Sunday, December 22, 2019

Miketz: Beware of Unintended Consequences

This week’s Torah portion, Miketz, describes Joseph’s rise to power in Egypt.  After languishing in prison for ten years on a false conviction, his fate turns when he is called upon to interpret Pharaoh’s two dreams.  He recognizes that while one involves ears of grain and the other livestock, both of these dreams are essentially the same.  He tells Pharaoh: “The seven healthy cows are seven years, and the seven healthy ears are seven years.  The seven lean and ugly cows that followed are seven years, as are also the seven empty ears scorched by the east wind; they are years of famine. . . Immediately ahead are seven years of great abundance in all the land of Egypt.  After them will come seven years of famine, and all the abundance in the land of Egypt will be forgotten.” 

But Joseph is not content to merely interpret Pharaoh’s dreams.  Instead, he offers a detailed strategy for dealing with the forthcoming agricultural boom-bust cycle: “Let Pharaoh find a man of discernment and wisdom, and set him over the land of Egypt.  Let all the food of the good years that are coming be gathered, and let the grain be collected under Pharaoh’s authority as food to be stored in the cities.  Let that food be a reserve for the land for the seven years of famine which will come upon the land of Egypt, so that the land may not perish in the famine.”
Pharaoh approves of this idea, because it solidifies his power over his subjects.  He appoints Joseph to administer the policy, which he does, with relentless efficiency. During the bad years, Joseph rations food in return for the Egyptians’ land and livestock, which become the property of Pharaoh.

Most of our commentators defend Joseph, suggesting that he always repays the Egyptians with something of value.  He provides rations in exchange for their money, food in the place of their cattle, and seed in exchange for their land.  But a few, including Radak, and the contemporary scholar Shai Held argue otherwise.  In Rabbi Held’s words:

The ironic turns in the text are intense and powerful and thus require explanation: Brought to Egypt as a slave, Joseph now becomes Egypt’s enslaver. And soon enough, a new Pharaoh rises and the House of Israel [finds] themselves once again on the wrong end of the enslavement process.  Joseph displays remarkable administrative prowess, but he unleashes forces that eventually end up oppressing and degrading his own people. . . . Joseph provides short-term relief in the midst of a ghastly famine, but he also systematically and relentlessly strips the people bare. There is something to be said for administrative aptitude, but it is sobering to realize that it can be coupled with profound short-sightedness.


Short-sightedness and unintended consequences have played a significant role in creating our current environmental crisis.  Some greedy corporations and individuals have deliberately chosen to exploit our planet and its delicate ecosystems; by way of example, Exxon knew a great deal about global warming over forty years ago and choose to hide their findings with a malignant, decades-long disinformation campaign. 

But oftentimes, harmful actions come from good but shortsighted intentions.  We have introduced countless non-native species accidentally through travel, or on well-intended but ultimately misguided efforts at conservation, population control and agricultural experimentation.

Similarly, for many years, dams were seen as an unfettered boon, providing irrigation and drinking water, cheap hydroelectric power, flood control, and recreation sites.  However, in recent years, we have learned that these same dams also increase the risk of earthquakes, decimate fish populations, destroy vast ecosystems, and block the essential free flow of sediments. 

To learn from our past is to recognize the need to look beyond the immediate future and consider the possible long-term effects of our actions.  Joseph, tragically, failed to do so; the result was over two centuries of enslavement in Egypt.  If we are to preserve life on earth as we know it, we need to do better.

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