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"Now Joseph was the vizier over the land–it was he who dispensed rations to all the people of the land. And Joseph’s brothers came and bowed down to him with their faces to the ground." (Genesis 42:6)
This is a pivotal moment in Joseph’s life. At the end of last week’s parashah, we saw Joseph alone in the depths of jail, wrongly punished for a crime of adultery that he did not commit. But this week, in Parashat Miketz, Joseph rises from those depths to the heights of Egyptian society, attaining a role in the government that placed him second only to Pharaoh himself.
Joseph Interprets Pharoah’s Dreams
Later in this week’s parsha, in the verse quoted above, a complex reconciliation is about to begin between Joseph and his brothers, the same brothers who caused him to be sold into slavery so many years earlier. How did Joseph get to this point, where is he going, and what can we learn from this verse?
At the beginning of the parashah, Pharaoh has had two disturbing dreams in which he sees healthy and sickly cows and corn. None of his magicians and advisors is able to decipher the dream, and its message continues to puzzle Pharaoh. At this point, Pharaoh’s cupbearer, who had been in prison with Joseph, recalls Joseph’s talents of interpretation.
Joseph is brought from jail and, after hearing of the dreams, he tells the Egyptian ruler that they are from God, foretelling that Egypt will experience seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. Joseph further states that the famine will devastate Egypt unless preparations are made during the plentiful stage. Awed by Joseph’s insight and wisdom, Pharaoh appoints Joseph "chief operating officer" for the entire country.
Egypt Becomes a Place of Refuge
Joseph understands the severity of what is to come, and he manages the collection and distribution of food with such skill that even peoples from surrounding lands end up turning to Egypt for sustenance once the famine takes hold. Eventually, this leads to the reunification of Joseph with his brothers and father.
Yet when the brothers first travel to Egypt for food, they don’t realize that they have come face-to-face with their brother Joseph. Pharaoh had given Joseph a nice Egyptian name and wardrobe to fulfill his public role, and thus his "real" identity is hidden when his brothers first meet him.
For a variety of reasons (Anger? Revenge? A test? A desire to also see his father and youngest brother? A realization that his prophecies of childhood were about to be fulfilled?) Joseph continues to conceal his identity from his brothers, and he plays several tricks on them when they first come for food.
Joseph Takes Responsibility for Rationing
And now back to that poignant moment cited above–when Joseph is governing the land and dispensing rations to all who came for food. R. Shabtai Kohen comments on this verse, noting that "even though Joseph was the governor and everyone was at his command, he did not assign the disbursement of food to anyone else. Rather he did it all himself."
As chief operating officer, Joseph could have hired any number of people to help him. With the entire Egyptian population in need of rations, it would have been far easier to have a number of distribution centers. "This teaches us," says R. Kohen, "that when life is in danger, one may not rely on others. Joseph served as an example of how one must himself work at carrying out good deeds."
This interpretation suggests that when we have an opportunity to act, we must take responsibility and do so ourselves. We cannot rely on others, or on chance. Rather, we must make sure that responsible action is taken.
When we act directly, we make sure that things are done the right way. In Joseph’s case, he knew that food had to be distributed very carefully and fairly for the people to survive seven full years of famine. By overseeing the process himself, he made sure that it was not mishandled.
Further, I think that by acting in this way, Joseph maintained humility and did not grow complacent in his high-ranking position. Being second only to Pharaoh, he could have lived in comfort, had others working for him, and distanced himself from the poverty-stricken masses.
Instead, he personally dispensed rations "to all the people of the land," seeing them face-to-face. He could see their clothes and their physical condition, hearing first-hand of how far they had come for food. Thus, Joseph was ever-conscious of the severity of the situation and the importance of his managerial role.
Food & Hope
As an aside, there is a play on words in this section. Jacob saw that there were "food rations" to be had in Egypt (Gen. 42:1 and 2) and Joseph "dispensed the rations" (Genesis 42:6)–both of these words have the same grammatical root in Hebrew–the letters Shin, Bet, and Resh.
The Plaut Commentary on the Torah points out that "since the tale was probably first told by the tribe of Ephraim who pronounced "sh" as "s" they heard shever (rations) as sever (hope)." This makes an "artistic double entendre"–those who went to Egypt received not only food, but hope. Thus, Joseph becomes a provider of rations and hope, equally important to sustaining the people during difficult times.
May we act with this level of personal responsibility in both our personal and professional lives, so we too can give help and hope to those in need.
– Compilation of commentaries on Parshat Miketz, distributed by Congregation Ansche Chesed
– The Torah: A Modern Commentary, W. Gunther Plaut, ed. (1981) New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations.