Parashat Vayigash: Tzafnat Pa’aneach – Prince of Egypt

  • Rav Yair Kahn


This week’s shiurim are dedicated in commemoration of the yarhzeit of
Rabbi Lipman Z. Rabinowitz, by his family
This shiur is dedicated in memory of
Shmuel Binyamin ben Ben-Zion HaLevi Lowinger z"l

I.  Yosef’s Puzzling Policy

The story of Yosef and his brothers is more than fascinating family drama.  Based on the principle of maaseh avot siman la-banim (the actions of the fathers are a sign for the children), it had a profound impact on the way in which Yaakov’s family developed into Kenesset Yisrael.  In fact, according to our Sages (Sukka 52a), the imprint of the Yosef story will be felt in the Messianic era.  Therefore, it is of no surprise that the details of the story are documented in the Torah. 

However, the detailed documentation of Yosef’s financial policy in governing Egypt is perplexing. This episode is only peripherally connected to the story of Yosef and his brothers, insofar as it expresses the preferential treatment they received. The section begins:

And Yosef sustained his father and his brothers and his father’s entire

household bread per child. And there was no bread in the entire land, for the famine was very harsh and the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan languished due to the famine. (47:12-13)

The section concludes:

And as for the people, he removed them to the cities, from one end of the border of Egypt to the other end… And Israel dwelt in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen; and they took possession therein, and were fruitful, and multiplied exceedingly. (47:21, 27). 

According to our Sages, Yosef acted this way so that his brothers should not feel like exiles; all the inhabitants of Egypt lived in “exile.” However, this message does not justify the detailed account of the negotiations with the people of Egypt.

We are therefore left to ponder what this section teaches us? What should we learn from the way Yosef treated the Egyptians? Does his policy correspond to Torah values? Should a leader take advantage of natural disasters to enslave a nation? Wouldn’t proper behavior demand that one follow the ways of Hashem, who “opens His hands and satisfies every living thing with favor” (Tehillim 145: 16)?

It is difficult to decipher the meaning of this section without considering the complexities of Yosef’s position as viceroy of Egypt. In order to do so, let us return to the appointment of Yosef. 

II. Yosef’s Rise to Power

After deciphering Pharaoh’s dreams, Yosef concludes, “Now let Pharaoh look for a clever and wise man and set him over the land of Egypt” (41:33). The Ramban comments: “And Yosef said all this so that they should choose him.”  The Ramban’s interpretation is consistent with his thesis that Yosef’s actions were part of a plan to ensure that his dreams were realized (see Ramban 42:9).  However, a sensitive reading may lead us to a different conclusion.

When the Sar Ha-Mashkim mentions Yosef to Pharaoh, he refers to him as a “na’ar eved Ivri,” a young Hebrew slave. Rashi notes that this description was intended to disqualify Yosef for any royal position; Yosef was young and inexperienced.  He was a slave, not suitable material for royalty. Moreover, he was a Hebrew in a racially prejudiced atmosphere in which Egyptians refused to eat together with Hebrews. In addition, this Hebrew slave was a prison inmate, convicted of attempting to rape the wife of an important Egyptian minister! 

It is also noteworthy that Yosef never presented himself as wise, the quality required for the position he suggested Pharaoh establish. He attributed his ability to decipher dreams to Hashem and denied any personal insight. In a surprising move, Pharaoh identifies Yosef’s spiritual ability with wisdom. He turns to Yosef and says, “Since God has shown you all this, there is none as clever and wise as you. You shall be over my house, and according to your word shall all my people be ruled” (41:40-41). It is therefore difficult to accept the Ramban’s assertion that Yosef’s suggestion to appoint a clever and wise man was a manipulative ploy to advance his own candidacy. It is far more likely that Yosef simply wanted to be freed from prison so that he could return to his father.

How was Yosef’s appointment received by members of Pharaoh’s court? What did Pharaoh’s wise men think of the decision to place a Hebrew slave-prisoner in charge of Egypt? To anyone even mildly versed in human nature, the answer should be clear. The Torah, however, only offers us a subtle hint. After Yosef deciphered the dream, the Torah informs us: “And it was good in the eyes of Pharaoh and the eyes of all his servants” (41:37). However, the decision to appoint Yosef was that of Pharaoh’s alone. From this point on, the members of Pharaoh’s court seem to disappear, as Pharaoh unilaterally wields his authority:  “And Pharaoh said unto Yosef: ‘Behold, I have set you over all the land of Egypt’” (41:41). “Behold” rings of a royal decree. Pharaoh removed his signet ring from his hand and put it upon Yosef's hand; he had Yosef dressed in royal garments and had him ride on the royal chariot. It is Pharaoh alone who placed Yosef over all of Egypt.

