December 2018, Parshat Mikeitz

Dear friends,

A good friend recently said to me that his passions include archaeology and anthropology and so he doesn’t really buy into the whole story of the Torah. Here is a summary of what he said:

“With what we know about the origin of life and the planets the more ridiculous the story of creation becomes. The more we discover about contemporaneous ancient civilisations the less of the Torah’s narrative adds up.

600,000 Jewish men of military age left Egypt at the Exodus. Really? I’ve been following ancient demographic distributions for quite some time now, and I know that Egypt’s total population at the time could not have exceeded much beyond 3 million. In fact, they managed to sustain an army of only 40,000. If that is so, couldn’t the six hundred thousand strong Israelites who have been training at the pyramids throw some rocks on their oppressors and saved God the hassle of the 10 plagues? Every soldier would have to contend with 15 rock throwers simultaneously with little more than a sword, spear, and shield. The stones available on the other hand were inexhaustible as they were epic in size been handled by those who did so every day of their life.

Besides, can we really imagine a situation where at least 50% of the population breaks away from the only superpower of its day and yet there is absolutely no mention of anything about these events either in Egyptian sources or others? It is true that The Merneptah Stele – an inscription by the ancient Egyptian king Merneptah who lived about this time (1213-1203 BCE) makes a mention of Israel.

The text is largely an account of Merneptah’s victory over the Libyans and their allies, but the last 3 of the 28 lines deal with a separate campaign in Canaan, then part of Egypt’s imperial possessions. In half a line it states ‘Israel is laid waste and his seed is not’.

If half the population, the engine of the entire economy built on slave labour one day waltz out grabbing lots of treasure along the way, the ramifications I would think would be substantially greater than some barely decipherable reference to a subdued Israel.

And finally, a few million people hanging out in the desert for 40 years must surely leave something behind. If today’s Israelite community leaves behind so much trash on the banks of the Kinneret and everywhere else they picnic for an afternoon, is it conceivable that not one of those multiple millions left even just one broken sandal behind he forgot to recycle?!”

“But I am very Jewish”, he concludes.

Lucky for me that this sermon was taking place at the Chanukah Whiskey event so my mouth had other occupations.

The truth is, I sympathise with every point he makes but one: the premise. If the Torah was a history book then one could legitimately discredit it by pointing to all the apparent inconsistencies with historical scholarship. It is simple. You trust the knowledge of people who bother themselves to study their discipline rather than someone who asserts whatever they want.

But the Torah is not a history book. It is a book with a message whose content is supposed to make us, individually and collectively, better human beings. It matters little whether one is talking about 600,000 slaves or 600. What matters is the principle that the Torah is teaching – that slavery is wrong.

When we focus on historical veracity we miss the whole point. Neither the believer nor agnostic walk away with anything instructive from such a conversation. The sceptic is left saying ‘I feel very Jewish’ and have only school fees to show for it, whilst the believer retreats his focus to the miraculous twists and turns which often defy logic and lead to no inspiration whatsoever.

Take for instance this week’s reading, Parshat Mikeitz, which is all about the meteoric rise of Yosef from fancy slave boy in the royal dungeon to second in command to Pharaoh himself. Instead of asking ‘was Yosef real and how to prove it’ we should be asking is if what Yosef teaches us is worthwhile.

We’re told he was a spoilt kid who got under the skin of his brothers enough that they sold him as a slave after initially deciding to kill him. He was smart, dashing, and a natural leader. So far no great resume. That he resisted Potifar’s wife at great cost does show a man of integrity. But it’s his interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream and its actualisation that takes him to the league of the true greats.

Though that may sound like I’ve become a tarot card reading astrologist, I haven’t. think that Yosef’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream was the greatest thing ever. Yosef could have advised Pharaoh that they could make a killing but he needs partnership before he shares. The plan was simple. Pharaoh alone had the resources and authority to construct the storehouses for the lean years, this was the opportunity to turn the enterprise into an auction. Let those with the most money live, making the ruling class fabulously wealthy, others be damned. After his near-death experience at the hands of his brothers, we would even understand.
Instead he suggested they plan to save the entire population. He personally supervises the handouts and no one is turned away. The food is made available for Egyptians and foreigners alike. Yosef was a humanist, probably a socialist, and most definitely a universalist.

How different is the current state of affairs? Whilst it is true there is a lower percentage of the world’s population dying from hunger literally or close enough, we are still talking about billions of people who suffer in that way. When our planet has more than enough resources to go around, it is human greed that gets in the way.

Yosef epitomised the notion of responsibility to others. Why is Yosef such a great guy leading to some opinions Mashiach will come from him? Because he believed we must not hog all the resources. Our last level luxury item should not come before the bread and water of someone in India or Africa. As a collective, we should be promoting to leadership those politicians who show the same empathy as Yosef did to the worst off, even foreigners. Why then is Foreign Aid of the West in such sharp decline?

How different it is when the richest economy on earth sends troops to the border to block entry to a group of the most destitute. The relevant president might shoot back and say that, like Yosef, he is the smartest person in the world. The part about integrity he would clumsily avoid, but the troop movement he will defend. Didn’t Yosef accuse the foreigners of being criminals?! Clearly then, he and I are of one mind.

The truth is that Yosef falsely accusing them was really only a bit of a prank on them. After all, they did nearly kill him and sold him off to suffer miserably. But he wasn’t serious! Accusing a hungry, destitute mass of humanity baselessly is the meanest nastiest thing one can do.

And so whether Yosef was a historical figure corroborated by extra-biblical sources is not really important. What is of profound relevance is the Torah’s message of our responsibility to our fellow human beings.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Chanukah,
Rabbi Shneur