-Rabbi Elyashiv Knoll-
When a given social unit owns certain property, it is extremely difficult and challenging to share this property fairly between the unit’s members. This is true of all social units, from immediate family units that must contend with the various needs of each family member, through urban units such as cities or villages.
It is even more difficult when the social unit is an entire country. The social movement that sprang up in full force last year inIsraeltrumpeted the feeling, common to many elements of Israeli society, that the country’s leaders were not distributing its resources fairly among the various classes of society. The Torah clearly states that “there will never cease to be needy within the land”, and yet the Book of Genesis also tells us of people of immense wealth, such as our forefathers Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’acov, whose wealth is described in great detail. It appears that society has always been this way, comprised of multiple classes of people, forever including both the poor and the rich, all of whom, by definition, have different needs. In such a reality, achieving a fair and equitable distribution of public resources among all elements of society is almost impossible.
The problem becomes magnified in times of famine and distress. When famine strikes, the social divide widens further and becomes even more magnified, to the extent that the lower classes may sometimes actually find themselves in life-threatening situations caused by poverty and hunger. Famine has been an omnipresent threat since the days of Avraham, when it was famine that forced him to leave the landof Israeland travel to Egypt, and the threatening cloud of famine and hunger continued to accompany all of our forefathers, including Yitzchak and Ya’acov, throughout their lives. Hunger, then, does not discriminate between rich and poor.
Parashat “Vayigash” describes Yosef’s attempt to face the challenge of distributing the most valuable commodity in those days, food, among the inhabitants of the entire region. Yosef collected and stored immense quantities of food during the seven years of plenty. Collection and storage on such a grand scale can be done only by a central government that has the financial means to arrange for huge storehouses to be constructed, maintained and secured, as well as taking the necessary steps to preserve the food that they contain.
Theoretically, Yosef could have distributed the food in the same manner that Hashem allocated the manna in the desert, i.e. an omer (slightly less than four liters) per head. This equitable manner of distribution did not distinguish between rich and poor, as in the end the need to eat is shared by all. This method is also somewhat reminiscent of the depression era following the establishment of the State of Israel (the “tzena”). In those days, basic necessities were provided in exchange for food stamps and at negligible cost, based on the number of people in each family.
The story of Yosef does not mention charity or distribution to the weak and poor. The produce and foodstuffs were apparently purchased at full price. This is the implication from the episode of the brothers who arrived to purchase food, and it is also made clear by the account at the end of parashat Vayigash. The Rabbis in the midrash do derive from the Torah’s relation of the story that Yosef attempted to prevent racketeers from developing a secondary market for the food purchased inEgypt. This was because such a market would widen the divide between the haves and the have-nots. The midrash (Genesis Rabbah 91:4) states as follows: “He pronounced three decrees: … it was prohibited for one man to enter the country with two asses, and for assess to transport the produce from one place to another, and no one was permitted to enter the country without registering his name, that of his father and that of his grandfather.”
In other words, the produce had to be purchased by the end user himself and was not to be resold or bought by a representative. Food was not to be transported and was distributed on a name basis only. Yosef even supported his own family, after their descent toEgypt, by ration (Genesis 47:12): “And Yosef sustained his father and his brothers and his father's entire household [with] bread according to the young children.” This was so that his family would not appear overly well fed in a time a famine, thus bringing the animosity of their neighbors upon themselves. However, we are not told that Yosef established any philanthropic or charitable institutions.
What, then, was Yosef’s goal in creating an operation for food collection and storage during the years of plenty and distribution during the years of famine? Was Yosef attempting to institute a social justice plan or did he have other motives?
First, it is clear that Yosef was operating under the assumption that he was on a mission and that it was his calling to saveEgyptand its neighbors from the devastation of famine. This is clear from his own words, spoken to Pharaoh when interpreting the latter’s dreams (Genesis 41:33-36): “So now, let Pharaoh seek out an understanding and wise man and appoint him over thelandofEgypt. Let Pharaoh do [this] and appoint officials over the land and prepare thelandofEgyptduring the seven years of plenty. And let them collect all the food of these coming seven good years, and let them gather the grain under Pharaoh's hand, food in the cities, and keep it. Thus the food will remain as a reserve for the land for the seven years of famine that will be in thelandofEgypt, so that the land will not be destroyed by the famine.”
Thus, preserving food during the years of plenty in order to sustain vast numbers of people during the years of famine becomes Yosef’s primary and overarching objective. The purpose was not to enhance Pharaoh’s coffers, but rather to ensure that “the land will not be destroyed by the famine.” This required construction of storehouses and silos and collection of all surplus food during the years of plenty, as well as the knowledge of how to properly store the food so that it would remain edible in the future.
Indeed, upon the outbreak of famine the inhabitants of the entire region came to appeal to Yosef for food. This is because only Yosef, in his wisdom, knew how to collect and properly store the food. Yosef was the provider for all ofEgypt; however, he provided only in exchange for money, horses, land and even the purchase of the buyers as slaves to Pharaoh. In such a reality it is reasonable to assume that the poor were the first tobe truly affected by the famine, and it is impossible to estimate how many actually starved to death. The Torah does not tell of a famine that reduced people to true starvation and ultimate death.
It is possible that Yosef was able to prevent such a reality, though Yosef was acting in his capacity as Pharaoh’s representative and he was bound by the king’s interests. There can be no doubt that on the one hand Pharaoh desired to save his people from starvation, but that, on the other hand, he was surely concerned with maximizing his own benefit. This is why Yosef, in Pharaoh’s name, turned the sale of food into a hugely profitable enterprise for the royal treasury, as described at the end of the parasha.
This, then, is a story of another form of social justice. This episode lacks concern for equality among the different classes of society, but rather presents a solution for a very specific and basic need, that of providing sustenance for an entire nation and coordinating the distribution of necessities to ensure their sufficiency for all those in need.
The social divide has seemingly remained unchanged. We are bothered most by the clear class-based distinction between the priests and the rest of the people, as the priests were permitted to remain on their land and they received their stipend from Pharaoh free of charge. This is, of course, contradictory to the kohanim, the priests ofIsrael, who do not own land and subsist on priestly gifts received from the people.
Rabbi Elyashiv Knoll is the head of the marriage department of Tzohar