Torah This Week: Sharecroppers to Pharaoh

For me, one of the saddest parts of Torah is what many other commentators celebrate as a great triumph. It is the way Joseph (Yosef) deals with the great famine by demanding that an entire population in danger of starving turn their land over to Pharaoh, and become sharecroppers. From Genesis 47:13-19, we learn how, during the years of famine, the farmers of Egypt on the edge of starvation year by year buy the grain stored in Pharaoh’s storehouse --first with all their silver, so that all of Egypt’s silver comes under Pharaoh’s control;  then with the seed that they had set aside for the next year’s sowing; then with ownership of the land itself; and finally with their own freedom. The result is described in  Genesis 47:20-26 (Everett Fox transl., The Five Books of Moses (Schocken, 1995.)

 The result is described in  Genesis 47:20-26 (Everett Fox transl., The Five Books of Moses (Schocken, 1995):


 So Yosef acquired all the soil of Egypt for Pharaoh -- for each of the Egyptians sold his field, for the famine was strong upon them- and the land went over to Pharaoh. As for the people, he transferred them into the cities, from one edge of Egypt's border to its other edge.  Only the soil of the priests he did not acquire, for the priests had a prescribed-allocation from Pharaoh, and they ate from their allocation which Pharaoh had given them, therefore they did not sell their soil. Yosef said to the people: Now that I have acquired you and your soil today for Pharaoh, here, you have seed, sow the soil! But it shall be at the ingatherings, that you shall give a fifth to Pharaoh, the four other parts being for you as seed for the field and for your eating-needs, for those in your households, and for feeding your little-ones. They said: You have saved our lives! May we find favor in my lord's eyes: we will become servants to Pharaoh. And Yosef made it a prescribed-law until this day, concerning the soil of Egypt: For Pharaoh, every fifth part! Only the soil of the priests, that alone did not go over to Pharaoh.


Joseph could have freely given the stored-up grain to the people, leaving them as independent farmers. But he transferred power to Pharaoh and to himself as viceroy.  Moreover, he forced the people to move from their ancestral homes. Only the priests retained their land  -- their economic power – as well as their religious authority.

Whether or not this is an accurate factual and historical picture of a great change in Egypt’s political economy, it is the story Torah chooses to tell. And that makes it remarkable that it is precisely the opposite of the land-and-people system described in Leviticus 25 as how the Breath of Life wants the People Israel and all its settler-sojourner foreigners to live. For in that picture the people are guaranteed the right to redeem their land even if they become poor and need to become indentured servants. The king is not allowed to pile up silver  or land for himself. The priests do not own land, and so cannot add economic power to religious authority. And even if the people move, they are absolutely entitled to return once a generation to their ancestral homes.

All this is guaranteed in Leviticus by the Seventh Year, Shabbat Shabbaton (Sabbath  to the exponential power of Sabbath), the Shmita  or “Year of Release.”  So this may remind us that Yosef’s whole power trip begins with interpreting Pharaoh’s dream to predict that there will be seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine. He goes out of his way to say there is no way out – the future is determined.


What if he had said there would be seven years of plenty – and if Egypt treated the seventh year as a year of sabbatical rest for the land, a year of releasing the land and its people from overwork , there would be no famine? But if they farmed the land without a pause, a rest, a release – then there would be famine. (Compare Leviticus 26 as a description for what would happen if the land were not allowed to rest.) What if he had said the dream was a warning, not a prediction?

(Is the Torah suggesting that bad experience of land policy [as described in Genesis about Egypt]  has formed a much wiser sense of land policy for the Land of Israel [as expressed in Leviticus]? Or is Torah hinting that having shaped the Leviticus /Shmita rhythm out of direct experience as farmers, the writers and chanters of ancient story introduced the precise opposite of Leviticus into their tales about Joseph, to enhance freedom with a tale of enslavement? Or is Torah saying that Joseph’s whole life-path of determinism – there are no choices possible – fits with Subjugation, with Power Over others?]

 Most commentators read the rest of Genesis as a triumph for Joseph and hi family. They live affluently by Pharaoh’s grace, in a territory of their own --  Goshen. At last Joseph’s own life-long dream of and effort to win power over his equals has been rewarded. After all, this was his fourth try: seeking power over his brothers brought him into the pit and sale as a slave into Egypt. Grasping power in Potiphar’s household brought him fury from Potiphar’s wife, whom he had displaced from her role as supervisor, and who maneuvered him into prison. In prison he rises to appointment as a “trusty,” an aide to the warden – but is left a prisoner when he sets himself up as a dream interpreter for other prisoners. Finally, he rises to sit above all Egypt, next to Pharaoh himself.  His life-search finds utter triumph!

