Sedra of the week – Rabbi Lord Sacks: Miketz
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Sedra of the week – Rabbi Lord Sacks: Miketz

In this extract from the newly-published Judaism’s Life-Changing Ideas, the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks explains the meaning behind this week’s sedra

Rabbi Lord Sacks
Rabbi Lord Sacks

Life-Changing Idea #10: What can be healed is not holy. God does not want us to accept poverty and pain but to cure them.

We know Jews have won a disproportionate number of Nobel Prizes: more than 20 percent of them from a group that represents 0.2 percent of the world population, an overrepresentation of 100 to one.

But the most striking disproportion is in the field of economics. The first Nobel Prize in economics was awarded in 1969. By 2017, of the 79 laureates, 29 were Jews – more than 36 percent.

It all began with Joseph who, in this parasha, became the world’s first economist. Interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams, he develops a theory of trade cycles – seven fat years followed by seven lean years – and immediately proceeds to a solution: Use the good years to build up resources for the lean times, a sound instance of long-term economic planning (see Gen. 41:34–36).

This turned out to be life-saving advice. His later economic policies (see 47:11–26), are more questionable.

When the people ran out of money during the lean years, Joseph told them to trade their livestock, then their land to Pharaoh. The Egyptians were now, in essence, Pharaoh’s serfs. These tactics would eventually be used against Joseph’s own people.

So a reasonable case could be made that Joseph was the first economist. But why the predominance of Jews in economics today? I do not want to argue that Jews created capitalism. They didn’t.

But clearly there is a strong affinity between the market economy and what is known as the Judaeo-Christian ethic, because it was in western cultures that the former first emerged. What was it about biblical values that proved so fruitful for economic thought, institutions and growth?

The Harvard historian and economist David Landes offered insight in his magisterial work, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations.

He comments on the biblical insistence on property rights, respect for the dignity of labour, and the Judaic sense of linear time: time not as a series of cycles but rather as an arena of change, development, and progress.

We are so familiar with these ideas – they form the bedrock of western culture – that we are not always aware they are not human universals.

To my mind, the most decisive single factor was the deconsecration of nature. God created nature by an act of will, and by making us in His image, gave us, too, the creative power of will.

That meant that for Jews, holiness lies not in the way the world is but in the way it ought to be. Poverty, disease, famine, injustice, and the exploitation of the powerless by the powerful are not the will of God. God wants us not to accept but to heal, to cure, to prevent.

So Jews have tended to become, out of all proportion to their numbers, lawyers fighting injustice, doctors fighting disease, teachers fighting ignorance and economists fighting poverty.

All of this is brilliantly portrayed in this parasha. First Joseph diagnoses the problem. But what he does next is world-changing. He sees the coming famine not as a fate to be endured but as a problem to be solved. Then, without fuss, he solves it, saving a whole region from death by starvation.

What can be changed need not be endured. Human suffering is not a fate to be borne, but a challenge to be overcome.

This is Joseph’s life-changing idea. What can be healed is not holy. God does not want us to accept poverty and pain, but to cure them.

Excerpt taken from Judaism’s Life- Changing Ideas: A Weekly Reading of The Jewish Bible by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, published by Maggid Books, priced £18.87 (hardback). Available at all Jewish bookshops and www.korenpub.com

LSJS is hosting a free online discussion of the book on Sunday 20 December, 8pm, www.lsjs.ac.uk

 

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