Politics & the Parsha: “Shul Politics Like Never Before”
Each week IPA Deputy Director of Public Policy Howie Beigelman takes a look at the weekly parsha and discusses it in a way you may never have seen. Any hashkafic, halachic or political opinions are personal and do not reflect the official psak or policy of the OU.
Vayigash 5771: Rank Privileges
Talk about eminent domain! As history’s first recorded “business cycle” goes from boom to bust, Joseph’s genius as a finance czar becomes apparent. Egypt is not only self sufficient, it becomes the breadbasket to the world, selling grain and provisions to the entire region. But as the famine continues, Egyptian commoners use up their savings. Penniless, the people pledge their cattle and livestock to Pharaoh, and then still later, facing starvation, gift their homesteads and fields to their sovereign.
Egypt becomes the first totalitarian society in history, with all power over food, real estate and manufacturing centrally owned and controlled by the government. Prophecy and promise of redemption or no, how could anyone even hope to fight a government so powerful, so encroaching, that it owned and controlled all?
It looked bleak – maybe even hopeless. For the Jews, Egypt would, in the space of a generation, go the way such governments usually went. It was likely the first, but on the highways of history, not the last. Past was just prologue. Totalitarian governments – even those as well run as Egypt’s – end up turning on their people and absolute power allows – according to some, breeds – persecution.
Except, there’s always a weakness, an Achilles’ heel, even if it’s just a small exhaust port on an otherwise impenetrable and indestructible battle station. And with Egyptian society, it was that one group still remained untouchable, even to the royal reach. The priestly caste was fed by Pharaoh’s command and by kingly decree continued to own their lands.
That decision would have a ripple effect that even among the enslaved Jewish nation, their own priests, the tribe of Levi, would also be free from the yoke and burden of physical labor. From Levi, we will learn over the next few weeks (for those of us who haven’t seen the movie yet) as we read through Exodus, that the leaders of the Jewish rebellion will come from Levi. Yocheved, daughter of Levi and the nation’s last link to Jacob, along with her daughter, Miriam are leaders of clandestine efforts to save Jewish infants from Pharaoh’s infanticide. Amram, Yocheved’s husband, and Aaron, their eldest son, are the teachers and spiritual leaders of a downtrodden people. Of course, their youngest son, Moses, becomes the central character in the redemption, raised as a prince in the royal palace, then forced to flee to Midian, and finally returning as agent of the Almighty to exact justice on Egypt and free the Jewish people. But for the Levites, there would have been no Jewish leadership and no one to see – let alone work towards – a way out. (This lesson was not lost on Pharaoh’s future imitators. Torturing & killing spiritual leaders is almost a dictator’s calling card.)
The physical strength, spiritual courage and intellectual justification for fighting back against Egypt could never come from slaves fatigued into hopelessness. It needed to come from someone at least a little on the outside, someone who didn’t share the crushing slave labor: the Levites.
The hand of freedom comes when others step in to help those in need. That happens on a geopolitical level, a communal one and in our personal enslavements as well. Sometimes, we need an outsider to look in, and to tell us that as bad as our field of vision is, and as hopeless as it looks as far as the eye can see, that help is just over the horizon. We need to draw strength in our personal fights – and our national ones – from good friends who aren’t affected. Who can offer leadership and guidance because “it isn’t happening to them.” They may not understand, but they can help.
And sometimes in our lives and in the lives of nations, we are the Levite. We are the outsider, looking in, and it is our job to reach out and help someone out of their darkness.
Words to consider, ideas to ponder – politics & the parsha.