Until we turn the Torah Scroll to the Book of Exodus.

 [Please pause from this reading for a few minutes to think through the “white fire” of the blank spaces between the two books. What is the story written in the "white fire"? What happened between the two books? What does it mean? And then come back.]


As Exodus begins, Joseph’s descendants become slaves, victims of attempted genocide.

Is the Torah trying to tell us an epic story of how Subjugation of the People and the Land recoils upon the heads of Subjugators and must – if we are wise enough to hearken to the Breath of Life --  result in a Great Turning ? Is this story not merely antiquarian history but a great and hidden parable? What is its meaning for today?

Lerner's "Revolutionary Love"

Michael Lerner wrote his newest book, Revolutionary Love (University of California Press), in 2019. There was already in the world and in his mind’s eye the brutality of the Trump Administration. There was only a hint of the possibility of a world pandemic resulting from the rampant disregard by human institutions – mostly the Hyperwealthy – for the habitat of other species. And though he notes with hope the existence of Black Lives Matter, a massive national Black-led multiracial Uprising against racism was not on the country’s, or Lerner’s, agenda.

What his book is mostly about is an imagined series of social changes that would make America, and the planet, a society focused on loving connectiveness -- not competition and subjugation – and the loving means of getting  there.

 Among his proposed loving alternatives is:

  •  “Gradually disband police forces and replace them with neighborhood  security committees,  trained in de-escalation  and empathic intervention.  (These committees will be backed up in emergency situations by local community forces (neighbors trained to meet violence effectively).” (page191)

 Who knew (I think not Lerner) that this would be on the front pages everywhere while his book was still new?

 The book is peppered with such ideas. The question is how to make them do-able. Not every one of them is going to have behind it the force of an Uprising deep enough to make tens of thousands of people forget their fears of Death by Coronavirus and erupt onto the streets.

 I do want to note one other proposal out of dozens, partly because It is a special concern of mine and because Lerner gives it five pages (pp. 233-238), not just one small paragraph. That is his examination of whether it would be possible to organize in our own society, so different from ancient Israel, the Sabbatical Year commanded in Leviticus 25. 

For Torah, this is the crucial way of preventing both social disaster as economic inequality worsens and eco-disaster as Earth is treated with contempt. The Torah considers this program so central that it is said to come from Sinai, just like “Don’t make idols” and “Don’t murder.” – And so, in Lev. 26, is the recitation of specific disasters that will come if Earth is not allowed to rest every seventh year.  Lerner thinks we could do this Great Sabbath in modern America. Wonder how? Read the book!

 Lerner deals with almost every bristling “Impossible!” and “Unrealistic!” by challenging the “liberal” and “progressive” Lefts that express considerable contempt for “Love” as a transformative possibility. The Lefts’ reaction translates into contempt for religion, the one aspect of American society that still holds some love for Love.  And into contempt for the “deplorables” who depend on religion as their last gasp of breath – and of Love at least in their local communities.

 Lerner recalls the sense of frustrated and frayed connections between people, and the experience of many working-class Americans that their once-upon-a-time liberal allies see them as damaged and disreputable because they seem to be translating psychological and social fears into attacks on “the others.“

 He hopes to bring together the old Left-outs --  Blacks, Indigenous Peoples, Muslims, Spanish-speakers, women,  GLBTQIA communities, Jews – with the new Left-outs --  the “forgotten whites.” He looks to heal their split in part by their economic resentment against the ultra-rich 1/10 of 1%, but more by his appeal to their separate but shareable Love.

 His book ends with what I would call despair masked as hope. As a last resort, Lerner imagines dividing the USA in two, using the new technology that could unite clusters across territory to separate the “Progressive States of America” from the “Conservative States of America.” His comments remind me of the despairing advice on the edge of the last Civil War: “Let the erring sisters [the Southern states] depart in peace.“

But most of all he is hopeful. He hopes that the steps he proposes of actually embodying “revolutionary love” and an ultimate “Love and Justice Party” will enable the creation of a transformed United States.

Proclaim Restfulness throughout the Earth to all its Life-Forms

This coming Shabbat, the traditional Jewish reading of the Torah reaches chapters 25 and 26 of Leviticus.

Chapter 25 is famous, especially because the quotation on the Liberty Bell,  “Proclaim liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof," comes from that passage of Torah. It is not talking about civil liberty  -- freedom of speech and of the press. It is talking about economic freedom – – ending a period of slavery -- and freedom for the Earth from being overworked, freedom to rest.

Chapter 25 begins by asserting that the pattern of work and rest for the Earth comes straight from Sinai, like what we call the Ten Commandments. It teaches us that every seventh year, we must allow the Earth to rest fpr a full year from the work we usually do to make it bring forth the food we need to live.

