Yosef the Hebrew

  • Rav Yair Kahn
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Student Summaries of Sichot of the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion




Yosef the Hebrew

Summarized by Shaul Barth

Translated by Kaeren Fish



A very strange aspect of this week's parasha is the extensive coverage that the Torah gives to the story of Yosef's economic plan for Egypt.  Why are we told all of this in such detail? The matter becomes even more puzzling when we find that the steps that Yosef institutes are not those that we would expect a servant of God to resort to.  He ends up profiting from the enslavement of the Egyptians, exploiting them simply because they have no food to eat!


We may solve this problem by considering another question.  When Yaakov asks Yosef to bury him in Canaan, Yosef tells him, "I will do as you say" – but Yaakov then immediately asks again, "Swear to me," and Yosef swears again.  Why did Yaakov not suffice with Yosef's initial agreement? Why did he need him to swear again?


We see that Yosef finds himself in a very delicate position in Egypt.  On the one hand, he is a Hebrew, a member of a despised race that cannot even eat together with the Egyptians.  On the other hand, he is second to the king; everything that happens in the country is by his word, and it is he who distributes food to the entire nation.  For this reason, Yosef chooses not to make a public display of his Jewish identity; he expresses it in the confines of his home, while outwardly he is a "loyal Egyptian," doing whatever Pharaoh wants.


The one time that Yosef is forced to remove his "good Egyptian" mask is when Yaakov needs to be buried.  When Yaakov dies, all of Egypt mourns for him for seventy days, and then the obvious course of events is for him to be buried in Egypt.  But Yosef is obliged – since he swore – to bury his father in Eretz Yisrael.  Here it becomes apparent that no matter how much he looks or acts like an Egyptian, he remains a despised Hebrew.


It is for this reason that Yaakov insists that Yosef swear, because he knows that it will be his most difficult test, forcing him to remove all his Egyptian trappings.  It is for the same reason that the Torah describes Yosef's attempt, through his economic plan, to be a faithful Egyptian and to keep his true identity under wraps.  How ironic it is that Yosef, who invents the concept of slavery in Egypt – solely in order to please Pharaoh and to prove his loyalty – is the one to initiate the process that ultimately leads to the enslavement of Bnei Yisrael.  Yosef, who introduces mass slavery into Egypt, ultimately causes his own descendants to become slaves. 


From this perspective, the story of Yosef is paradigmatic.  It is the story of the Jew in galut, who rises to positions of influence within a non-Jewish context.  It is the story of decisions he makes, some questionable from the perspective of Jewish morality, in order to demonstrate his loyalty to the social or political environment in which he finds himself.  In the end, it makes no difference what he does in order to look and act like the other nations and to hide his Jewish identity.  At some stage, he will be identified as a Jew and his loyalty will be called into question, in a typical anti-Semitic fashion.  At that point we will be reminded who we really are.


(This sicha was delivered on Shabbat Parashat Vayigash 5762 [2001].)