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Parashat 12/03/2010

Parashat MiKetz

submitted by Robert Rabinoff

Money Laundering

And all the earth came to Egypt, to Yosef, to buy provisions, for the famine was severe in all the earth (41:57)

Deep Throat: Follow the money.  (All the President’s Men)

All the gold in California Is in a bank in the middle of Beverly Hills in somebody else’s name (Larry Gatlin)

It is abundantly clear from our Parashah and indeed from the rest of Bereishit, that Yosef’s sale into Egyptian slavery was part of the Divine plan to bring Ya’akov and the nascent Jewish people down to Egypt, to fulfill the “Covenant Between the Pieces” that Gd made with Avraham some time before Yitzchak’s birth.  Furthermore, Yosef’s rise to be second in command of the world’s superpower at the time allowed him to save the lives of his family, as well as the Egyptian people, and in fact “all the earth.”

A secondary effect of all the earth’s coming to Egypt to buy food was that “all the earth” had to bring “all their money” with them, and this money was deposited by Yosef haTazddik (the righteous one) into Pharoah’s coffers.  All the gold and silver in the mideast (at least as far as one can carry food on an animal without having the animal eat it all up by the time you get home) was gathered together in one place – Egypt.  The economic pendulum had swung to one extreme.

If we fast-forward about 210 years, the Egyptians have continued to prosper on the backs of their slaves, Jewish and others.  Apparently the Pharoahs have been convinced of the wisdom of trickle-down economics, because the wealth has spread out, if not to a great middle class, at least so that the soon-to-be-released Jews could borrow “vessels of gold and vessels of silver and garments” from their neighbors.  The economic pendulum was about to lurch abruptly in the other direction, as the Jews “emptied out Egypt” as the Egyptians were all too glad to give them anything they wanted, just so they would leave and take their Gd and His plagues with them.  Needless to say, whatever the Jews took barely compensated them for 210 years of slave labor in “bricks and mortar and all kinds of work in the fields.”

I was once driving through the desert in Utah when we came across a sign: Check your gas! No services next 115 miles.  What were we going to do with all this gold and silver in the middle of the Sinai desert?  There was no food or water to buy, and in any event Gd had provided manna to eat and a miraculous well to provide water.  And at that point, before the incident with the spies (see Parashat Shelach in BaMidbar/Numbers), it was only a few days’ journey to the Land of Israel.  As Torah tells us, we took two different approaches to using all these resources.  The good news is, we used our resources to build the Mishkan, the Tabernacle where the kohanim brought our offerings before Gd.  The bad news is, we also used our resources to build an idol, the infamous golden calf.  One use of our resources elevated us and brought fulfillment to the world, and the other went in the exact opposite direction.

As always, we can view the Biblical narrative as a story about another place and another time, or we can seek its relevance for us, right here and now.  For those of us living in the US we don’t have far to look.  With all the economic woes and uncertainty that we have been experiencing, we are still by far the richest country in the world, and we have a standard of living that is unimaginable to most of the world’s population, and even to many of our parents and certainly our grandparents.  We have, in short, virtually all the resources we could ever want or use, and we are, like our ancestors, faced with the question – what are we going to do with those resources?

Fortunately we have a Torah and a traditional understanding of the Torah that tells us what we should be doing with our resources.  We should be using our resources to learn Torah, to serve Gd (in whatever way is appropriate to our individual nature, within the bounds of Torah of course), and to help those in need, as we learn in Pirke Avot (1:2):

On three things the world stands: On the Torah, and on Divine service and on doing acts of lovingkindness.

We are also told to “walk in Gd’s ways.”  What are those ways?  Our liturgy tells us: He “upholds the falling and heals the sick, frees those who are bound and keeps faith with those who sleep in the dust.”  (Note that in context of this blessing “those who sleep in the dust” are the dead, but the words could also refer to the poor, or even to all who are in the “dust” of material creation.)  We have not been privileged to rebuild the Temple in our generations; perhaps we should look at the way we have devoted our resources to understand why:

  • How much money is spent on sports on the college and professional level?  How much of our communal time, effort, energy and money is spent building grandiose arenas for the many and fat to watch the very few and fit run and jump?
  • How much money is spent in the US on our health care system?  How do our outcomes fare in comparison to the rest of the industrialized world?
  • How many hundreds of millions of dollars are spent annually downloading ring tones for our cell phones!?!
  • How many trillions of dollars are sent to China to buy cheap merchandise which sits in our house unopened for some years until it can be re-sold at a garage sale or on eBay?
  • How much do we spend on packaged, processed food that is filled with noxious additives?  How many times do we get something quick at a fast-food restaurant, which gives us plenty of fat and calories but precious little real nutritive value?  How much of our food ends up in a dumpster?  How many expensive illnesses, missed school and work, how much dull, unproductive thinking, can be traced to some of the stuff we put in our bodies?
  • How much oil do we burn, and how much pollution do we spew, because we must travel every man in his own SUV, rather than having a workable public transportation system?
  • How much money goes into weapons of destruction?

Obviously this list could go on and on.  On the other side, how much time, energy and resources do we put into our spiritual development?  How much do you give to support your synagogue compared to what a two-week vacation costs?  Perhaps in this day and age, where we work 40 hours a week, it’s too much to ask that we also learn Torah 40 hours a week, but on our vacation, do we take another trip to Disney world (i.e., to FantasyLand) or do we sign up for a shiur, or get some Torah tapes, or get together with a study partner or a study group?  Do we come back from our vacation drained or spiritually energized?  What are we planning to do in retirement?  Go golfing every day?  Or devote ourselves to Torah, to our spiritual development, to nourishing our souls, now that we finally have the time?  As we get older are we moving towards death or are we moving towards eternal life?

Is it any wonder we haven’t rebuilt the Temple?  We’re much too busy building golden calves to even begin to think about a Temple!

When Gd had all the world bring their money to Egypt, the plan was that when the Jews had served their time in slavery they would take that money, and all the impurity associated with it, from all the stealing and all the violence and all the brutality by which it was acquired, and elevate it by using it for “blessed purposes” (R. S. R. Hirsch).  In truth, all our financial and material resources come to us from the material world, which is the world of impurity.  It is only through our using those resources to further Gd’s purposes on earth that the holy sparks inside each of those resources can be freed of their material casings to fly upward to join in the brilliance of Heaven.  The ultimate example of this was the building of the Mishkan and later the Temple in Jerusalem, may it be speedily rebuilt and may it last forever.  It is our mission as Jews, and especially as Jews living in this time and this place, to use the resources Gd has graciously granted us in the way He meant them to be used – to establish His kingdom of righteousness and holiness on earth.   A joyous Chanukah to one and all!  May the light in all our lives continually increase, and may we at last fulfill our mission to be a “light unto the nations.”