We must do this because we are not in fact the owners of any plot of Earth.  Only YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh --- the InterBreath of Life – is the “Owner" of the Earth, and the InterBreath of Life can keep on breathing only if there is time to pause, to rest. If we do, says Torah, the Earth will be even more fruitful in the years that follow.

And what if we don't allow the earth to rest? Chapter 26 teaches us that the earth will rest anyway – – on our heads. It will rest through drought and famine, flood and unheard-of superstorms, plagues of diseases in unexpected places, the exile of whole peoples in what we would now call a flood of refugees.

Chapter 26 reads as if it were written by a contemporary climate scientist,

Rabbinic Letter on Climate -Torah, Pope, & Crisis Inspire 425+ Rabbis to Call for Vigorous Climate Action

Encouraged by plans for and release of the papal Encyclical,  they call for Eco-Social Justice

As of Noon on October 29, 2015,  425 rabbis have signed a Rabbinic Letter on the Climate Crisis, calling for vigorous action to prevent worsening climate disruption and to seek eco-social justice. The text of the Rabbinic Letter and its signers are below.

 The Rabbinic Letter was initiated by seven leading rabbis from a broad spectrum of American Jewish life: Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector of the American Jewish University; 
Rabbi Arthur Green, rector of the Hebrew College rabbinical school; Rabbi Peter Knobel, former president, Central Conference of American Rabbis; Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, director of the Social Justice Organizing Program at the Reconstructionist Rabbininical College; Rabbi Susan Talve, spiritual leader of Central Reform Congregation, St. Louis; Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of The Shalom Center; and Rabbi Deborah Waxman, president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. They were joined by Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg, a leader of the Orthodox community.

 The full text and list of signers follows.


 To the Jewish People, to all Communities of Spirit,

and to the World:

 A Rabbinic Letter on the Climate Crisis

We come as Jews and rabbis with great respect for what scientists teach us – for as we understand their teaching, it is about the unfolding mystery of God’s Presence in the unfolding universe, and especially in the history and future of our planet.  Although we accept scientific accounts of earth’s history, we continue to see it as God’s creation, and we celebrate the presence of the divine hand in every earthly creature.

 Yet in our generation, this wonder and this beauty have been desecrated -- not in one land alone but ‘round all the Earth. So in this crisis, even as we join all Earth in celebrating the Breath of Life that interweaves us all -- –

 --  You sea-monsters and all deeps, Hallelu-Yah.

Fire, hail, snow, and steam, Hallelu-Yah.

Stormy wind to do God's word, Hallelu-Yah.

Mountains high and tiny hills, Hallelu-Yah (Psalm 148)

 We know all Earth needs not only the joyful human voice but also the healing human hand.

 We are especially moved when the deepest, most ancient insights of Torah about healing the relationships of Earth and human earthlings, adamah and adam, are echoed in the findings of modern science.

 The texts of Torah that perhaps most directly address our present crisis are Leviticus 25-26 and Deuteronomy 15.  They call for one year of every seven to be Shabbat Shabbaton – a Sabbatical Year – and Shmittah – a Year of restful Release for the Earth and its workers from being made to work, and of Release for debtors from their debts.

In Leviticus 26, the Torah warns us that if we refuse to let the Earth rest, it will “rest” anyway, despite us and upon us – through drought and famine and exile that turn an entire people into refugees.

This ancient warning heard by one indigenous people in one slender land has now become a crisis of our planet as a whole and of the entire human species. Human behavior that overworks the Earth – especially the overburning of fossil fuels   --- crests in a systemic planetary response that endangers human communities and many other life-forms as well.

Already we see unprecedented floods, droughts, ice-melts, snowstorms, heat waves, typhoons,

If We Do (or Don't) Allow the Earth to Rest --

[Originally posted Jan 2, 2005; revised May 18, 2014]

If we do not follow the pattern of seventh-year and fiftieth-year rest for the land and suspension of social hierarchies that is commanded in Leviticus 25, the Earth will rest anyway — on our heads!  It will rest through famine, drought, exile.

The Torah follows up on the commands in Leviticus 25 with warnings in Lev 26: 33-35 and 43-44, in the Torah portion called "B'Chukkotai" : For as many restful Shabbat Shabbaton years that human exploitation denied the earth, so many years will the earth "rest" through disaster.

 And at the very end of the Tanakh (the Hebrew Scriptures ) II Chronicles 36: 20-21 claims that this is exactly what happened — that the people lived in the Babylonian Exile as many years as they had prevented the land from making Shabbat:

Healing Mother Earth by drawing on 4 Worlds of Transformative Judaism

We face a planetary crisis. How would Transformative Judaism, drawing on the Four Worlds of Kabbalah, seek to heal our wounded Mother Earth? 

