Friday, January 6, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Vayigash 5777– Orange Default Swaps


You’ll have to forgive me, I’m fresh off of finally watching “The Big Short” last night, and it most definitively is influencing my writing today.

Joseph was wise. of that there is no doubt. It’s the nature of his wisdom that can be troubling. Wisdom can be used for good, for evil, and things in-between. Let’s look at the sequence.

In a wonderful bit of Torah hyperbole, we read:

וְלֶחֶם אֵין בְּכָל־הָאָרֶץ כִּֽי־כָבֵד הָֽרָעָב מְאֹד וַתֵּלַהּ אֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם וְאֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן מִפְּנֵי הָֽרָעָֽב

Now there was no bread in all the world, for the famine was very severe; both the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan languished because of the famine

Gotta hand it to the JPS committee. “No bread in the all world” takes the already hyperbolic “v’lekhem ein b’khol ha’aretz” – no bread in the land – to a truly cringe-worthy extreme. In our own time hyperbole has become so normative that one needs to go to even more ridiculous lengths to make it effective.

וַיְלַקֵּט יוֹסֵף אֶת־כָּל־הַכֶּסֶף הַנִּמְצָא בְאֶֽרֶץ־מִצְרַיִם וּבְאֶרֶ שֹֽׁבְרִים וַיָּבֵא יוֹסֵף אֶת־הַכֶּסֶף בֵּיתָה פַרְעֹֽה ץ כְּנַעַן בַּשֶּׁבֶר אֲשֶׁר־הֵם

Joseph gathered in all the money that was to be found in in the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan, as payment for that rations that were being procured, and Joseph brought the money into Pharaoh’s palace.

One obvious question to be raised is, if the famine was so extensive, from where were Egypt and Canaan purchasing food? In this, I wonder if the Torah is somewhat like Egyptian stelae and other monuments, upon which histories were altered to fit the narrative of the present regime or a particular agenda. My suspicion is that Egypt’s priests were hoarding the food, and selling it off to the state in order to enrich themselves. Not to be outdone, Pharaoh (through Joseph) comes up with his own plan to give him the financial control currently monopolized by the priests. So this whole part of the story in the Torah is not about Israel at all, but about Egyptian politics. Yes, perhaps some food was being purchased from more distant sources – Nubia, or Mesopotamian countries, though given that region’s geography, those areas were likely to be just as affected by the famine-creating weather patterns. Yes, by the time of the 12th dynasty (a likely time for the setting of the Joseph story, whether the story itself is historical or not) it is likely that Egypt was already trading with Peloponnesian lands. Egypt had been engaged in sea trade even before the 1st dynasty, so trade would have been well-established by Joseph’s time. Whether sea-faring trade beyond the Levant was a significant contributor to staving off localized famines in Egypt is a debatable point. )

וַיִּתֹּם הַכֶּסֶף מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם וּמֵאֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן וַיָּבֹאוּ כָל־מִצְרַיִם אֶל־יוֹסֵף לֵאמֹר הָֽבָה־לָּנוּ לֶחֶם וְלָמָּה נָמוּת נֶגְדֶּךָ כִּי אָפֵס כָּֽסֶף:  וַיֹּאמֶר יוֹסֵף הָבוּ מִקְנֵיכֶם וְאֶתְּנָה לָכֶם בְּמִקְנֵיכֶם אִם־אָפֵס כָּֽסֶף:

And when the money gave out in the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan, all the Egyptians came to Joseph and said, “Give us bread, lest we die before your very eyes, for the money is gone. And Joseph said, “Bring your livestock, and I will sell to you against your livestock, if the money is gone.”

Joseph didn’t say “I will open the storehouses of Pharaoh, and order the priests to open their storehouses, and food will be distributed to the people.” Instead he said “you want food from the government, you still have to find a way to pay us for it.” Supply and demand economics, with government as the seller. Greed starting to rear its ugly head.  (Not to mention that the priests would likely have defied any such order, or at least insist on being paid.)

We know what happened. The people sold their livestock to Pharaoh in exchange for bread. When they ran out of livestock, they were forced to offer up their land and their own persons. And this they begged Joseph to accept in exchange for food. End result, Pharaoh winds up as a feudal lord with a land of serfs, with Joseph as his vizier.

The next two verses are often overlooked, but are quite significant.

