The Economics of Living Jewishly
By the time Yoseph had settled his family, the years of famine intensified in Egypt. Yoseph devised a system that would enable Egyptian society to pull itself out of the famine. He took the grain that he had amassed during the years of plenty, and distributed it to each Egyptian family.
In exchange, each Egyptian had to forfeit his property to the state. Now that all real estate belonged to Pharaoh, Yoseph was in a position to impose a grain tax upon every farmer.
The new policy was that for every five bushels of grain harvested, one bushel had to be returned to the government, and the other four bushels could be kept by the individual farmer and his family. In essence, it was a 20% tax on all new agriculture (see 47:23-24). This system was implemented not only during the years of famine, but for all perpetuity.
This was a very industrious and wise way of keeping the government strong and its treasury well-stocked. But why do you and I need to know this? Why does the Torah dedicate space to Yoseph’s economic plan for Egyptian society? Furthermore, why the arbitrary tax of 20%? What does that number signify?
Consumerism and society
We suggest that Yoseph was planning for the future of his family’s long sojourn in Egypt. He knew that in order for his family to spend generations in Egypt, there would need to be changes in the societal structure that would enable his family to spiritually survive the allures and the harmful values that were deeply embedded within Egyptian society.
One of the values that Egyptians held dear was that of consumerism. They were very into indulging themselves in all manner of pleasure and luxury. They viewed it as their right to live fatly off the land and exploit the fruits of their efforts to the fullest extent.
In 1904, in his essay, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber published his findings that religion played a significant role in the success of capitalism. Weber argued that the only way for capitalism to succeed was if members of that society acted with self-restraint, based on a religious value that advocated living an austere and modest life. A particular strand of Protestantism, know as Calvinism, emphasized this value.
When Calvinists were successful, instead of spending their hard-earned money on luxury items, they reinvested the money into their businesses. Making money and reinvesting it in order to make more money was the origin of the values and spirit of capitalism. (In fact, one of the reasons why we’re seeing certain systemic collapses within our western capitalist system is because capitalism can only succeed when individual consumers behave with a certain degree of restraint and humility. When hedonism becomes the prevailing ethic, when people stop saving and reinvesting their money, and when people wantonly exploit the other, capitalism begins to collapse.)
The wisdom in taking the fifth
Ancient Egypt did not share in that Calvinist work ethic. Yoseph realized that the Egyptian hedonistic value system would be detrimental for his family. He wanted, in some way, to detach Egyptians from their sense of entitlement, and therefore took possession of their land.
By taxing their land, they would be reminded that the land was only on loan to them. This also instilled within everyone the values of restraint and humility.
Yoseph believed that this socio-economic change would help his family come to the same conclusion: We aren’t the arbiters of our own destiny. We own nothing in this life, not even our own bodies. Hashem runs the world and owns all the property (Ps. 24:1): “לַד’ הָאָרֶץ וּמְלוֹאָהּ”. – “The whole world and its contents are God’s.”
If we look at the verses carefully, we’ll note that there was a wisdom in Yoseph taking a fifth of every farmer’s grain.
Yoseph professed that every family was entitled to four portions of their yield to correspond to four essential needs for grain within every family (in 47:23): (1) you need grain to use as seed for planting your fields; (2) you need grain to eat and nourish yourselves so that you may work; (3) you need grain for your “house,” i.e., everyone is entitled to a silo of grain to provide a sense of security and to barter for other goods, such as clothing and shelter; (4) finally, you need grain to feed your children who are too young to fend for themselves.
Yoseph felt that once the four essential needs for grain were met, he could take a remaining portion, the fifth portion, for Pharaoh.
Directing money towards essentials
I believe that there is a similar message, not only for Egyptian society, but for each of us. Sefer Charedim (16th cent.), quoting Rabbi Ovadya of Bartenura, states that every Jew should spend a fifth of their income on charity and other mitzvos.
That is, after you’ve spent your hard-earned income on the essentials of living: (1) money that needs to be reinvested in your business, (2) money to buy groceries, (3) money to pay for other essentials such as clothing, rent, and utilities, and (4) money to raise your children, the remaining “fifth” of your income should go to acts of charity, kindness, and other mitzvos.
He cites our verse, of Yoseph taking a fifth for Pharaoh, as an allusion to this, since the word “Pharaoh” is connected to the word “פרעון”, paying a debt back to God for all that He has given us. That is, despite the often economic drain of living life as an Orthodox Jew, one of the benefits of spending so much money on doing mitzvot is that this in itself reminds us that the money was never ours to begin with.
A lesson for the brothers
If we are correct, this would explain an uncanny wordplay that appears in the Yoseph story. In last week’s parsha, before Yoseph revealed himself to his brothers, he seated them all for a meal after they brought his brother Binyamin down to Egypt with them. The Torah states that he gave each brother a portion of food, drink, and gifts, but that the portion given to Binyamin at the table was five times that of the other brothers (43:34):
וַיִּשָּׂא מַשְׂאֹת מֵאֵת פָּנָיו אֲלֵהֶם וַתֵּרֶב מַשְׂאַת בִּנְיָמִן מִמַּשְׂאֹת כֻּלָּם חָמֵשׁ יָדוֹת וַיִּשְׁתּוּ וַיִּשְׁכְּרוּ עִמּוֹ
The verbiage is too similar to our parsha’s wording of Pharaoh’s fifth portion to be a coincidence. It may be that Yoseph was illustrating a lesson to his brothers, using Binyamin, his full brother, as a surrogate for a younger version of himself: What you did to me was an attempt to have it all. You felt that you were the architects of your own destiny, and that you could and would do whatever ruthless act it took in order to succeed in life. You saw me as a threat to your plans, and so eliminated me.
You failed to remember that the fifth portion belongs to Hashem, because that’s all He asks of us to remind ourselves that He’s in control of everything. Remember the fifth portion, brothers. Remember that it’s Hashem world, so that you won’t destroy another person ever again in your ambition to succeed.
The blessing that makes life worth living
No doubt, it’s expensive to live life as an Orthodox Jew. I often wonder if ba’alei teshuva and converts fully appreciate the economic realities of this lifestyle. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Spending one’s income on things like Torah education, kosher food, Shabbos and Yom Tov celebration with family, honoring one’s parents, etc., is what makes life worth living. These expenditures also remind us that the income we’ve been blessed with is Hashem’s gift to us, no matter how hard we may have worked for it. He gives us our lives and all we have, so the least we can do is return a fifth to Him.
May we succeed in living lives filled with that sense of joy and purpose. Perhaps we can also learn a bit from our Calvinist cousins and try to live modestly as well. May our efforts at expending our income for mitzvos bring us ever closer to the Redemption, bb”a.