Since human action has endangered the web of life on earth, human action can heal it.

And the religious and spiritual communities of our planet have the wisdoms and the tools to do the healing.

May Day & Torah

Biblical Ecology & Economics for the 21st (or 58th) Century

There are two May Days in Western cultural tradition, one celebrating the Earth and the other calling for social justice. Torah treats these “two” issues as one.

One May Day is rooted in ancient pagan celebration of the spring, including Maypole dances.

The second May Day is rooted in the struggle of American workers beginning in the 1880s to win limits on the work-week to five days of eight hours. One apt slogan: “Eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, eight hours for what we will.”  A recognition that social justice required not only decent pay and treatment for workers and their unions, but also time – free time — for the workers’ own intellectual, emotional, and spiritual growth.

The two versions of May Day have remained unconnected.  And in the political world, the two focuses –- social justice and healing of the Earth  — have also remained mostly segregated from each other.

Though the US and the world are struggling with both economic and ecological crises, most people see them as unconnected. In the secular “social justice” world, many organizations  ignore ecological issues. In the secular  “environmental” world, many organizations ignore issues like disemployment or income inequality or overwork.  And in both worlds, there is little talk about the need for free time, restfulness.

Even in the religious world, the loudest voices in American Christianity affirm an economics of minimal regulation of private property and competition, and minimal protection for the Earth from human exploitation.

But Torah says otherwise. Leviticus 25 & 26 call for an entire year of rest for the land and its workers, every seventh year. Deuteronomy adds that in that year, everyone’s debts are annulled. (Deut. 15: 1-3). Thus Torah sees economics and ecologics as intimately intertwined, affirms that both the land and the people need time to rest, and calls for a practice of strong, spiritually rooted regulation of both.

Green Festival, Green Hevra, Green Earth

Green is the color of today.

 Our own Green Hevra, the green of trees and grasses, and the green of Islam in one of its great festivals.

Today, as many of us who are involved in the Green Hevra (there’s a description below) are both taking joy in and mulling over the excellent work we did in an intensive two-day retreat this week,  we might also pause to take note of today’s beginning of the four-day Muslim Festival of Eid-al-Idha.

 The festival remembers and honors a moment that Jews remember as well. Abraham / Ibrahim / Avraham prepared to obey God’s command to offer up his son as a sacrifice – and then at the last moment heard God calling on him to save his son and offer instead a ram caught by its horns in a nearby thicket.  And obeyed.

Muslims honor his willingness to obey God, and they translate this honor into feeding the poor and the outcast.  Drawing on Ibrahim’s offering of the ram, Muslims will take the meat of a ritually slaughtered lamb to share with their extended families and with the poor.

The Shalom Center says to the Muslim world —  Eid Mubarak! May your festival be blessed!

May it help us all to make real the teaching of these days: “Do not kill your children; Feed the poor!”

May we deeply learn that our present mode of life is lifting the deadly “knife” of overburning fossil fuels — the knife that will kill our children and grandchildren. May we turn away, to make an offering of life, instead.

 I’ve just returned from a two-day intensive retreat of the year-old Green Hevra, a network of about 15 Eco-Jewish organizations, ranging from Jewish organic farms and an eco-focused summer camp to an educational center for kids in Jewish schools for learning Torah of the Earth to groups focused  on the hands-on physical greening of Jewish buildings to several organizations (including The Shalom Center) that fuse Jewish wisdom and practice with eco-policy activism.

The gathering was deeply joyful for me, both collectively and personally —  because the Hevra took several important decisions to address the climate crisis, and because the Hevra honored me as a teacher in a circle of blessing.

The GREEN HEVRA decided to adopt  “Growing a Sustainable Climate” as a focus for the work of the Hevra as a whole and as an important theme in much (not all) of the work of the member organizations.

We identified two special times for lifting up this work

Toward a Jubilee Economy & Ecology in the Modern World

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow

[This essay is a chapter in Rabbi Waskow's book Godwrestling -- Round 2 (Jewish Lights, 1996). The book is available as a free gift from The Shalom Center, personally inscribed by Rabbi Waskow as you choose, if you use the Donate button on the left to make a tax-deductible contribution of $36 or more.

[At the end of this essay you will find citations on teachings from the Hebrew Bible & related materials toward a Jubilee Economics and Ecologics.]::

One lesson that we have discerned from studying the story of the Flood [see a previous chapter from Godwrestling -- Round 2] is that it is profoundly necessary for us to affirm and celebrate the cycles of life if we wish to preserve the cycles of life. Are those cycles now in danger? And if so, how can we affirm them?


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