In synagogue this week we will be reading Genesis 47:1-22
In the part of the portion we read this week, we see the heights to which the family of Jacob reaches, and intimations of the depths to which they will fall in future generations.
Joseph presents a selected five of his brothers to Pharaoh who ask permission to live in Egypt in the land of Goshen. He then presents his father, Jacob, who blesses Pharaoh twice – once in greeting and once in farewell. Their conversation is reminiscent of many who have had the pleasure of being presented to our own Queen and you must imagine the formal setting of an audience with the mightiest ruler of the world at the time.
And then we see the contrast. While Jacob and his family settle down to life in Goshen, famine rages throughout the region. Joseph, whose foresight had ensured that the grain stores were well stocked in the seven years of plenty, now sells the grain he had commandeered, back to the people who had grown it. The price, one can imagine, is inflated – so much so, that within a year the people have exhausted their savings. In only one more year, all their livestock have been exchanged for grain and so it is that in the third year, they offer themselves and their land in exchange for food. Thus in three short years, the entire Egyptian nation is enslaved to Pharaoh.
Now the text makes it clear. All the money, all the livestock, all the land and the people become the property of Pharaoh. Joseph may have profited by it, but it is clear, he does this all for benefit of the ruler of Egypt, not for his own. Moreover, the enslavement of the people and the acquisition of their land was not his idea but the peoples’. But two hundred years on, what will the descendents of those enslaved people remember? Only the man who acted as agent in the transaction, was the foreigner Joseph, - that is was he that enslaved their forefathers. Small wonder, then, that the Egyptians reacted so quickly against them when there arose a Pharaoh that ‘knew not Joseph.’
This portion gives us the paradigm of the subsequent fragile state of Jewish existence. Throughout the middle ages and beyond, there were the Hofjuden - the court Jews. wealthy privileged Jews, who had the ear of European rulers, who ran their households and arranged their finances. At the same time, their co- religionists were living in abject poverty and both lived in fear; ready at any moment for the confiscation of their goods and the swift expulsion from their homes and countries.
This coming year, we will celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of our own monarch. As we reflect on how good it has been for the Jews of England during these past sixty years, we may do well to remember, that is was not always like that – and there is no guarantee that our current secure and comfortable state will continue unchallenged, long into the future.
Sybil A. Sheridan