my Dad this story a couple of days ago and I watched as his face fell and a thick quiet filled the space. “But wasn’t he supposed to be some kind of hero?” He asked.
Yes. And he was a hero. He opened his heart and forgave the sins of his brothers. He helped the whole region survive a devastating famine!
But it’s complicated. Joseph may have seen the future – the years of plenty and the years of drought. But he could not see beyond the limitations of his own tribal worldview. Raised and educated in a time when slavery was commonplace, he could not imagine an alternative. Even though he himself had been a slave — when he had power, our hero Joseph re-enforced a devastating legacy of injustice that came back to haunt his own descendants.
The AMAZING thing is that the Torah includes this story at all. And painful as it is, I believe that if we can face the heartbreak of seeing Joseph’s mistake, WE can learn the lesson, instead of repeating it.
Let me be clear. It’s not that Joseph was a bad person. If we limit our analysis to his personal gifts and flaws, we miss something much more important.
The problem is that when he had power, he used that power to strengthen a structure of injustice instead of dismantling it when he had the chance. At the time, he surely told himself that he was protecting his own tribe.
But the karmic arc of the Torah suggests that Joseph made a huge mistake when he thought this way. The system of injustice proved to be more powerful than Joseph’s intentions, or his personal relationship with the Pharaoh.
This becomes a cautionary tale for anyone in our moment who may find themselves in positions of power or influence. Don’t imagine that your connection to the man at the top will protect you or your people forever.
For the Steve Millers and the Jared Kushners of the world – when you champion xenophobic immigration policies and fan the flames of hatred against other religious groups – beware. It won’t be long before those policies and that hate will come back to bite you – and us. They already have.
And for those of us who are watching the media discuss whether or not particular people are anti-Semitic or racist – I’m going to say something that might be a little controversial. It actually doesn’t really matter. That line of thought is a distraction. Was Joseph an anti-Semite? No. Was the Pharaoh at his time personally anti-Semitic? Maybe so, maybe not.
The Israelites who suffered centuries of slavery were not enslaved by the personal opinions of Joseph and Pharaoh, they were enslaved by laws, policies, economic structures and system of enforcement that the two of them set into motion. Slavery does not work because of a lot of evil individuals. Slavery is better understood as a structural evil.
I wish I could claim credit for this idea but I can’t. I admit – I took it from the Catholics.
Several years ago I was traveling in El Salvador with the American Jewish World Service, learning about the difficult history of the country, the role of the US in supporting and training a brutal military dictatorship who terrorized citizens there. (In fact, you could say that the stream of refugees and asylum seekers from El Salvador, Guatemala and other Latin American countries are in some ways the legacy of US foreign policy of the 70s and 80s – but that’s another story).
So while I was in El Salvador, I also learned about an inspiring religious leader who was recently made into a saint: Arch Bishop Oscar Romero. He was influenced by a stream of thought called “liberation theology” which has a lot to say about injustice. And one insight that has stuck with me is this concept of “structural evil.”
The idea is this – when we talk about evil in the world, it is not enough to recognize problems on the level of particular people. All of us swim within a stream of culture, legal structures, economic structures, and so on. Those structures themselves can create suffering or healing, justice or tragedy.
So when you hear the news of the 7 year old girl who died last week from dehydration in US custody – it is devastating. I have a 7 year old. And if I open my heart to really let that story in – it is too painful for words. Too painful. Even just one child suffering or God forbid dying in our care is too much. One child.
This tragedy did not happen because of one father’s bad judgment, as the Department of Homeland Security has implied. Nor is it the fault of any particular guard who should have seen the warning signs.
If we want to understand how this happened and prevent it from happening again, we have to look beyond the individuals in this story and their small decisions. As long as we do not address the immigration system on a structural level, tragedies will only keep happening.
You could make the same argument for gun control, political corruption, healthcare, housing. In our American individualistic culture, we focus too much on the single people caught in these stories – the White Supremacist crazy with a gun, the crooked politician, the incompetent bureaucrat, the drug addict who lives on the streets. But all of those bad actors and all of their victims are actually entrapped within structures that perpetuate bad outcomes over and over again. If we are going to fix the problems, we have to do something about the structures that are bigger than any particular people.
So — if Joseph lived within structures of injustice and if we too are swimming in a stream of structural, historical, and cultural injustice almost beyond visibility, if individual interpersonal racism or open heartedness do not really impact those enormous societal forces… what can we do? How can we ever hope to do better than Joseph, the very deputy of Pharaoh?
Well we do have one thing that Joseph didn’t have. We have the stories of Joseph and the Exodus. And that is no small advantage. I believe that if we can bear the pain of reading honestly, we can awaken to his mistakes and make different choices when we too have power.
And not only do we have the story of Joseph’s mistake. We also have the story of how his descendants one day threw off their bonds and found a way to imagine and live their freedom EVEN THOUGH they had endured 400 years of structural evil. We have the examples of real historical movements – abolition, women’s suffrage, civil rights – that show us how with vision, patience, solidarity and strategic collective action we CAN and one day WILL overcome the structures of injustice that persist. May the stories of our ancestors’ mistakes and triumphs give us the vision to wield our power wisely, and the courage to believe in the possibility of freedom and justice even when we have a long way to go before we get to that Promised Land.