Yosef's Advice to Pharaoh

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion



Yosef's Advice to Pharaoh

Summarized by Ramon Widmonte



In hindsight, it seems that all of the events, both positive and negative, which befell Yosef were simply a means to the greater end of placing him at the top of the pyramid, so to speak, in Egypt's economical and political hierarchy, and in so doing, fulfilling his dreams.


When Yosef is sold as a slave, he just happens to be sold to an Egyptian, who just happens to be a high-ranking official, who just happens to need someone to run his affairs, who just happens to have in his prison two people who happen to have a dream who can tell Pharaoh about Yosef. It seems to be an elaborate scheme to integrate Yosef within the Egyptian economy, to train him and eventually to elevate him to the head of that economy.


There are those who claim that not all of the events in the Yosef saga were part of this process; instead, many of them resulted from Yosef's sins. A clear example is Chazal's position regarding Yosef's imprisonment. The Torah tells us: "[Potiphar] left all that he had in Yosef's hand, and [Potiphar] did not know anything of his own affairs, except the bread he ate. And Yosef was handsome..." (Bereishit 39:6). Rashi here quotes Chazal saying,

"Since [Yosef] saw himself in command, he began to eat and drink and curl his hair. [As it were,] God said [to him], 'Your father [Ya'akov] is mourning [over you], and you curl your hair!? I shall set a bear upon you [Potiphar's wife].' Immediately [in the next verse] it says, 'It was after these things, and the wife of his master lifted her eyes to Yosef and she said [to him]: Lie with me' (Bereishit 39:7)."


However, even this midrash is consonant with the idea that Yosef was going through a series of events designed to elevate him to a high position in Egypt, and this was a small correction to his path because of his lack of empathy for his father's suffering. The general trend is to see all the events in this story as either contributing to Yosef's character development or geared to bring about the final result of his providing sustenance to Am Yisrael in Egypt.


When Yosef finally stands before Pharaoh and interprets his dreams, we encounter a very strange section of the story. All of a sudden, Yosef begins to give Pharaoh all sorts of advice, when unasked to do so. In his position, a slave recalled from the depths of the prison, one would expect him to be taciturn, timid, afraid even to interpret the dream; instead, he presumes to plan Pharaoh's internal policy for the next fourteen years! The Abarbanel's explanation is that a "spirit of prophecy" rested upon him and he could not stop himself from speaking. (See also the Ramban, who has a different explanation.)


Perhaps there is something more to this.


To understand Yosef's actions, we must examine the tactics which Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya'akov used in spreading the ideas of monotheism and morality.


Until Avraham arrived on the scene, there was a very small group of people who were trying to spread the ideas of monotheism, morality and ethics. These few individuals, however, did not seem to be able to reach a wider audience - if anything, we see a decrease in the number of people (percentage-wise) who ascribed to such a belief system from the time of Adam to that of Noach, and again from Noach to Avraham. Many midrashim, for example, speak of the yeshiva of Shem and Ever, which attempted to preach these beliefs during the period between Noach and Avraham. It would seem that this yeshiva failed in its attempt.


Thus, Avraham decided (and he was the first to hit upon the idea) to establish a nation, an entire functioning political entity, which would live out these ideals in day-to-day life; by setting an outstanding example, they would encourage other peoples to adopt these standards. Yitzchak continued this idea. However, the moment we reach Ya'akov Avinu, it appears that the tactic has crumbled. Ya'akov's sons go down to Egypt and are enslaved there. Even before that, the internal structure of his family (which was to become the Jewish nation) seems to be crumbling - the problems between Yosef and his brothers are testament to this.


Despite these seeming reversals, the goals of nation-building and spreading monotheism were still there. Yosef (and at the root, God) saw that it was fundamentally impossible to preach monotheism to the nations of the time, or to expect Judaism to influence them. Yosef saw that a religion consisting of rituals and spiritual beliefs alone would never have an overwhelming effect. Rather, the very first thirst which humanity needed to have quenched, and the very first hunger which had to be stilled, were the physical ones.


Yosef understood that only by creating a stable economic system wherein everyone received a minimum - a minimum which was enough to raise them above the level of constant worry about their purely physical needs - would it then be possible to deal with spiritual thirsts and hungers.


Now we can return to our original question. What was Yosef's intention in laying out a complex socio-economic plan to Pharaoh?


What Yosef planned here, with regard to Egypt's economy, was not simply part of the scheme to raise him to greatness. It was "ma'aseh avot siman la-banim" - an event which happens to a forefather which foreshadows what will happen to Am Yisrael. Yosef is teaching something that Am Yisrael must never forget: before the Jewish People tries to change the world spiritually, it has to make sure that people are alright on a simple physical level. In the language of Chazal, "If there is no flour, there is no Torah" (Avot 3:21).


This now becomes a problem of economics, and it is one which has plagued philosophers since the dawn of thought - what is the fairest way to apportion wealth, possessions and temporal control. In recent history, this problem has emerged again and again as the spark which has ignited popular revolutions the world over. Marx, and the various forms of socialism which followed him, was perhaps the greatest innovator over the past two hundred years in solving this problem; however, he failed, and in the end all forms of socialism succeeded in merely shifting the wealth to a new breed of privileged elite. Kibbutzim also attempted to solve this problem, and they also failed. This problem exists globally - Africa is an entire continent where people are starving in their millions, while many in the West have long since forgotten what it means to be hungry.


Yosef created the economic framework which is the basis of modern capitalist states. Firstly, he ensured that there was a system whereby everyone received their minimal needs - food, shelter, etc. - which would be provided by the state. However, in order to encourage private enterprise, he did not institute a state-paid salary; rather, above and beyond what the state provided for him, each individual would keep a percentage of his profits. The more production, the more profit. Today you have an income-tax system whereby welfare and other communal needs are funded. This balance between a state-controlled welfare system and a free-market economy is something which all Western nations today are trying to achieve.


Yosef's advice reaches down to us today. In Israel, this problem exists and it is growing every month. We fret day in and day out about the spiritual state of Am Yisrael, but how often do we think about the plain physical needs of so many of our brothers and sisters who lack even bare necessities? We must internalize this idea - first and foremost in order to rectify Am Yisrael's situation (both physical and spiritual). Only then will we be able to fulfill our spiritual destiny both internally, becoming a "holy nation," and externally, becoming a "kingdom of priests" who light the way for the reof the world.



(This sicha was originally delivered on Leil Shabbat, Parashat Miketz 5757 [1996].)


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