וְאֶת־הָעָם הֶֽעֱבִיר אֹתוֹ לֶֽעָרִים מִקְצֵה גְבוּל־מִצְרַיִם וְעַד־קָצֵֽהוּ: כב רַק אַדְמַת הַכֹּֽהֲנִים לֹא קָנָה כִּי חֹק לַכֹּֽהֲנִים מֵאֵת פַּרְעֹה וְאָֽכְלוּ אֶת־חֻקָּם אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לָהֶם פַּרְעֹה עַל־כֵּן לֹא מָֽכְרוּ אֶת־אַדְמָתָֽם

And he removed the population town by town, from one end of Egypt’s border to the other. Only the land of the priests he did not take over, for the priests had an allotment from Pharaoh, and they lived off the allotment which Pharaoh had made to them; therefore they did not sell their land.

So the Egyptian people were dispossessed of their lands, and effectively redistributed throughout Egypt as indebted servants. Joseph gives them seed to plant, and they get to keep four-fifths and one fifth will go, in perpetuity, to Pharaoh.

So yes, in the end, the people get fed. The rich prosper and the poor suffer. (I’ve heard some argue that because this was a nationalized economy, it was more like socialism than capitalism, but this wasn’t wealth redistribution in an equitable fashion. This was oligarchy. The situation that modern day Russia finds itself in, and to which America is rapidly descending (some would argue we’ve been there for decades, and only a thin veneer of constitutionally-guaranteed freedoms and rights obscure the truth of the matter. I’m inclined to agree. )

Note, too, the final verse of the parasha:

וַיֵּשֶׁב יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם בְּאֶרֶץ גּשֶׁן וַיֵּאָֽחֲזוּ בָהּ וַיִּפְרוּ וַיִּרְבּוּ מְאֹֽד

Thus Israel settled in the country of Egypt, in the region of Goshen; they acquired holdings in it, and were fertile and increased gently.

Read that over a few times. Then ask yourself what lands were available for the Israelites to acquire, if it had all been sold to Pharaoh. And, while I’m reluctant to engage in “blame the victim,” the facts, as borne out in the start of the next book, are that this land acquisition by immigrants likely engendered they very first fires of anti-Semitism. Though the ostensible reasons given for the crackdown, 400 years later, on the Egyptian Israelite community was the fear of their numbers, I suspect their relative wealth and freedom from serfdom played a part.

OK, here comes the politics. Just stop here if you want to avoid that.

Yes, I’m going to get political here. After just under a century of marginally successful bridling, the oligarchs and capitalists are about to be fully unbridled. And unbridled oligarchy and capitalism are likely to lead to a situation as dire as that faced by the poor Egyptians that Joseph swindled.

The later Pharaoh that arose who did not know Joseph, and was wary and envious of the Jewish community in Goshen employed tactics and rhetoric not all that different from that employed by DJT.

DJT is like both this Pharaoh, and the one that elevated Joseph and became landlord for his entire country. He exhibits tendencies of both of these biblical figures. As a businessman, I fear he has ethics similar to those revealed in the film “The Big Short” and similar exposes on Wall Street and the banks. I fear that those in our Jewish community who support this man (and I understand that represents 30% of you) are in effect being the Josephs of our time, enabling Pharaoh and his cronies to acquire yet more wealth. I pray that you will wake up and see this man for who and what he really is before you find yourself in the same boat as both the Egyptians swindled by Pharaoh and Joseph, and the Israelites of 400 years later, oppressed by an anti-Semitic ruler willing to kill a feared immigrant community.

That being said, I will strive to have ethics higher than those who brought about the Wall Street/Banking collapse. I won’t gamble by buying the political equivalent of credit default swaps in the hopes that DJT will fail, because I don’t wish to profit from his failure. Though a part of me really wishes I could discard those ethics, because having financial protection against the rack and ruin that Trump could bring to our country is tempting. I just hope that when future history is written, people don’t try to whitewash Trump as the Torah has whitewashed Joseph. Teleology be damned!

Shabbat Shalom,

©2017 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this parasha:

Vayigash 5776 - Things Better Left Unsaid (Redux 5763)
Vayiggash 5775 - Rule #2
Vayiggash 5774 - We Are Shepherds
Vayigash 5773 - Let's Be Judah
Vayigash 5772 - Redux & Revised 5760 Teleology 101: Does G"d Play Dice With the World
Vayiggash 5771-Being Both Israels
Vayigash 5769 - He's A-Cookin'-a-Somethin'-A-Up
Vayigash 5768 - G"d By the Light of Day
Vayigash 5767-Two Sticks As One?
Vayigash 5765-One People
Vayigash 5763-Things Better Left Unsaid
Vayigash 5761/5766-Checking In
Vayigash 5762-Teleology 101: Does Gd Play Dice With the World?
Vayigash 5764-Incidental Outcomes and Alternate Histories




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