So how is their national identity weakened and emaciated?
In the beginning, G-d creates for six days and rests in his work on the seventh. We were created in his image. We realize the spiritual aspects of our humanity by imitating him and participating in this cycle. The Egyptians may not have had Shabbat, they may have had no spiritual connection to Hashem. But they were productive – tremendously productive. Egypt was the breadbasket of the world.
Yosef uses the famine to purchase the land of Egypt. He then rents it backs to the residents. He takes independent farmers and he makes them into tenant farmers – like blacks in the Southern United States after the civil war. Before Yosef, they were people working and producing for themselves, with the possibility of resting in their own productivity. But Yosef makes them something else. He makes into people working for Pharaoh who were then gifted with a percentage of what they produced.
Our humanity is tied to our cycle of productivity and rest. Yosef deprives the Egyptians of their connection to productivity. In their way, the Egyptians are also slaves, producing for somebody else and receiving no fulfillment or spiritual benefit from their productivity. Through the famine, Yosef starves their national identity and weakens their humanity.
Yosef foretold that the baker would be in prisoner for three days and have in his head removed. Egypt was the inventor of bread and its source in the ancient world. For three centuries they would be imprisoned and at the end, their head would be removed. It is Yosef, with his purchase of the land, who places them in that prison. In this context, their enslavement of the children of Israel is sufficient for them to merit the plagues.
But what of Israel? The wine-maker, represents the children of Israel. The wine-maker is also imprisoned for three centuries. Does Yosef also build their prison? It would seem not. Yosef grants them the best of the land. When they live there, “they got them possessions therein, and were fruitful, and multiplied exceedingly.” The word used for “got them possessions” is achaz. It is an inheritance. It does not imply the results of creative effort. In other words, Israel enjoys and lives off the special rights of a protected people. With this, they too are undermined. While they remain productive, they too become detached from the creative cycle. They too find their humanity diminished. Furthermore, they become dependent on those benefits and unable to pull themselves away from them. When slavery arrives, nobody runs.
Even in modern times, those who seek special treatment by governments lose their humanity. And, often they become slaves to their privilege. While Yosef’s actions may be intended to protect his family, he ends up accomplishing exactly the opposite.
To maintain our humanity, we must maintain our connection to the divine cycle of creation and rest in that creation. When the state deprives its citizens of their own property – as in Egypt or the USSR – their humanity is lessened. And when the state gives privileges and property to special groups, privileges they have not earned, those groups also find their humanity lessened. They too are, in their own way, imprisoned. The spoils of politics ultimately poison and enslave those who receive them.
These lessons are as true today as they were in the time of Yosef.