Against all odds, Joseph is rescued from a bleak future in an Egyptian jail. Pharaoh has a dream that none of his wise men can interpret and the Royal Butler recommends Joseph for the job. Joseph listens to the King’s dreams and tells him that he has some good news and some bad news. The good news is that the Egyptian economy will undergo a boom for the next seven years. The bad news is that the seven years of feast will be followed by seven years of the worst famine that the world has ever experienced. Immediately after Joseph finishes his interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream he gives Pharaoh some unsolicited advice [Bereishit 41:34-36]: “Let Pharaoh do [this] and appoint officials over the land and prepare the land of Egypt during the seven years of plenty. Let them collect all the food d these coming seven good years and let them gather the grain under Pharaoh’s hand, food in the cities, and guard it. Thus the food will remain as a reserve for the land for the seven years of famine which will be in the land of Egypt, so that the land will not be destroyed by the famine”.

What on earth is Joseph doing? His task is to figure out what Pharaoh is seeing in his dream. Once Joseph completes this task his job is over. Pharaoh does not ask for or require Joseph’s help to construct a response. Moreover, speaking without permission before a tyrant like Pharaoh can lead to a quick and painful death. Rav J.B. Soloveichik, writing in “Visions and Leadership: Reflections on Joseph and Moses[1]”, offers a fascinating explanation: When Pharaoh hears that his country is doomed, his first and natural response is to think to himself that, hey, he’s the King. No matter how bad the famine gets, there will certainly remain enough food to feed him and his immediate family. They will most certainly not perish in the famine. Joseph tells Pharaoh that for his own good he should look beyond the end of nose. Joseph told Pharaoh that he cannot hide behind a wall while the rest of his country starves. When a human being is faced with death, no matter how badly he is subjugated, he will do things that he would not normally do in more amenable circumstances. If Pharaoh chooses to let his subjects die of hunger while he and the Royal Family live comfortably, then his subjects will revolt, and the revolution will be bloody. One only has to look at the French Revolution in which the French peasants obliterated the monarchy who were living comfortably as can be, drinking wine and eating brioche, while the peasants were literally starving. Joseph told Pharaoh that the way for him to keep his monarchy intact during the difficult times ahead was to make necessary preparations to ensure that all Egyptians had sufficient food during the famine.

Later on in the Parasha Rav Soloveichik makes a comment that is similar and yet different. The famine begins and Yaakov Avinu and his family are hit hard along with the rest of the world[2]. Yaakov Avinu sends his sons to Egypt to purchase wheat [Bereishit 42:1-2]: “Yaakov saw that there was grain being sold in Egypt; so Yaakov said to his sons… ‘Behold, I have heard that there is grain being sold in Egypt. Go down there and buy us [some] from there, so that we will live and not die’” The Torah uses the Hebrew word “shever” to describe the wheat being sold in Egypt. Rashi, noting that the word “shever” can also mean “breakage”, interprets the Torah as teaching that Yaakov saw [through the power of prophecy] that there was a “piece” that had broken off from his family that was now living in Egypt. Because the prophecy was unclear and vague, he couldn’t know for sure whether he was being told that Joseph was alive and well and living in Cairo. Rav Soloveichik asks a simple question: what was it that made Yaakov think that Joseph might still be alive? His answer is so beautiful that I quote it here verbatim:

“He saw in the shining mirror that there was hope for him in Egypt. In his vision, Jacob [sic] was amazed to see the method of food distribution used by the Egyptian government. The adoption of the rationing system in order to avoid inflationary prices, speculation and hoarding, reflected Abraham’s economic morality. But he could not understand how it was possible for pagan Egypt to display such fine moral sensitivity.”

Rabbi Kenneth Spiro of Yeshivat Aish HaTorah likes to brag that Judaism is the father of the liberal democracy, a system in which the government protects the liberties and rights of all citizens. Rav Soloveichik is saying that Yaakov Avinu could not understand how Egypt was behaving like a liberal democracy. It seemed completely out of place. Wasn’t Pharaoh a cruel tyrant who did as he pleased? There almost had to be some Jew in a position of power who was making some key decisions. This was the spark that Yaakov saw.

The problem with this explanation is that according to Rav Soloveichik, the reason that the Pharaoh adopted such a liberal policy was in order to prevent a revolt. His policy was not intended to be benevolent, it was intended to be expedient. He gave his people not what they needed, but what he needed to give them in oder to keep them manageable, and not one iota more. Pharaoh’s behaviour was more Machiavellian than it was “Avrahamian”. This question can be answered if we look at the verse that appears immediately before Yaakov sends his sons down to Egypt [Bereishit 41:57]: “All [the inhabitants of] the land came to Egypt to Joseph to purchase [grain], for the famine had intensified in the entire land.” What amazed Yaakov was not that the Egyptians were giving out food to their own citizens. One didn’t have to be a liberal democrat to do such a thing. What piqued Yaakov’s interest was that the Egyptians were selling food to the Canaanites, the Amorites, and the Japanese. Instead of telling these people to go away and fend for themselves, the Egyptians exhibited compassion that knew no boundaries. This compassion could not have come from within – it must have had a Jewish source.

Let’s take one more step. Recall from last week’s shiur and from earlier shiurim that Yaakov Avinu had two names: Yaakov and Yisrael. The name “Yaakov” comes from the word “trickery”. Esav tells Yaakov [Bereishit 27:36] “It is fitting that you are named ‘Yaakov’ as you have tricked me (“vaya’keveini”) twice”. The name “Yisrael”, on the other hand, comes from the word “Majesty”. After Yaakov defeats an angel in battle, the angel calls Yaakov “Yisrael”, telling him [Bereishit 32:29] “Because you have fought ably with kings”. Yaakov had a dual personality. On the one hand he was “Yaakov the Street Rat”, always knowing how to get what he needed. On the other hand, he was “Yaakov the King”, an honourable and majestic person, unafraid to demand what is rightfully his. This dual personality is not only part of Yaakov. It was passed on to his descendants. It is in the Jewish national DNA. When Pharaoh decides to store food during the seven years of plenty and to distribute it fairly during the seven years of famine, he is acting shrewdly in order to fend off a potential revolution. He is acting like Yaakov. But when Pharaoh distributes food to the rest of the world, he does so because it is the right thing to do. He does so because civilized humans must act altruistically. He is acting like Yisrael. Yaakov sees the Egyptians acting with the same duality that is Yaakov – Yisrael and he wonders how this could be. It’s impossible, but… Yaakov sees that there is “shever” in Egypt. He sees “in the shining mirror” a small sliver of himself and he must find out what it is.

I once described to someone the difference between an Australian and an Israeli. The Australian says “I’m sorry but I can’t help you”. He’s really sorry. You can see the empathy in his eyes. But he will not break the rules to help you. The Israeli calls you an idiot and then he solves your problem. Don’t fault him for his behaviour. He comes by it honestly. He’s just a little sliver of Yaakov and Yisrael.

Shabbat Shalom and Chanukah Sameach,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5776

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka, Yechiel ben Shprintza, and Shaul Chaim ben Tziviya

[1] This book was published posthumously in 2012. The second quote of Rav Soloveichik is also taken from “Visions”.

[2] Whether or not Yaakov suffered from the famine is a bone of contention in the Midrash. For the purposes of this shiur we’ll assume that Yaakov had no food.