Many of the stories in Genesis deal with hunger, particularly famine. Abraham has to leave Canaan and sojourn in Egypt because a famine. Isaac has to leave his home and live in Gerar due to another famine. And, most famously, the story of Joseph and his ascension to power in Egypt would not have taken place were it not for a catastrophic famine. In all of these stories, we see the effects of famine on ordinary people. These early stories from the Jewish tradition highlight the hardships and challenges of life in the ancient Middle East. For these desert wanderers, transient tribesmen, and pre-modern, pre-Torah societies, hunger and famine was the ultimate challenge.
This week’s parasha, Vayigash deals with a few major themes: Joseph revealing his true identity to his brothers, Jacob’s relocation to Egypt from the Land of Canaan, and, almost as a side note, Joseph’s scheme of providing for the citizens of Egypt during the famine. As a result of Joseph’s successful interpreting of Pharaoh’s dreams, he was appointed as Pharaoh’s right-hand man and chief administrator over the process of planning for the lean years. After the Egyptian farmers ran out of currency with which to buy food from the Egyptian storehouses, Joseph and the monarchy, as it says in chapter 47, verse 20, “gained possession of all the farmland of Egypt for Pharaoh, every Egyptian having sold his field because the famine was too much for them; thus the land passed over to Pharaoh.”
In reading this section of the text, it is hard to not feel morally conflicted. There is hardship. There is famine. There are the Egyptians, desperate to survive, and the Egyptian administration, whose plan for survival was to take all of the land in Egypt as collateral and feed the peasants who lived on the land that had been nationalized! A whole nation of people lost their land and their possessions just to survive. Surely such a thing would never take place under a Jewish administration in Israel, right?
The question of how Jews provide for the needy is an ancient one. We have evidence from very early on of how Jewish society attempted to embody the ideals set forth in the Torah dealing with providing for people in need. Many of you are no doubt familiar with the story of Ruth, who returns to Bethlehem with her mother-in-law, Naomi, because she knew that there she would be provided for as a landless widow. In the land of Israel at that time, there were built-in protections for the disadvantaged- the widowed, the orphaned, the stranger, and others who would have otherwise had to fend for themselves. Ruth joins Naomi in her return to Bethlehem, pledges to adopt Naomi’s God and people as her own, and becomes the first convert in Jewish history.
The most famous, perhaps, of these protections for the disadvantaged or disenfranchised, is that of leket. Leket is the law that a harvester may not return to pick up or collect any of his grains, fruits, or other harvested crops that have fallen on the ground behind him or that have been left unpicked in the fields. Instead, the poor are allowed to follow the harvesters and pick up the gleanings that fall behind them. In Ruth’s case, and Naomi’s case, they knew that if they returned to Bethlehem, they would always be able to get food from the gleaning because Jewish society would always take care of them, while other societies would simply cast them aside.
For millennia the Jewish people have sought to live justly and protect those in society who are in need. Vayigash provides a stark contrast between the policy of the Joseph and the Egyptians, who instead of protecting their citizens ended up taking all of their land, and the principles by which Jews are supposed to operate their societies, as embodied by specifically in the story of Ruth, and broadly in the establishment of social safety nets in modern Western societies based on Judeo-Christian values rooted in the Tanakh.