In school, our education was very narrow. We learnt the Romans, the Tudors, then the Two World Wars. Based on schooling, I would have been amazed to discover that British history included working people, or women, or even Jews. The stories we are told are of what happens at the top, with much less attention to what is going on at the bottom of society.
In only a couple of weeks, Rabbi Jordan will be in the SWESRS pulpit, and I will withdraw for a bit to work on my dissertation. To graduate from Leo Baeck, I need to put together a thesis based in Jewish literature.
I'm looking at what life was like for ordinary people in Ancient Israel. What did it mean to be a slave, a farm-worker, or a peasant, or a house servant in the biblical world? What was life like for the vast majority of people when the Torah was transmitted?
This week's parashah gives us a slight insight. Here, Joseph transforms Egypt. He turns every Egyptian into a bondsman, nationalises all the land, and builds militarised garrisons for storing food. We learn that, in times of crisis, the ancient world could become incredibly authoritarian and hierarchical.
Joseph and Pharaoh lived luxurious lives, but most people did not. For most Israelites and Egyptians, life in the famine would have been gruelling work with rationed food and little freedom.
This worried many of our rabbinic commentators. They couldn't understand why a Jewish hero would institute the systems of slavery that would later persecute their own people.
Personally, I find it helpful. The Torah is not a text about how wonderful one nation is, but a complicated exploration of how wealth and power can be unevenly distributed. It is a moral text, asking us whether we can organise society in a different way.
If there is anything in that connected to current affairs, you will have to judge for yourself.
Student Rabbi Lev