Wednesday, 08 Dec 2010

Written by Sandra Kviat

 Making a killing1

Who is the biggest grain merchant in the world? Who owns and distributes the largest percentage of the world’s grain?

You have probably never heard the name Cargill, and neither had I before I read an article by Leonie Nimmo for Ethical Consumer, but you have most likely bought something that they ‘produce, process or distribute: fats, fertilizers, and financial services, coal, cotton, container shipping, and chickens’.  Cargill is the largest private company in the United States and in 2009 it had revenue of £116.6 billion. In GDP that would make it the 54th wealthiest country in the world, right after New Zealand. Yet most of us have no idea of their existence, of the power that they have2.

In 2008 food riots broke out in Morocco, Yemen, Mexico, Guinea, Mauritania, Senegal and Uzbekistan.  As Julian Borger wrote, ‘Pakistan has reintroduced rationing for the first time in two decades.  Russia has frozen the price of milk, bread, eggs and cooking oil for six months.  Thailand is also planning a freeze on food staples. After protests around Indonesia, Jakarta has increased public food subsidies. India has banned the export of rice except the high-quality basmati variety,’3   The World Food Programme feared a billion people would starve because of the soaring prices of food and fuel.

Why was there no food? Had there been a global drought or other natural catastrophe?  The answer: nature was not responsible. ‘Speculation on commodity markets had significantly contributed to the crisis’.4  Cargill contributed to the crisis because of its dominance in the global cereal market.  While people were rioting Cargill’s profits rocketed by 86% in comparison to the year before.  In response, Cargill’s CEO Greg Page stated: ‘Cargill had an opportunity to make more money in this environment, and I think that is something that we need to be very forthright about’.

They had an opportunity to make more money even if that meant that millions of people would starve, or lose their livelihoods in order to have just enough food for survival.

I am not sure what words can possibly describe such conduct?

In last week’s parashah, we read (in the JPS translation), ‘During the seven years of plenty, the land produced in abundance, and he gathered all the grain of the seven years that the land of Egypt was enjoying and stored the grain in the cities; he put in each city the grain of the field around it. So Joseph collected produce in very large quantity, like the sands of the sea, until he ceased to measure it, for it could not be measured.’ (Gen. 41:47-49).

This week’s parashah includes the following passage: ‘Now there was no bread in all the world, for the famine was very severe; both the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan languished because of the famine. Joseph gathered in all the money into Pharaoh’s palace.  And when the money gave out in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan all the Egyptians came to Joseph and said, “Give us bread, lest we die before your eyes; for the money is gone!”  

Joseph said, “Bring your livestock, and I will sell to you against your livestock, if the money is gone”.  

So they brought their livestock to Joseph, and Joseph gave them bread in exchange for the horses, for the stocks of sheep and cattle and the asses; thus he provided them with bread that year in exchange for all their livestock.  

When that year ended, they came to him the next year and said to him, “We cannot hide from my lord that, with all the money and animal stock consigned to my lord, nothing is left at my lord’s disposal save our persons and our farmland.  Let us not perish before your eyes both we and our land.  Take us and our land in exchange for bread, and we with our land will be serfs to Pharaoh (avadim le-Far’oh); provide the seed that we may live and not die, and that the land may not become a waste.”’ (Gen. 47:13-19).

Most commentators remark what a good administrator Joseph is, how he saves the people of Egypt because of his planning skills.  There is one problem with this view: why was there a famine in the first place?  In most cases when there is a famine in the Bible we do not get an explanation and so it could be due to forces beyond human power.  However, what emerges in the detailed accounts of Joseph’s administration is that there is enough grain for all because every time the people offer something they get grain.  

The question is therefore: rather than preventing a famine, was Joseph the cause of a famine? By taking what belongs to the people through ‘nationalising’ it and then asking for payment, he effectively causes a lack of grain.  By controlling the largest grain trade in Egypt, and potentially beyond, Joseph dominates the market.  Had he been interviewed he might have answered, ‘Pharaoh, Inc. had an opportunity to make more money in this environment and I think that is something that we need to be very forthright about’.5

They made a killing.

And then the Egyptians thank Joseph for having saved their lives.  They did not storm the grain storages, they did not create mass demonstrations in the cities throughout the land of Egypt.  No Egyptian youth was seen throwing fire extinguishers at Pharaoh’s royal guard, no windows were smashed in Pharaoh’s campaign headquarters, no money handlers died in a torched Egyptian bank.  No rioting at all over the harsh austerity measures.  Just total acceptance, and then gratitude!

Why no revolt?  Perhaps this was not the interest of the biblical redactor.  
Or perhaps they were anticipating that protests would not make a difference as Joseph had made up his mind anyway?  Since with no election promises made and no vote to be had, a ‘sit in’ at the royal school would not make a difference, nor would a strike amongst the cities’ chariot drivers.  Perhaps no one disagreed about how the cuts were to be made and where? Given that everyone, except the priests – who had a special deal with Pharaoh – had to store their grain together, the measures would have hit every Egyptian the same way and so there would have been nothing to riot against.

If Joseph had then portioned out according to every family’s need we would have had a prime example of Communism in action.  Instead he went down a hyper-capitalist autocratic route by causing an enforced dependence amongst the population on his corporation.  An ancient Monopoly.

Was Joseph an immoral leader?

Many commentators point out that he could not have been due to how he embraced his estranged family and made sure their needs were covered.  However, the CEO of Cargill is probably a loving and caring person to his family.  Company bosses and heads of government can be, and often are, caring people, yet they still make uncaring or even ruthless decisions that will affect the faceless multitude.

Was Joseph punishing the Egyptians for his own enslavement? Perhaps, but this argument misses the point. By excusing his actions on the grounds of his personal experience instead of looking at the larger implications of his rule we can easily miss the link between dependability and hatred. Dependability can lead to enslavement which leads to fear and hatred.

In this view Joseph caused the Egyptians to fear and then hate the Israelites. Joseph might have caused the years of slavery for the Israelites, by enforcing a ruthless situation, and that ruthlessness could have been remembered through the generations as well as the people from which it originated, even if the actual person had faded from history.

What can we learn from this? Nothing – according to Rabbi Howard Cooper. The biblical narratives are descriptive of the human condition, not prescriptive of human behaviour. Reading Tanach is not about lessons to be learnt but rather how the stories can reflect back to us on our own situation. I have held up a mirror for all of us today, but how you interpret it and how you react to it depends on the shard of glass you hold in your hand.

Sandra Kviat
December 2010



1Leonie Nimmo, ‘Making a killing’, Ethical Consumer, September/October 2010, p.34.
3: Julian Borger, ‘Feed the world? We are fighting a losing battle, UN admits’, The Guardian, 26th February 2008.
4Leonie Nimmo, ‘ Making a killing’,  p.34



The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.