Miketz: The Prestige of the Political

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    • Tzvi Chulsky 5 months ago

      Yosef HaTzaddik is classically known as the man who saved Egypt from the famine. But it is important to stop and consider what our reaction would be if we were to find out that there will be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine; how difficult would it be to figure out that we should save? It is common sense that even during normal times, we keep savings, and generally try to grow them. Was that nonexistent before Yosef?

      When Yosef proposes this plan, completely unsolicited, at the end of his interpretation of the Pharaoh’s dream, the Pharaoh seems very impressed: “After God has shown you all this, there is nobody as understanding and wise as you.”[1] One could argue that the Pharaoh is referring to the dream interpretation, but would that be a reason to immediately appoint Yosef second in command in the Egyptian government?

      This all seems very strange, and indicates that we should go back and examine Yosef’s words a bit more carefully. What exactly is it that he is recommending? Right after the dream interpretation, the first thing he says is “And now let Pharaoh find an understanding and wise man and set him over the land of Egypt.”[2] This is the very first piece of advice, and it has nothing to do with famine whatsoever. He continues: “Let Pharaoh do this, and appoint overseers over the land and assess a 20% tax in the seven years of plenty.”[3]

      Does Yosef not believe that merely telling Egyptians about the coming famine would make them prepare, each privately, for the coming troubles? Perhaps Egyptians have diverse plans for their futures, diverse family situations, diverse preferences and needs that they themselves understand best. This consideration does not cross the radar in any way here.

      The Pharaoh and his servants love it[4]. No surprise there—politicians love political solutions. That an excuse for a new tax[5], a new government program, a massive expansion of government power should find favor in the Pharaoh’s eyes is hardly shocking; nor should it amaze us that this rockets Yosef to the very pinnacle of the bureaucracy.

      And there is no reason why this should be different in our day. Economists like John Maynard Keynes and Paul Krugman gained great prestige by advancing theories that provided governments with excuses to seize more power. Albert Einstein, one of many outstanding physicists of the early 20th century, was turned into the public face of intelligence because he was the one advocating for socialism and a unified world government. Warren Buffett, who consistently advocates for more government involvement in the economy, is a rare billionaire about whom politicians, bureaucrats and journalists almost never say anything negative.

      The image of Yosef immediately being given the Pharaoh’s ring, dressed in fine linen and a gold chain, then driven around in a chariot with servants shouting “Avrech,”[6] so accurately reflects this treatment that it can be difficult to read without cracking a smile. Perhaps the wisdom of Yosef was that he knew how to talk to politicians.

      The disastrous effects of his recommended policy on the land of Egypt are described in next week’s parasha, which we will BE”H discuss in due course. Yosef HaTzaddik’s dream of growing wheat and feeding the world[7] does become realized, but in an impure way, mired in galut and dirty politics; had his brothers not started the course of events that brought him down to Egypt, the realization of his dreams (and, indeed, the prophecy of his great-grandfather Avraham) may have taken a very different, and perhaps more positive turn[8].

      After eating a snack of grain, fruit or wine, we say a short blessing thanking Hashem for our food; but we do not just talk about food. ובנה ירושלים, we say, “Rebuild Jerusalem!” ונברכך עליה בקדושה ובטהרה “And we will bless you upon it in holiness and purity.”

      With the best of intentions, a supremely righteous man (the only one who has the title הצדיק) could not make things happen in galut with holiness and purity. Only once we are established in the Land of Israel with a Torah government do we gain the ability to change the world on a national and international scale in truly positive ways. May that happen speedily, in our day. Let us think about that the next time we finish a snack.

      [1] Breishit 41:39
      [2] ibid. v. 33
      [3] v. 34
      [4] v. 37
      [5] The expropriated grain was not given back but sold back (v. 56), and much of it was sold abroad (v. 57), which is very reminiscent of how such government programs operate today.
      [6] vv. 42-43; see S.R. Hirsch for some very apropos commentary on “Avrech”
      [7] cf. his first dream, 37:7, where he and his cattle-grazing brothers are mysteriously packing sheaves
      [8] The story of Yonah provides a classic example of how a nevuah can be realized in different ways depending on our actions: Nineveh was, in fact, “overturned,” but spiritually instead of physically. Had the brothers not done what they did, resulting in Yosef going to Egypt, perhaps Avraham’s nevuah would have been realized differently, without the necessity of slavery in Egypt.

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