Ethics in the parsha - Mikeitz: coping with the famine
Yosef foresaw years of plenty followed by years of famine and also suggested a way of coping with the famine. Can we derive any lasting lesson from Yosef's behavior?
Parshat Mikeitz is a breathtaking narrative from beginning to end: a foreign slave suddenly ascends to power on the successful interpretation of Pharaoh's dreams, and then the dramatic meeting with his brothers who had sold him to slavery before he rose to prominence. It is no coincidence that there are no breaks within the Parsha in the Sefer Torah, as there is no possibility of a break in the events which occur concomitantly and the tension remains palpable until Yosef reveals himself to his brothers in the next Parsha.
However the Torah is no collection of stories, but rather a book with specific directives and educational messages about how we ought to live our lives and therefore beyond the gripping stories we must reveal the lessons which must be derived from the Parsha.
Our world has suffered economic turmoil over the last few years and this followed a period of prosperity and growth which had eclipsed all the growth of the periods which came before it. We can compare these economic upheavals to those mentioned in our Parsha:
Seven years are about to begin with great abundance in all the land of Egypt. Thereafter seven years of famine will commence and all the abundance will be forgotten in the land of Egypt and the famine will destroy the country".
Yosef had albeit received Divine inspiration in solving Pharaoh's dreams, but he also had sound economic acumen and realized that economies grow and recede in predictable cycles- a factor recognized and documented by modern economists. Yosef also knows well how to deal with periods of recession and if we analyze his work we too may be able to soften the effect of the economic downturn on our own lives. Let us investigate Yosef's recommendations:
"Now Pharaoh should identify a wise and intelligent person and place him in charge of Egypt"- There must be a minister in charge of solving the economic problems and this cannot be left to the king as he has to rule the country.
"Pharaoh should act to appoint officers over the land and to prepare Egypt during the seven years of abundance". Yosef suggests using the abundant crops to create a national resource for the seven leaner years. Gersonides (Rabbi Levi Ben Gershon, 1288-1344) explains that even in other countries there was plentiful produce but "according to the amount of plenty people consumed more", meaning that the hedonist culture led to increased consumption and consequently to a situation where no more produce was left in reserve. However Yosef "stocked up", preparing national granaries and levying a fifth of the produce as a tax to maintain a base reserve for the future.
"They should gather all the food during the good years and maintain granaries controlled by Pharaoh, food should be kept in the cities".- Yosef believes that the surplus produce should be in the hands of the state, meaning that the state should buy up surplus produce at cheap prices in order to prepare for leaner times. However the grain should not be shipped from place to place, but should rather be stocked in special warehouses in the cities (and not in the fields, so that it won't be stolen).
"The food will be deposited for the country for the seven years of famine which will occur in the land of Egypt and then the country will not starve during the famine".- The people will see the stored grain as a symbol of their country's might and will therefore prefer to have reserves for difficult times rather than sell those reserves for profits.
Modern economies are sometimes tempted to do the exact opposite: To encourage social and business initiatives which will increase prosperity and then to foster consumerism when that prosperity arrives. People are enticed to spend beyond their means and then to borrow more in order to fulfill their most elaborate dreams. Many invest in risky stocks which can bring dubiously high profits but also heavy losses. There may not be hunger today, but there are definitely people who suffer from the heavy recessions. If we would adopt Yosef's methods of dealing with economic prosperity it might be easier for us to negotiate more difficult periods effectively. Government intervention might prevent individuals from hoarding huge fortunes and enable the public to benefit from prosperity while maintaining significant reserves for leaner times.
It is possible to claim that Yosef benefited from foresight as he knew what the future held and this is why he acted as he did. Yet it would seem that the Torah wishes to teach an ethical imperative to man: Learn to conserve for times of trouble and do not waste all of your wealth, as you do not know what the future may hold.
It would be appropriate to conclude with the words of King Solomon:
Go to the ant, lazy one, and see her behavior and be enlightened. She has no officer, no policeman and no ruler, yet she prepares her bread in the summer and hoards her food at the harvest".
This characteristic of ants shows their economic shrewdness, as she does not think about the present but rather prepares herself for the future, just as Yosef did in Egypt.