|The wisdom of Joseph
||[Nov. 28th, 2008|12:34 am]
There are good reasons why I've neglected this page, but I prefer not to state them. If anyone still checks this page periodically to see what I've written, hello! I am not delusional, and I don't think anyone cares what I write here, but I've been wrong before.|
On the coming Shabbat, as on every Chanukah, the weekly portion Miketz describes Joseph's journey from pauper to prince in Pharaoh's court. Joseph solved the riddle of Pharaoh's dream: the seven fat cows foreshadowed seven prosperous years, and the seven lean cows foreshadowed seven years of famine that would follow after the years of prosperity. The story is well known and need not be repeated here in detail. Of interest to me is how Joseph continues after he has finished interpreting the dream. At that point, one might imagine, Joseph's job is done. He was summoned to interpret the dream, and he did exactly that. Yet here, unlike with the wine-maker and the baker, Joseph advises Pharaoh how to react to the new information. He advises Pharaoh to appoint a minister who will supervise a nationwide effort to tax the country one-fifth of its productivity for the years of prosperity, and preserve the food in cities for when it will be needed in the years of famine. Pharaoh praises Joseph's wisdom, and as Ben Zoma says (Pirkei Avot 4:1), the wise person sees the future -- not as a prophet, but understands how present circumstances will likely lead to future events, somewhat like a weather forecaster. Part of the wisdom surely lies not only in interpreting the dream but in suggesting a viable practical response to it.
I asked myself some years ago why Joseph chose to tax the people one fifth. Why not tax them one half? That way, if a typical Egyptian farmer would produce 100 bushels in each of the seven prosperous years and 0 bushels in each of the years of famine, his consumption would average out to 50 bushels in each of those 14 years, and would be balanced without disrupting his routine in any of those years. Would not such a solution be better than the jarring transition from prosperity to catastrophic widespread poverty and famine that occurred? Joseph's final words are that "the land will not be cut off by famine." This is less than optimistic! Joseph says that the famine will be bad, very bad. The only thing his tax accomplishes is to prevent irreversible destruction of the land and its inhabitants. Is this the best he can do?
There are some practical reasons why Joseph's tax policy was politically prudent. Taxing the population more than 20% was likely to lead people to fierce resistance and rebellion against a king who was confiscating as much as half of their hard-earned labor. Abuses of power in this manner were common in the ancient world of despotism (and are not entirely absent in the present-day societies), and the predictable result of such drastic policies, in the long term, cannot be other than a rebellion of the oppressed against the oppressor. Joseph's more moderate tax was intended to sustain the peace.
Moreover, after the famine began, and the population became serfs to Pharaoh and his kingdom, Joseph made the one-fifth tax a permanent feature of Egyptian society, with only the priests exempted. Maybe Joseph foresaw a political opportunity even before the famine would begin that instituting a one-fifth tax would create an essentially permanent source of power and revenue for the kingdom.
I think there is a more fundamental point. To divide up the amount of produce in years of plenty and years of famine so that people would have the average quantity for each year would have defeated God's plan that there be years of plenty followed by years of famine. It's not just that the land would produce less than its wont in the years of famine: people needed to experience the famine, as that was part of the dream's interpretation. More generally, it is not possible to play games with God's plan. If God says there will be years of plenty followed by years of famine, humans cannot avoid that. No matter how hard they might try, there will be periods of success and periods of adversity, as everyone has experienced in their own individual lives, and as nations experience in macroeconomic terms. It is wrong to approach the situation and say: how can I prevent the economic recession from having any effect on me? It will have an effect on you, at least indirectly. This cannot be avoided. If you try to insulate yourself, it will affect a friend or a charitable foundation or community organization with which you associate -- and if you have no such connections, your problems are more serious than poverty or wealth. The recently unfolding scandal of a massive Ponzi scheme that has destroyed billions of dollars spread across myriad individuals and institutional endowments has directly hurt both my high school and my college alma maters. I do not intend to donate any more money to them than I would otherwise (I plan to pay off my student loans before I give Yeshiva University a single dime as a gift, not out of spite but just because it makes sense to think in those terms), but I am keenly aware of the situation. So how do you deal with a situation like this? You draw upon the strength of past success and hope for future success even if the present situation is bleak. If life were designed to be a flat, unwavering road, there would be no famine nor plenty -- everyone would have just enough to get by.
In a reverse scenario, the prophet Jeremiah is tasked to buy a field from Chanamel his uncle (or cousin) even though the area was soon to be destroyed because God promised that someday in the future people would buy real estate there. In the bleakest time ever described in the prophetic books, with destruction looming and the process of exile already in progress, God asks Jeremiah to demonstrate with a physical action that the future holds hope.