A section of this week’s Torah portion (Vayigash, Genesis 44:18-47:27) is described even by sympathetic commentators as “unusual”, “troubling”, and “brutal”, though one commentator admits it is “ironic or poetic justice.”
Joseph is the sharp CEO of Egypt. (Sharp dealing runs in the family; recall that his father Jacob cheated his uncle Esau out of the family birthright.) He has now brought not only his family but all the Jews down to Egypt.
The new arrivals enjoy a relatively good life, while the native Egyptians are suffering through a disastrous famine, the famine foretold by Joseph himself. To solve the dire situation, Joseph has the desperate Egyptians turn over all money and land to Egypt and the Pharaoh, and then gives them seed and assigns them land to farm so they don’t starve. The Egyptians, we are told, were grateful. This is most kindly characterized as serfdom, but is most commonly described as slavery. The poetic justice is that the Jews themselves were later trapped in the slavery plan that Joseph devised.
Are there any interesting lessons here?
If you are a regular reader of the Torah, you recognize that some of the most iconic figures are not depicted as paragons. Incidents of cheating and lying are found among the patriarchs. Then there’s Joseph’s enslavement of the Egyptians. Some commentators face this head on, while others are apologists, contextualizing the miscreant behavior as all part of a bigger, better plan. But cheating, lying and cruelty are still just that, no matter the actor.
Another lesson? In hard times for the common people, it’s good to be the Pharaoh, or the Pharaoh’s right hand man, or the family and friends of the Pharaoh or the Pharaoh’s right hand man. Otherwise, slavery might be right around the corner.