One of the cleverest and most successful men in Jewish history, Joseph sheds much insight on Jewish life in the Diaspora. Unlike his brother-counterpart Judah, a leader who acts courageously and nobly in the moment, Joseph has a knack for understanding events and their ramifications in advance, and is a quick, proactive thinker and doer. Joseph isn’t just an interpreter of dreams, he has a sharp understanding of the way the world – or, in his case, Egypt – works and knows how to work within its context. And perhaps even more important, he sees things in the larger context, in the context of God’s grand design.
This week’s portion begins with Joseph revealing himself to his brothers. At first they are in shock. But then, in part to calm them down, in part because Joseph is always conscious of the larger context, he tell his brothers: “Now do not be sad and do not be angry that you sold me here – because for sustenance God sent me here ahead of you… Now, it was not you who sent me here, but God.”
This everything-happens-for-a-reason view of the world very much defines Joseph. It is an attitude that was likely critical to helping him survive the early years when he was sold in Egypt, but is was and remains his worldview. He sees God’s hand in the unfolding of events. Accordingly, he attributes his special capacities – like interpreting dreams – to God. When asked in jail by two of Pharaoh’s ministers to interpret their dreams he says “to God is the solution.” When he stands before Pharaoh he makes a point of saying: “it is not me – God shall see to the welfare of Pharaoh.” This isn’t just being modest; it is part of the way Joseph sees the world – and his role in it. He is there – we are all here – as instruments of God’s greater plan.
But what makes Joseph unique is that he doesn’t just see future, he is quick to act on it. As a prisoner in front of Pharaoh, he doesn’t suffice with interpreting the dream. He goes on to suggest an immediate course of action: “And now Pharaoh will find a wise and smart man and place him over the land of Egypt. And Pharaoh will appoint officials over the land and divide the land of Egypt into five parts in the seven years of plenty. And they will gather all the food during these seven good years…” It’s tough to decide which is more impressive: Joseph’s interpretation of the Pharaoh’s dreams or his detailed plan of action to deal with it. Even without a PowerPoint presentation, he would have outdone any top consulting firm of today.
Thus, when he finally reveals himself to his brothers, Joseph gives them a whole speech that flows off the tip his tongue, and which he likely rehearsed in his head many times: it will at once console them for their misdeed towards him and to explain to them the larger context and their role in it. He is saying to his brothers what he believes about life in general: It is God’s plan all along, we are but pawns in His plan, but once that plan is revealed to us we must act. Joseph immediately discloses the situation to them: “This is two years the famine is upon the land but there are five [more] years with no plowing nor harvest.” So don’t dwell on the past, hurry up and bring Jacob and the entire family here so you won’t all die of hunger.
When the brothers bring the family, Joseph, already has planned out where they should live. Importantly, he wants to keep them separated from the Egyptians. He tell his brothers: “when Pharaoh calls you and asks you what you do, you say: ‘We, your servants, are herdsmen from our youth until now, both we and our fathers’ – so that you will dwell in the land of Goshen, for shepherds were an abomination to Egyptians.” Joseph knows that if the brothers say they are shepherds, the Egyptians will keep them at arm’s length. So you might think he would tell them to downplay their shepherding. But to the contrary: he tells them to stress it – precisely so they can remain segregated. The Bible doesn’t explain it, but Joseph seems to know enough about Egyptians that he thinks it is in his family’s interest not to mix with them. He doesn’t want them to assimilate.
Then, when it comes to presenting his family to Pharaoh “he took five men and presented them before Pharaoh.” Joseph is careful not to overdo it, and presents only some of his brothers. And then Joseph presents his father “and he stands him up before Pharaoh.” Jacob blesses Pharaoh and then Pharaoh asks Jacob how old he is. “And Jacob said to Pharaoh: ‘the days of my dwelling are 130 years, few and bad were the days of my life and they haven’t surpassed the days of my fathers, when they lived.” This grim account is most likely because Jacob is, by then, an old and miserable man. But it may also be that Jacob, no stranger to adversarial men, may want to create the impression that he is old and miserable – so that Pharaoh will let him and his family alone. In dealing with the sovereign, Joseph seems to believe the less, and the more unassuming the contact, the better.
Everything goes as planned. Jacob’s family dwells apart in Goshen. Meanwhile, the famine gets worse and after the Egyptians have given all their money to Pharaoh in exchange for grain, Joseph conceives what is probably the biggest real estate deal in history. With nothing left to exchange for food, the Egyptians sell Pharaoh (by way of real estate broker, Joseph) their land. But then Joseph has this ingenious idea which makes the Egyptians happy and Pharaoh super-rich. He tells the Egyptians that although Pharaoh owns their land they can go back and live on it: “here for you is seed and you shall plant the land. And when there is produce, you shall give one-fifth to Pharaoh and four parts will be for you to plant the field for your food and that which is in your household and for your children to eat. And they said ‘you gave us life…'”
Yet for all his greatness and prowess in Egypt, on his deathbed (in next week’s portion) Joseph makes one request which he has “the children of Israel” swear to: “And Joseph said to his bothers: ‘I am dying but God shall remember you and he will bring you up out of this land to the land which He promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob… and you are to bring up my bones from here.”
Of all the brothers, the one to be buried in the Land of Israel is Joseph. The most successful Diaspora Jew ever, with all the stature and wealth and power amassed in his adopted country, insists on being buried in the Land of Israel. Because he knows, probably better than anyone else, that, in the grand scheme of things, there’s no place like home.