Finally, Pharaoh made a royal oath: “I am Pharaoh, and without you shall no man lift up his hand or his foot in all the land of Egypt!”  Why was it necessary for Pharaoh to take an oath? Why did he hand over his ring and have Yosef ride the royal chariot (reminiscent of the power Haman craved for)? Perhaps the Torah is trying to hint that members of Pharaoh’s court, some who may have considered themselves worthy of the position, were less than thrilled with the appointment of the Hebrew slave. 

It is noteworthy that despite his liberal decision to appoint a Hebrew prisoner to a position of great power, Pharaoh insisted on changing Yosef’s identity. Yosef received an Egyptian name and was given an Egyptian wife of high social standing. Overnight he was transformed into a member of Egyptian nobility. We can safely assume that his “dark” past was a closely guarded secret.  Had the masses known that Tzafnat Pa’aneach was a Hebrew, wouldn’t Yaakov or the brothers have heard? If Yosef originally entertained thoughts of returning to his father, after his royal appointment, those plans were put on ice. 

Yosef indeed played his role well. As a powerful Egyptian prince, he managed to forget his troubles: “And Yosef named his firstborn Menashe, for ‘God has enabled me to forget all my labor and the entire household of my father’” (41:51). Despite all his power and success, however, late at night he was acutely aware that he was still confined to a foreign land: “And he named the second Ephraim, for ‘God multiplied me in the land of my oppression’” (41:52).

Although Yosef was one of the most famous people in Egypt, he was forced to hide his past. Despite being one of the most powerful people in the land, he was quite vulnerable. This may, in fact, be a possible answer to the Ramban’s famous question - why didn’t Yosef contact home once he was freed from prison?

With the passing of the seven years of plenty and the arrival of the seven years of famine, Yosef’s position was strengthened. Now all of Egypt was dependent on him. All went well until his brothers arrived. When Yosef could no longer control himself and wished to reveal his true identity to his brothers, he removed everyone from the room. Did he do so only to avoid embarrassing his brothers? Perhaps he was desperately trying to keep his identity hidden from the Egyptian people. Despite his efforts, the news traveled and was heard all over Egypt. At that point, however, Yosef had proven his loyalty to Egypt. His position was safe, and the revelation of his past did nothing to tarnish his stature.

III. The Land of Goshen

Pharaoh, in an additional display of liberal tendencies, invited Yosef’s family to Egypt and offered them “the good of the land of Egypt” (45:18).  According to Rashi, this refers to the land of Goshen. This interpretation is quite difficult, however. Consider how carefully Yosef planned the arrival of his family. He met his father and brothers in Goshen and took only his father and some of his brothers to the capitol city to meet Pharaoh. Before they went to meet Pharaoh, Yosef told his brothers what he would tell Pharaoh and how they should respond:

And Yosef said to his brothers and his father’s household, “I will go up and inform Pharaoh and I will say to him: ‘My brothers and my father’s household from the land of Canaan have come to me. The men are shepherds, for men of flock they have been from their youth till now, and they have brought their sheep and cattle and all their possessions.’ And you will say: ‘Your servants were men of flock from our youth till now, we and our ancestors.’” (46:31-34)

Why did Yosef prepare a speech for his brother’s, which adds no new information and why does the Torah trouble to inform us of this detail? Yosef himself explained his motive: “In order that you shall dwell in the land of Goshen, for shepherds are an abomination for Egypt.”  If Pharaoh had already invited Yosef’s family to Goshen, why would this manipulation have been necessary?

Let’s take a closer look at Pharaoh’s invitation: “And take your father and your household and come to me … Have no concern for your goods, for the best of all the land of Egypt is yours". (45:18-20). In other words, Pharaoh invited Yosef’s family to the Egyptian capitol. There they would join the royal court. According to Pharaoh, there was no necessity to bring possessions and certainly no need to march the flock all the way from Canaan. They would join the royal court, with the other noble families and all their needs would be cared for.

Yosef took pains to thwart that plan and to ensure that his father’s household remained in Goshen, distanced from Pharaoh’s court. He explicitly told his brothers that they would be located in Goshen and made it clear that they were to come with their flock (45:10). It is instructive that Yosef told his brothers that he would say to Pharaoh, “My brothers and my father's house, who were in the land of Canaan, have come to me” (46:31). But what he actually said to Pharaoh was that they had arrived from Canaan and were currently in Goshen (47:1). Yosef could not tell Pharaoh that they had come to him, contrary to Pharaoh’s explicit invitation.

The brothers delivered to Pharaoh the speech that Yosef had prepared for them, saying that they were shepherds (considered an abomination in Egypt), but Pharaoh did not respond. The brothers spoke once again, indicated by the repetition of the phrase "vayomru el Pharaoh" (and they said to Pharaoh). They felt compelled to be more explicit and said "We have come to live here in Egypt for a while, for there is no pasture for our flocks, since the famine is very severe in Canaan, therefore we request permission to live in the region of Goshen" (47:4) Finally Pharaoh conceded: “And Pharaoh spoke to Yosef saying: ‘Your father and your brother have come to you’” (47:6). Only at this point did Pharaoh offer them Goshen, which was also considered the “good of the land of Egypt” (47:7). 

