Slavery for food a troubling passage in Torah portionVayigash, Genesis 44:18-47:27

Slavery for food a troubling passage in Torah portionVayigash, Genesis 44:18-47:27

This past week, when Israel’s Carmel Forest was ablaze, aid came from individuals who donated money and by governments who supplied needed equipment.
Earlier this year, when a devastating earthquake hit Haiti, the world responded by providing needed provisions.
These are two of many examples of helping, others. Coming to the aid of those in need is not a new idea for our people. We have a long history of social justice and working to repair the world. Caring for our fellows is part of being Jewish.
We also are instructed to perform the mitzva of feeding the hungry. We do this by donating to organizations such as Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, by making contributions to our local community food pantry or by volunteering at a soup kitchen. We understand that we have an obligation to provide food for those who would otherwise go hungry, or worse, face death from starvation.
It is with this in mind that the final section of this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, is troubling. We know that there is a famine in the land of Egypt and Canaan. We also know that thanks to Joseph’s dream interpretation, food has been stockpiled in preparation for the seven lean years. As last week’s parsha tells us, “So Joseph collected produce in very large quantity, like the sands of the sea, until he ceased to measure it, for it could not be measured” (Genesis 41:49).
Based on this account, one could envision people lining up, even waiting on very long lines, to receive their rationed food. The food would be carefully distributed, with portions controlled, to make sure the food lasted for all seven years.
But this is not what our text tells us. Rather, the inhabitants of Egypt and Canaan first pay for their rations. This is not the troubling part; we buy food every week.
Then, when the money runs out, food is procured by trading in livestock. This too, is understandable. Desperate times require desperate measures.
But then comes the troubling twist. The people come to Joseph and say, “Let us not perish before your eyes, both we and our land. Take us and our land in exchange for bread, and we with our land will be serfs to Pharaoh” (Genesis 47: 19). In other words, the people enslave themselves in order to sustain themselves.
While it is true that the ancient world functioned differently than our modern day society, it is nonetheless disconcerting to think that one’s basic liberty had to be surrendered in order to obtain food. We, who have seen images of food airlifted and freely dropped into impoverished areas, might struggle with the verses in this week’s Torah portion. Perhaps the main cause of discomfort is that the food was already available, “like the sands of the sea.” This makes it harder to comprehend why such a high price had to be paid for survival.
In rabbinic school we were taught not to preach against the text. I respect this dictum. And yet, as a caring, compassionate individual, who believes strongly in the pursuit of social justice and improving the lives of those in need, I find myself struggling with the text. That said, there is an uplifting ending to this week’s parsha. Joseph offers the people seed to sow the land, and offers them very fair terms: one-fifth of the harvest will be given to Pharaoh and four-fifths will remain with the individual and his household. This is the redeeming aspect of this portion.

(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)