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Be Careful What You Plant!

Last week I talked about, in part, the reality that Joseph’s plan to save the people of Egypt and neighboring lands from famine, was short sighted. It saved the people physically, but it later forced them to sell themselves into slavery to stave of starvation. While it does not seem that Joseph’s family had to sell themselves during the famine, it sounds like they were the only ones, in addition to royalty, who remained free… So, it is not so surprising, to me, that this set up a situation where, over time, they would lose their royal privilege, and be forced to join the slave-force, just like the rest of the population.

This week I want to explore in a bit more depth into the psychospiritual forces which might have caused Joseph to come up with the plan that he did, and what we might learn from him...

Joseph struggled with power throughout his life. As the second youngest child, he was both looked down upon, as well as favored. In his dreams, the entire family bowed down to him. However, the way he shared those dreams, led to retribution, and eventually slavery. He was on the receiving end of the misuse of power and thrown into jail over false allegation, after gaining some measure of power in Pharoah’s household. In jail, he shared his unique power to interpret dreams. That gift did not yield dividends right away, but eventually brought him another kind of salvation.

The dreams Joseph heard from Pharoah spoke of 7 years of plenty, followed by just as many of famine. However, they suggested nothing about the response. The plan of what to do came neither from the dreams, nor from God, it came from Joseph’s own mind and I would suggest his understanding of his past. You see, for the Hebrew Prophets, even prophecy, contrary to the modern use of the word, was never meant to foretell the future. In reflecting on this week’s Parshah, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, reminded me that Hebrew Prophecy was always meant as a foreshadow, only a warning of what might be. A successful prophecy… or it would be more accurate to say, the successful reception of a prophecy, is one in which the warnings of prophecy do not come to pass!

Returning to Joseph, let us just point out just a few other plans he could have but did not put in place to protect the people from famine. The most simple of these would be to help communities set up local food, seed saving, and irrigation plans. This way, in times of famine, they would draw on their own storehouses, and not need put themselves in debt to anyone. With a bit more forethought, he could have helped move the agriculture towards more perennials, plants and trees with deeper roots, which would draw water from deeper reservoirs below the surface soil. He could have helped them plant more wild species and more cover crops, to limit the rate of evaporation. These would have supported more resilient crops as well as more resilient communities. There are also the kinds of suggestions our tradition makes when telling us how to prepare for the Sabbatical Year, the tradition in which all agricultural work pauses once in seven years, and all loans are forgiven. For the Rabbis of the Mishna and the Talmud, the Sabbatical Year was not based on a magical wish that G-d would rain Manna from the sky to provide us with enough food for 2 years instead of 1. No, it was about creating an agricultural and communal system, which was deeply in-tune with the cycles of life inside and around the Earth, fostered deep communal cooperation, and even forgave debts (perhaps emotional as well as psychological ones). It was not based on power, but on a long term vision and wisdom for the future.

However, Joseph did not see any of that in his lifetime. The only thing he saw was power. He saw its use and its abuse. So, perhaps it is no big surprise that when he rose to power, he wielded his knowledge in such a way to as to perpetuate that cycle. Let us assume that he did not do that intentionally or consciously. Let us assume, that like all of us, he was doing his absolute best. Let us not forget that he saved an entire generation from starvation.

At the same time, my prayer and my challenge to all of us for the following week and year is to learn from Joseph. Too often we simply assume that having lived through some kind of an ordeal, whether personal or communal, we naturally become more empathetic to other people’s pain and more thoughtful about how to prevent the same kind of harm we experienced ourselves. Sadly, it is just as often if not more often true, that even when do our best, we end up perpetuating the same kind of suffering we experienced ourselves, just in a different direction and in a different way. To grow from pain and suffering, takes work, intention, a big dose of humility, and usually the support of many loved ones. I wonder, what plan would Joseph have come up with, if he was first able to first call upon and reconcile with all of his brothers, and feel the warmth of his elderly father’s kiss?

May we all learn from Joseph and from our own struggles, may we find the reconciliation and support we all desperately yearn for, the perseverance and the humility necessary to receive it with grace, and the creativity to plant seeds which will yield blessings!

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