Yom Rishon, 23 AdarI 5781
Sunday, 7 March 2021
Parashat Mikkeitz 2012

by Rabbi Janet Burden
14th December 2012

When I was last in the United States, my sister Lynn gave me a book she had recently finished for the flight back to England. A quick glance at the cover told me that this was not her usual reading fare; like me, she tends to prefer novels to non-fiction for leisure reading. But the small volume she handed me was history book, a history from the American High Plains, where she now lives, in a small farming town in Oklahoma.  “I thought I knew all about the Great Depression until I read this book,” she said.  “You simply cannot imagine it.” Called The Worst Hard Time, it describes how years of drought, combined with the people’s failure to anticipate the consequences of their own actions, turned one of the most fertile parts of the American continent into the environmental disaster known as the Dust Bowl.

As I read my way through this devastating history, it was impossible not to think of the story of Joseph and of the interpretation he gave to Pharaoh’s dreams, which predicted seven years of plenty to be followed by seven years of famine.  The drought on the High Plains lasted even longer than the Egyptian one, for eight whole years.  The parallels do not stop there. In both situations, only those who had substantial resources lived well through the hard times. Others less fortunate were forced to move and to acquire food through barter, living hand to mouth. Essentially, Joseph’s family end up as economic migrants in a foreign land, much as the Joad family in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath leave Oklahoma behind to try their luck in California.

Since the Biblical story dates from between the 19th to the 17th centuries before the Common Era, we cannot know if the events it recounts actually occurred, but it certainly is believable in many of its particulars.  Whether because of a warning from God or merely a premonition that the good times simply could not last forever, Pharaoh’s husbandry of resources protects him and his people against the devastation.  If the story IS based in fact, I can imagine that the relative ease in Egypt would have been seen by our ancestors as the result of the Divine Will.   Indeed, I think it likely that the whole of the Joseph novella might have been created, in part, to explain how it was that God’s chosen land, Canaan, was allowed to suffer while Egypt prospered. No less than we do today, our ancestors tried to interpret the events that shaped their lives, to make sense of the world around them. The creation of stories was one of their most powerful tools, and millennia later we see their enduring value.

The most remarkable thing in this story as we have received it, seems to be Pharaoh’s willingness to heed the warnings he is given. He shows no hesitation in setting plans into motion, based on a couple of dreams and the interpretations of a lowly Hebrew prisoner.  The great king of Egypt doesn’t wait to see what happens; he doesn’t wait for proof.  He acts, perhaps as a result of the application of reason and common sense.  The line of argument might have gone something like this:  “If the predication is wrong, I will have been abstemious for nothing.  But what if the prediction is right? That’s a wager I can’t afford to lose.”

To return to the story with which I began, the sodbusters of the High Plains had no such benign ruler to plan for them and no clear warning that they could heed themselves.  It was a pretty lawless time, and large areas of that part of the country were functionally self-governing.  No one was considering the combined consequences of the individual settlers’ actions. There were at best a few voices crying out in the wilderness against the further digging up of the grasslands, when it was already too late.

Human beings can be incredibly short-sighted creatures, especially when apparent self-interest is at odds with long-term goals. We stubbornly resist giving up something now so that we might have it later, or so that our children might have it after us. Yet this is indeed what we ALL will have to do if we are to meet the challenge of climate change.  We have to act personally on what we know, courageously and forthrightly – and to press for additional political action that will encourage others to do the same.  Otherwise, future generations will choke in the dust, just as the people did in the years of the Dust Bowl.  It is not a fate to which we should leave anyone, least of all the vulnerable nations of the developing world.