Pharaoh intended to invite Yaakov and his family to his court. Even after the change of plan, Pharaoh considered the family of Yaakov as Egyptian nobility, as evidenced by his offer that Yosef’s brothers serve as ministers in charge of Pharaoh’s own flock. Yosef had to act manipulatively to prevent this from occurring. It is likely that Yosef was concerned with the continued development of the family as a covenantal community. He wanted to avert the threat of assimilation in a situation in which they would be forced to change their names and dress and act as Egyptians in Pharaoh’s court. The alternative - that they would openly retain their traditions in Pharaoh’s court - would have been totally unacceptable and might have undermined Yosef’s status.

We have attempted to demonstrate the complexities of Yosef’s position in Egypt. He was one of the most powerful and most popular people in the land, but it was really Tzafnat Pa’aneach, the prince of Egypt, who was popular and powerful.  After proving his loyalty to Egypt, he was considered an Egyptian prince even after his secret was revealed. But Yosef the Hebrew had no power at all. How does this impact upon Yosef’s economic policy?

IV. You Have Given us Life

Yosef’s economic policy troubles us because it doesn’t reflect ethical values of charity and compassion which we would expect from a descendant of Avraham. At first glance, it seems that Pharaoh gave Yosef a free hand in dealing with the famine. Why, then, did Yosef capitalize on the hunger of the Egyptians to turn them into slaves? Moreover, why did the Egyptians react so favorably to Yosef when he did so? “And they said: ‘You have given us life’” (47:25).

These questions troubled the authors of the midrash, who wrote:

It says: “He that withholds grain, the people shall curse him; but blessing shall be upon the head of him that sells it” (Mishlei 11:26). “He that withholds grain the people shall curse him” – this is Pharaoh. “But blessing shall be upon the head of him that sells it” – this is Yosef. “The people shall curse him” - this is Pharaoh, who hid the wheat during the years of famine and the creatures were cursing him. But Yosef sustained the world during the years of famine, like this shepherd who leads his flock. (Bereishit Rabba).

The midrash softens the judgment regarding Yosef’s policy by contrasting it with the harsh measures taken by Pharaoh, but this midrash seems to have no Biblical basis. The Torah describes Pharaoh as passive, giving Yosef almost absolute freedom. Is there any hint in the Torah that Pharaoh hid grain? Moreover, what would be the motivation for such a policy? Even if Pharaoh was an evil despot, why would he want to see his subjects die of starvation? Finally, would this really solve our problem? Is all that we expect from Yosef that he act with less cruelty than an evil ruler?  

I believe that the midrash is based on a nuanced reading of the following verses:

And the seven years of famine began, as Yosef had said; and there was famine in all lands, but in all the land of Egypt there was bread.  And all the land of Egypt was famished, and the people cried to Pharaoh for bread; and Pharaoh said unto all the Egyptians: “Go unto Yosef; do what he says to you.” (41:54-55)

There is bread in the land of Egypt, and yet the people are famished! It is only when they cry to Pharaoh out of starvation that they are sent to Yosef. Pharaoh knew that the famine had started. Why didn’t he have Yosef open the warehouses immediately? Moreover, when the people cried to Pharaoh in desperation, why didn’t he calm them to prevent panic? Why didn’t he inform them that Egypt was prepared for the disaster and that no one would starve? Why didn’t he show leadership and gain the adoration of the masses by ordering Yosef to feed the people?

According to the midrash, the people cried out in starvation because initially Pharaoh hid the grain. It is unlikely that this was done out of sadistic cruelty, but rather as a strategy aimed at taking advantage of the famine to solidify his control over the people. He hid the grain and brought the people to their knees. He showed them no compassion, but rather sent them to Yosef, who was meant to implement the plan. 

Yosef was trapped. Should he continue to starve the people and force them into submission? How can he watch as hundreds die, until the people are ready to forfeit their freedom? On the other hand, can he betray Pharaoh his patron and simply open the warehouses of grain?

Yosef chose to implement Pharaoh’s plan, but in a more humane way. He refused to cause human suffering. He opened the warehouses immediately in exchange for a price. After the people’s money was gone, Yosef sold the grain for cattle. After Pharaoh gained control of all the cattle, Yosef bought the people themselves - but as serfs with reasonable terms, not as slaves (see Ramban 47: 19). The people realized that there was something quite extraordinary about Yosef’s behavior and therefore exclaimed, “You have given us life.”

It seems that Yosef managed to escape the trap unscathed. Not only did he prove his loyalty to Pharaoh, he gained the adoration of the people as well.  Ultimately, however, Yosef did take advantage of a starving nation. Although we now have insight into what might have motivated such a policy, it is nonetheless problematic. In next week’s shiur, we will revisit this issue.