Shabbat Vayigash: Negotiations

December 29, 2022 by Jeremy Rosen
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Is there a set formula for negotiations? We see two examples in this week’s reading from the Torah.

It begins with Judah approaching Joseph to negotiate with him over the future of Benjamin and his family. He approaches the challenge by initially going over the history of how they came to this crisis and then moves on to discuss the ramifications of losing Benjamin.
He then appeals to the humanity of Joseph in describing what a catastrophic effect keeping Benjamin as a slave is going to have on his father. By depriving Jacob of his son, he will die. And in so doing, he shows all the qualities of consideration and concern that the brothers had singularly failed to feel with him. The speech in tone and content is a master class in negotiating when the odds are heavily stacked against one. Build up slowly and play on the other side’s weak position.

Then there are a series of negotiations that Joseph himself enters into with Pharaoh over settling his family. He has an agenda he wants to achieve. Firstly, to find somewhere where they could live a life away from the attractions and distractions of Egyptian society. And to avoid Pharaoh incorporating the brothers into his army and administration, assuming they were all as talented as Joseph.

The land of Goshen at that time was far from the centre of Egyptian rule, which was further south towards Memphis and Aswan. Egypt was largely an agricultural society rather than a pastoral one. Livestock was associated with nomadic tribes. Shepherds were looked down on. Joseph wanted a location where his family could thrive without being assimilated into Egypt.

In Chapter 46:31 “Joseph said to his brothers and his father’s household, “I will go up and tell the news to Pharaoh, and say to him, ‘My brothers and my father’s household, who were in the land of Canaan, have come to me. They happen to be shepherds; they have always been breeders of livestock, and they have brought with them their flocks and herds and all that is theirs.’  And then, in the next chapter 47, it says that Joseph only introduced the least impressive of his brothers at court so that Pharoah would not be impressed and want to co-opt them.

He tells his brothers, “Pharaoh will summon you and ask, ‘What is your occupation?’ you shall answer, ‘Your servants have been breeders of livestock from the start until now, both we and our fathers’—so that you may stay in the region of Goshen. For all shepherds are abhorrent to Egyptians.” So again, it is clear his negotiation with Pharoah was designed to ensure his family would be able to stay together, away from the centre of Egyptian life, and not appear either too attractive to the authorities or as a threat.

The final example of negotiation comes as the famine begins to bite. Joseph opens up the storehouses, and people pay for grain. The money goes to Pharaoh so that Joseph proves he is not interested in personal gain or corruption. When the money runs out, they bring their livestock. Then they sell their lands. Thus, Joseph gained possession of all the farmland of Egypt for Pharaoh. Finally, they lose their freedom and become serfs giving a fifth each year to Pharoah. Even so, they are grateful. “You have saved our lives! We are grateful to my lord, and we shall be serfs to Pharaoh.” Only the land of the priests was not taken because Joseph knew full well, and history has confirmed how influential the priesthood was and how dangerous it could be to alienate them. There were several examples of priests overthrowing pharaohs.

This masterly process might be seen as the first example of nationalisation, not unlike what the Soviets and the Maoists got up to. Perhaps this was why the later Egyptians would look at Joseph negatively or pretend to forget him because after all, he had deprived the masses of their freedom to enrich the hierarchy. Although modern antisemitism proves you do not need a good reason to hate.

All of this illustrates how the Torah gives us a message relevant today. Consider how to approach negotiations, both in style, and preparation, and have a clear idea of what one wants to achieve.

Genesis 44:18-47:27

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