“A Jew Rises to Power”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Mikeitz, we learn of Joseph’s successful interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream and his appointment to the position of Viceroy to the great Pharaoh of Egypt.

When appointing Joseph to this exalted post, Pharaoh says to Joseph, Genesis 41:39: “Ayn na’voan v’chacham ka’mo’chah,” There is no one so discerning and wise as you. You shall be in charge of my palace, and by your command shall all my people be sustained. Only by the throne shall I outrank you.

The decision by Pharaoh to appoint someone who had been previously described by Pharaoh’s butler (Genesis 41:12) as: “Na’ar iv’ri, eh’ved,” a lad, a Jew, a slave, was not an easy decision, nor was it at all politically correct for Egypt. Even if Pharaoh himself was convinced that appointing a Jew to the second most powerful position in Egypt was in Egypt’s best interests, how would he convince the Egyptian citizens to accept this appointment?

We know only too well that the smallest differences between people, even in sophisticated societies, often lead to conflicts. Religion in particular is frequently one of the primary causes of societal battles, ancient and contemporary. Even in the absence of public displays of enmity, hatreds are often harbored inwardly. That is why one of the most effective ways to discredit a community is to accuse them of being different. The wicked Haman did this convincingly when he told the Persian King Achashverosh (Esther 3:8) that the practices of the Jews are different from all nations, and they do not abide by the king’s decrees.

If Pharaoh’s butler truly wanted to help the Egyptian monarch by introducing him to Joseph, then why did he cast Joseph in such an unfavorable light? Some commentators suggest that the butler was trying to cover himself in case Pharaoh was not pleased with Joseph’s interpretation. By calling Joseph “a lad, a Jew, a slave,” the butler was providing a hedge for himself, in case of Joseph’s failure.

Other commentators suggest that while the chief butler was hopeful that Joseph would be able to calm Pharaoh by favorably interpreting his dreams, he nevertheless was concerned about the possibility that Pharaoh might appoint this Jewish lad to a position of authority in Egypt. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) in Genesis 41:12 cites the Midrash Rabbah that depicts the butler as reminding Pharaoh of the Egyptian statute, that one who served as a slave is forbidden to lord over the Egyptians or wear the official garb of Egypt.

The Sforno (Obadiah ben Jacob, 1470-1550, Italian Bible commentator) suggests that the butler was concerned that Joseph may harbor an inward hatred for the Egyptians because he was enslaved and imprisoned unfairly, and that if an opportunity arose to favor his own people, Joseph would do so at the expense of the Egyptians. The butler was therefore, absolutely determined that Joseph not rise to a position of authority. The Abarbanel (Spanish statesman, philosopher and commentator, 1437-1508) points out how unfair this accusation is, as attested to by scripture, Genesis 47:12, where it states that in the years of famine Joseph sustained his father and his brothers and all the members of their household “with bread according to the needs of the children.” Even though Joseph could have favored his own family with much more food and given them portions that were much greater than the Egyptians, he gave them only what they required.

This pattern of behavior is common today as prominent Jewish officials and ministers often bend over backward not to favor their own people.

In addition to the other fears and concerns, Pharaoh also had to deal with the widespread dislike for Jews that prevailed in Egypt. The verse in Genesis 44:32 informs us that the Egyptians would not lower themselves to eat with the Hebrews, even with the great Joseph, Viceroy of Egypt, because it was an “abomination” for the Egyptians to do so. How then would Pharaoh ever succeed in doing what was best for Egypt and appoint the wisest man to oversee the preparations for the impending famine?

The Talmud in Sotah 36b, states that when Pharaoh expressed his intention to appoint Joseph over all of Egypt, the Egyptian astrologists cried out to Pharaoh: Do you intend to set a slave over us whom his master bought for 20 pieces of silver?! Pharaoh first tries to convince his servants who would be most sensitive to having a former Hebrew servant lord over them. He says to them (Genesis 41:38): “Ha’nim’tza cha’zeh?” Can we find another like this one? Let’s be objective, says Pharaoh, is there anyone as wise and as discerning as Joseph in all of Egypt, or anywhere else for that matter? Furthermore, says Pharaoh “Eesh ah’sher roo’ach Eh’lo’kim bo,” is there any man like Joseph in whom is the spirit of G-d? Pharaoh tries to persuade his retinue that we’re not talking about some average “Joe.” It is not simply an issue of a person with a superior IQ, or superior talents–the spirit of G-d is found within Joseph! There are others perhaps, with greater talents and greater intelligence, but certainly no one within whom is the spirit of G-d!

Perhaps, Pharaoh, by appointing Joseph the Jew, is merely following the advice of the old adage; “Better a wise enemy, than a foolish friend.” It is in this vein that Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad offers the following parable:

A young man became good friends with a bear. In friendship, they concluded a covenant to leave the city and to live together in the wilderness where they would serve each other and care for each other’s needs. The man planted a tree so that he and his dear friend, the bear, could eat. The bear, in return, would hunt for food each day for both of them. As time passed, their friendship became even stronger and their love for one another increased to the point that at night they shared a bed together.

Once, after they had eaten their full, the man lay down for an afternoon nap, with his friend the bear standing guard over him. Suddenly an annoying fly came to visit, landing on the forehead of the bear’s beloved friend. Waving his large paw, the bear chased the fly away. But soon, the fly returned, landing right between the man’s eyes.

The angry bear was determined once and for all to teach the fly a lesson for annoying his beloved friend, and declared war on the fly. He ran to fetch a stone, threw it at the fly and killed it, but in the process killed his beloved friend, whose afternoon nap had turned into an eternal rest.

Thus Pharaoh declares, let us not listen to the advice of foolish Egyptians. If this wise enemy Joseph can save us from famine and destruction, let us embrace him, or else we shall all perish.

Pharaoh was persuasive, as only Pharaoh can be. The people accepted Joseph, which accounts for how we are here today to provide this weekly parasha message.

Happy Chanukah.
May you be blessed.