Vayigash – Yosef’s efforts to maintain economic stability in Egypt

The end of this Parsha describes in detail Yosef's efforts to maintain economic stability in Egypt during the seven years of famine. Yosef originally sells all the grain which he had gathered during the years of plenty and when the Egyptians money runs out he volunteers to buy up their cattle in return for grain. When they have no cattle left he buys up the people and their land and transfers them to different places. He also stipulates that they must give Pharaoh 20% of their produce, this despite the fact that effectively all of their produce belongs to the king. However Yosef leaves the land of the priests in their hands and does not transfer it to the king.

The Egyptians, recognizing Yosef's munificence, acknowledge it and agree wholeheartedly to become slaves to Pharaoh and to donate a fifth of their produce to him. This is the story in a nutshell, yet the commentators are puzzled as to why this story is included in the Torah. Akeidat Yitzchak, Rav Yitzchak Arama, asks: “Why are the topics of the fifth part of produce and transferring the people to different places and the exemption of priests mentioned here? All this is more appropriate for a book about Egyptian customs and not for the Holy Torah!”

It would appear therefore that Yosef's behavior is supposed to provide a model for government intervention at times of economic crisis. The original measures that Yosef implemented previously by stocking up on grain during the years of plenty may have helped somewhat but they do not prevent the famine from spreading in Egypt. Economic disorder can easily lead to political upheavals and to attacks on foreigners. Yosef is eagerly aware of this and therefore seeks firstly to separate his family from the Egyptians by placing them in Goshen far away from the Egyptian towns. This was probably a desert area more suitable for sheep pasture than for growing crops and therefore Yosef provided food for his family.

Next Yosef sought to deal with the hunger issue by nationalizing the country as much as possible. In an era when private enterprise cannot succeed as there is no money and valuable property available, the government must step in and provide its own initiatives. In Yosef's case these initiatives served both to ensure the people's survival and the stability of the government. Transferring people to different places served to offset any claims to ancestral land as well as to make his own family feel comfortable in their foreign surroundings. According to R. Shmuel Ben Chofni, Yosef bought the people's cattle so that they wouldn't have to feed them. Rav Hirsch and the Netziv add that Yosef moved the people in large groups so that they would be able to maintain social cohesion in their new environments. Ramban adds that Yosef did not accede to the Egyptians' request to be slaves to Pharaoh as he did not want the burden of slaves on the government. Instead he employed them to work on government land and gave them most of the produce, far more than any percentage worker is entitled too. This gave them an impetus to work harder and produce more.

 The reason for the priestly exemption was because they were already entitled by law to receive their food from Pharaoh and therefore there was no way to nationalize their land. This parallels somewhat the obligation which we have to feed the Kohanim and Levites as they too are promised their sustenance from Hashem and He commands us to give them their share.

Thus the Parsha teaches some fundamental macroeconomic principles: 1) Government shrewd saving during times of abundance helps to secure the nation at times of recession. 2) In a stagnant economy the government must step in and provide economic alternatives and incentives for the people. 3) The government must protect the interests of those devoted to divine pursuits. 4) Jews should seek to help other Jews survive economic deprivation.

Even these principles qualify as Torah as they provide an ethical approach to times of scarcity and demonstrate how to use scarce resources most effectively to benefit an entire nation. 


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