This morning I have much to be thankful for. For one, it’s my Bar Mitzvah. Also, my family and friends are here. And finally, the entire world wasn’t destroyed last night in a massive Mayan apocalypse.
Although the Mayan apocalypse was averted, my portion speaks about a disaster that affected the Middle East during ancient times. Imagine a drought lasting seven years – and this was BEFORE climate change! In our world today, according to the Global Drought Monitor, 97,909,000 people are experiencing severe drought.
In Joseph’s time, there were fewer people experiencing drought, but the impact was far greater than it would be today. This was because there were few effective ways to store food and no established ways countries could share food. We know, from my parasha, that those were pretty desperate times.
Desperate times can bring out the best and worst in leaders. Crises force leaders to make tough choices. These choices can lead to the loss of freedoms that are sacrificed for what is perceived to be a greater good. When Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams, he recognized that there would be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, but the dream did not tell him what to do.
So, how did he deal with this crisis?
First, during the seven years of plenty, Joseph collected grain from the Egyptians.
Then, when the famine hit, he sold the grain back to the Egyptians. This is written in Genesis chapter 47, verse 14: “And Joseph gathered up all the money that was found in the land of Egypt, and in the land of Canaan, for the corn which they bought; and Joseph brought the money into Pharaoh's house.”
Then, when the Egyptians were without money, In verse 16, "Joseph provided the Egyptians with grain in exchange for their cattle."
This exchange allowed the people to survive in the short term, BUT reduced their ability to prosper in the future.
Next, in verse 19, the people, gave their land and indentured themselves in exchange for food. Once again, this exchange allowed the people to survive but at the cost of their personal liberty.
It is not surprising that the Egyptians would do anything in order to survive. But, I wonder why Joseph took advantage of the hungry Egyptian people. To be fair to Joseph, indentured servitude was common at that time. Still, it is troubling that an ancestor of Moses would use a famine to enslave Egyptians.
In many ways Joseph was an admirable man. He rose from slavery to become an important leader. He also forgave his brothers and helped them when they were in need. Like many leaders, Joseph made difficult choices; some of these choices were good and some were, at best, questionable.
In World War Two, FDR also made many good and some bad choices. Concerns about national security led him to imprison 120,000 Japanese Americans in internment camps. Like Joseph, FDR took away people’s freedoms. However, FDR took away rights because he mistrusted people from a different race. The descendents of Joseph would be enslaved in Egypt because of similar mistrust. Despite this poor choice, FDR is remembered as a great president because of his leadership during WWII and the great depression.
History has now come full circle, back to Egypt. President Morsi is trying to concentrate power in the presidency at the expense of the judicial system. His purported purpose is to gain control over an unruly country. However, it remains to be seen whether the Egyptians will, once again, trade their liberty for grain. Perhaps, my sister Elena will be discussing this in her D’var Torah three years from now.
A different sort of problem facing the world today is the shrinking genetic diversity in the food chain. I became interested in the integrity of the food chain 3 summers ago when I saw the movie, Food Inc. Everyday livestock producers select animal breeds to raise. Generally, breeders select animals that grow quickly and require limited food or care. Because of this, many breeds of livestock are now endangered. These breeds are called heritage breeds. I have been spending 3 hours every weekend caring for animals at the Stamford Nature Center.I believe this is important work because the farm has many heritage breeds. The preservation of heritage breeds is essential because without genetic diversity, disease could easily wipe out an entire breed of animals. I believe it is important to sustain the food chain before problems arise, rather than waiting and trying to solve problems once they exist.
I am donating $150.00 from my Bar Mitzvah gifts to buy a llama for a family in the Bolivian Andes. The llama will provide, transportation, fertilization, cooking fuel and wool to this family. The family will breed the llama and donate one of the offspring to another family. If you are interested in donating to this charity, you can learn more in my Bar Mitzvah book.
We all face crises in our lives, whether they be big, like war or recession, or small, like losing your library card (which I've done. Twice). How you deal with these problems is up to you, and making the right decision is never easy.
Just ask Joseph.