The Practical Wisdom of Yosef

The reason the Torah provides this account of the policies established by Yosef

Yosef’s decrees in response to the famine

In the previous parasha, Yosef interpreted Paroh’s dreams as a harbinger of the approach of a period of uncommon plenty to be followed by a period of severe famine. He explained to Paroh that his dreams were intended to provide him with the opportunity to prepare for the famine by storing and stockpiling the excess grain from the years of plenty. He outlined for Paroh an efficient system for creating the necessary stockpiles. Paroh was impressed with Yosef’s wisdom and he appointed Yosef as his Prime Minister. The parasha continues with an account of Yosef’s reunion with his brothers. This account continues in this parasha. Also, this parasha recounts the resettlement of Yosef’s family in Egypt, and Yosef’s reunion with his beloved father. The narrative is orderly and progresses in a linier fashion. Yosef’s interpretation of Paroh’s dreams leads to his appointment as Prime Minister. This appointment provides him the opportunity to evaluate his brothers and to reunite with them. This leads to the resettlement of his family in Egypt and his reunion with his father. However, the end of the parasha discusses an issue that seems unrelated to the rest of the parasha or to the Torah’s account of the development of the Jewish people.

In this final portion of the parasha, the Torah describes Yosef’s execution of his duties as Prime Minister during the period of famine. When the Egyptian people came to Yosef for provisions, he initially required that they provide payment for their provisions. However, the famine continued year after year and eventually the people expended all of their wealth in purchasing the food needed to survive. Eventually, the only means of payment remaining to the people of Egypt was to barter their land for food. Yosef accepted the land as payment for food. Through this means, Paroh became the sole owner of virtually all real property in Egypt. Once this transfer of land was completed, Yosef issued two decrees. First, all Egyptians were relocated from the land that had previously been theirs to a new parcel of land elsewhere. Second, henceforth, all property owners were required to pay twenty percent of their land’s output to Paroh.

These two decrees were closely related. Yosef wished to secure the increased tax revenue for Paroh and the administration of the Land. However, he realized that in order for the people to accept this increase in their tax burden, they would need to accept that the land upon which they lived and that they worked was not longer theirs. They had become – in effect – sharecroppers working for Paroh. In the context of this relationship, the tax was actually a very minimal requirement. In order to reinforce this essential recognition that the land was now Paroh’s, Yosef relocated all property owners to new parcels. Through this relocation process he broke the land owners’ relationship with their previous properties and placed them upon new parcel they would more easily acknowledge as belonging to Paroh.[1]

The reason the Torah provides this account of the policies established by Yosef is not clear. The Sages offer a number of possibilities. Rashi suggests that the incident demonstrates Yosef’s dedication to the welfare of his brothers and his wisdom in providing for their welfare. Yosef realized that his brothers and their families were foreigners and were likely to be regarded as aliens and interlopers in Egypt. He wished to eliminate this stigma. In order to accomplish this, he developed a plan that essentially made everyone in Egypt a foreigner. He relocated the entire population to new homesteads.[2] Through this process he not only eliminated the stigma of being a foreigner, but he may also have allowed the Egyptians to more easily identify with Yosef’s brothers as they all – Egyptians and Yosef’s brothers – now shared the challenged of adapting to a new and strange surroundings.

It is important to note that Yosef did not betray Paroh on behalf of his family. He cared for his brothers and enacted this plan that facilitated their acceptance into Egyptian society, without compromising his responsibilities as Prime Minister. He developed a plan that served the needs of the government – providing more revenue and strengthening Paroh’s administrative control, and at the same time, this plan benefited his brothers.

However, he did not acquire the land of the Kohanim. For the Kohanim (received) their portion from Paroh. They ate their portion that Paroh gave them. Therefore, they did not sell their land. (Beresheit 46:22)

And Yosef gave instructions. And they filled their vessels with grain. And (he directed) to return their money to each man’s sack and to give them provisions for the trip. Thus was done for them. (Beresheit 42:25)

The Egyptian Kohanim are excluded from Yosef’s decrees

There is another element of Yosef’s policy that is described by the Torah. Yosef excluded the Egyptian “Kohanim” from his decrees. This group received provisions without making payment. Consequently, its members did not sell their land to Paroh and they were not subjected to relocation. Who were these Kohanim and why were they supported by Paroh? Targum Unkelus suggests that the Kohanim were the priestly class. This interpretation suggests that Paroh decided to treat this group preferentially. This may reflect a respect that he had for its members or his acquiescence to a political reality.

Chizkuni and others suggest that the Kohanim were governmental ministers, not priests. Chizkuni offers two possible explanations for the special treatment they received. The first is simple and straight-forward. This group wielded power and exercised influence. An attempt to deprive them of their land would certainly provoke their unified opposition. Yosef was Paroh’s Prime Minister. His responsibility was to advance Paroh’s interests. Therefore, he did not want to undertake a course of action that might undermine Paroh’s authority.[3]

And Yosef’s master took him and placed him in prison – in the place those interred by the King were interred. And he was in prison. (Beresheit 39:20)

Yosef’s encounter with the Egyptian judiciary

Chizkuni offers an alternate explanation. This explanation requires a review of an interesting incident described in Parshat VaYeshev. Upon his arrival in Egypt, Yosef became the servant of Potifar. Potifar appreciated that abilities of his servant, Yosef, and appointed him as manager of his household and estate. Potifar’s wife unsuccessfully attempted to seduce Yosef. When she failed, she accused Yosef of attempting to seduce or rape her. Potifar was enraged. But Yosef was not executed for this affront. He was placed in prison. This is an odd outcome. It seems that Potifar believed his wife. Yosef was a lowly servant. He was guilty of a gross impropriety with his master’s wife. Yet, he escaped execution and was placed in prison. Chizkuni suggests that this treatment of Yosef indicates that Potifar’s wife’s account was not deemed credible. Yosef could not avoid all punishment. Such a vindication would have disgraced Potifar’s wife. But it was also deemed unfair to execute this innocent servant. The solution viewed most equitable was to place Yosef in prison. Who made this judgment? Chizkuni observes that this incident implies the existence of an effective judiciary.[4] These judges – ministers of Paroh – spared Yosef because of their commitment to justice. Yosef decided to reward these ministers by excluding them from his decrees. They were not relocated or subject to the new tax. Instead, they were supported by Yosef – in Paroh’s name – and provided with provisions.[5]

The inclusion of this detail in the Torah’s account of Yosef’s decrees is important and provides an additional example of Yosef’s wisdom. Yosef’s decrees substantially strengthened Paroh’s control over Egypt. The Torah is explaining that precisely at the moment that Yosef strengthened Paroh, he also took care not to undermine the independence of the government’s ministers. A monarch with unfettered power and authority has the resources to do great good. But he also can abuse this power and do terrible harm. Yosef believed that Egypt needed a check and balance to Paroh’s growing power. He selected the government ministers who had previously demonstrated their commitment to justice – even as in regards to a lowly servant – as the appropriate check and balance.

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[1] Rabbaynu David Kimchi (Radak), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 46:21.

[2] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 46:21.

[3] Rabbaynu Chizkiya ben Manoach (Chizkuni), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 46:22.

[4] Rabbaynu Chizkiya ben Manoach (Chizkuni), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 39:20.

[5] Rabbaynu Chizkiya ben Manoach (Chizkuni), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 46:22.