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Joseph’s Theory of Economics (Vayigash 12/23)

Rabbi Neil Schuman

Joseph’s Theory of Economics

Rabbi Shmuel is leading a Torah study group at his shul when all of a sudden, an angel appears.

The Angel says to the rabbi: “Rabbi Shmuel. You are an example to all of your fellow men. You are totally unselfish; your behavior is faultless; your study of Judaism is extensive; and your charity giving is exemplary. So, in return for being such a mensch, I am going to offer you a choice of reward. You can either have infinite wealth, infinite health, or infinite wisdom. What will it be, Rabbi Shmuel? Whatever you choose will be immediately granted.”

Without any hesitation whatsoever, Rabbi Shmuel replies, “I would love to have infinite wisdom.”

“Mazel Tov to you, Rabbi Shmuel,” says the Angel. “It’s done. Enjoy!”

The Angel then disappears as quickly as it had appeared.

For a few minutes there was a stunned silence in the study group. No one could believe what had just happened in front of their eyes.

Then one of the study group broke the silence. “Rabbi Shmuel,” he asks, “why don’t you test out your new-found wisdom right away? Say something really wise to us, rabbi.”

Rabbi Shmuel replies: “I should have taken the money.”

This week many are celebrating “taking the money”, as corporations and many Americans will receive a tax break for 2018 and beyond. It’s something the president promised in his campaign, and after a year of negotiations, the Tax Reform Bill was finally approved. It’s interesting timing, for our parsha also deals with government spending and taxes.

During the seven years of plenty, Joseph set up grain storage systems all across Egypt. When the famine first started, Joseph sold the grain for cash. With such a long famine though, gold and silver quickly became exhausted, so people then resorted to selling their animals for grain. When there were no more animals to sell, people eventually sold themselves and their land.

Under Joseph’s leadership, Egypt was transformed from a capitalist society into a serfdom.

The Institute for Adult Jewish Studies had a lecturer this year, Dr. Glen Dynner, who spoke about the Kretchma-The Inn, and the iconic Jewish tavern-keeper of Eastern Europe. Poland was the breadbasket of Europe for centuries. When countries across the continent made border crossings more difficult by imposing tariffs, it became more profitable to turn grain into beer and vodka and sell it locally. The Polish overlords trusted the Jews with bringing in the taxes from this addictive vice, and the Jews gained the monopoly on the tavern business. Dr. Dynner posits that the Polish pogroms and virulent anti-Semitism intensified to their infamous levels only after the full release of the serfs in Poland in 1848. Untold numbers released from work that their families had performed for generations now found themselves without a means of support. Unemployed, perhaps even homeless, many were jealous and angry at the Jews who had sole control of a critical part of the economy. Dynner says that it’s easy to see the statistical increase in pogroms starting from the serfs’ release.

What Joseph does with the Egyptians is the opposite of the policy laid out later in the Torah in Parshat Behar, Leviticus 25. Behar focuses on an equitable distribution of wealth through restoration of land to the original owners. In the Shemitah year (1 out of 7 years) all debts are forgiven, and in the Jubilee year (1 in 50) all slaves go free and purchased lands return to their original owners. The land returns to the original owners because primarily the land belongs to G-d. Joseph, on the other hand, makes Pharaoh the sole owner of almost all of the land. Who gets to keep their own land? Only the priests, who in Behar are precisely the ones who do not get to own land.

For much of the world’s early history, economic policies were geared toward enriching the few. Perhaps the Torah’s teachings in Parshat Behar are a response and reversal of Joseph’s policy that clearly did not serve us well in our stint in Egypt (nor in Eastern Europe). This might also explain why so many Jews were fervent communists and socialists in the 19th and 20th centuries, for the Torah itself espouses some radical and progressive economic ideas.

We live in a world of constant progression. As Yoda said recently in “The Last Jedi”, “Failure is our greatest teacher.” Joseph’s imposed serfdom failed the world and us. Greater wealth distribution seems to be a winning formula for the world. Already, in response to the Tax reforms, many companies have announced spending initiatives and bonuses to employees from the money they’re saving in taxes. Let’s hope the tax reforms spread the wealth and exceed all of our goals.

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