Shabbat Vayigash: How to Conduct a Successful Negotiation
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 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.
Judah 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. The speech, in tone and content, is a master class in negotiating when the odds are heavily stacked against you. 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. Second, to avoid Pharaoh incorporating the brothers into his army and administration.
The land of Goshen at that time was far from the center of Egyptian rule. Egypt was largely an agricultural society. 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 chapter 47, it says that Joseph only introduced the least impressive of his brothers at court, so that Pharaoh would not be impressed and would not 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 Pharaoh was designed to ensure his family would be able to stay together, away from the center of Egyptian life, and not appear either too attractive to the authorities or be seen 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 can prove he is not interested in personal gain or corruption. When the money runs out, the people bring their livestock. Then they sell their lands. Thus, Joseph gained possession of all the farmland of Egypt for Pharaoh. Finally, the people lose their freedom and become serfs, giving a fifth each year to Pharaoh. 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 nationalization, 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.
Through these stories, the Torah gives us a message that is relevant today — consider how to approach negotiations, in style, preparation, and having a clear idea in advance of what one wants to achieve, in order to be successful.
The author is a writer and rabbi, currently based in New York.