“Joseph’s Bold Advice to Pharaoh”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Mikeitz, Joseph is taken from the dungeon and brought before Pharaoh, where he interprets Pharaoh’s dreams, predicting that a famine would soon strike Egypt that would devastate the entire land.

Joseph then offers Pharaoh unsolicited advice on how to address the coming cataclysm. In Genesis 41:33, Joseph tells Pharaoh, “V’ah’tah yay’reh Pharaoh, eesh nah’von v’chah’chahm, vee’shee’tay’hoo ahl eretz Mitzrayim,” Now let Pharaoh seek out a discerning and wise man and set him over the land of Egypt. He then suggests that Pharaoh appoint overseers during the seven years of abundance to supervise the collection of food that will be stored in royal storehouses. This food will then be available to the people during the years of famine.

Pharaoh is thrilled by the young Hebrew’s advice, and calls out (Genesis 41:38), “Can we find another man like him–-a man in whom is the spirit of G-d?!”

Not only has Joseph succeeded in captivating Pharaoh with his sage advice and having himself appointed as Egypt’s crisis manager for the famine, he has also succeeded in having Pharaoh acknowledge the source of Joseph’s great talents–-the Al-mighty G-d.

The commentators, however, are troubled by Joseph’s temerity. How does this young Hebrew slave boy, a prisoner, have the gall to instruct the great Pharaoh, how he could save his country and its citizens from impending famine?

There are those like the Ramban (Nachmanides, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spanish Torah commentator) who argue that Joseph’s rescue plan was actually alluded to in Pharaoh’s dream, and therefore it was natural for Joseph to share the solution. The fact that the fat cows were absorbed by the lean cows, was proof positive to Joseph that the abundance in the years of plenty were to be used to save the people from famine. It therefore seemed entirely logical to Joseph to advise Pharaoh that the food from the years of abundance be set aside for the lean years.

Like the Ramban, Haketav Vehakabbala (a comprehensive commentary of the Torah by R’ Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg, 1785-1865, Chief Rabbi of Koenigsberg in Germany) also sees Joseph’s advice as emerging from Pharaoh’s dream, but from a different source than the Ramban. The fact that Pharaoh states that he awoke after each of his two dreams, was understood by Joseph that it was Pharaoh’s duty to rouse himself, and take action to address the famine and prevent disaster.

The Da’at Sofrim (an extensive compilation of scriptural commentaries, edited by Rabbi Chaim D. Rabinowitz, b. 1911) also concludes that the essential purpose of the dream was to encourage Pharaoh to take action. Therefore, Joseph was not being at all forward by suggesting his strategy to save the people from famine. After all, the entire purpose of Pharaoh’s dream was to save the people.

After a careful reading of the biblical text, Rabbi Peretz Steinberg (Rabbi of the Young Israel of Queens Valley, NY) concludes that by offering a rescue plan, Joseph was merely responding to Pharaoh’s desire for advice. The fact that scripture tells us (Genesis 41:24) that Pharaoh related the dreams to his wise men and advisors, but that none could interpret the dreams for him, indicates that Pharaoh was clearly soliciting advice from all on how to best deal with the impending crisis. Joseph, therefore, was hardly being brazen or audacious when offering his advice.

The great Bible commentator, Nechama Leibowitz (famed Bible teacher, 1905-1997), in her Studies in Bereshith (Genesis), cites the Abarbanel (1437-1508, Spanish statesman, philosopher and commentator), who, she says, provides the best answer. The Abarbanel maintains that when Joseph was interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams he was basically functioning as a prophet of G-d, and a prophet of G-d cannot withhold prophecy. Therefore, Joseph was only fulfilling his prophetic duty when offering Pharaoh advice. There was no boldness on Joseph’s part, as he was only responsibly fulfilling the task that he had been Divinely assigned.

Personally, I wonder why the commentators are so disturbed by Joseph’s boldness in suggesting a solution to the impending famine. Although I hardly possess the power of prophecy, I, like many people, often think about how to best address problems that afflict our world. I would love to have the opportunity to meet President Obama and share with him my thoughts concerning global warming, or my strategies for achieving Middle East peace. I often think about what can be done to address the New York City problems of littering, crowding in the subways, the slow speed of city buses, and gridlock on the roads. Although I am still waiting for an invitation from Mayor Bloomberg and the White House, I certainly do not regard my desire to share my ideas on the important issues of our time as chutzpah or temerity.

Many people would love to play a role in repairing the world. While we may not possess the correct or ultimate solutions, there is no harm in trying. Even though we may appear as little slave boys before Pharaoh, a desire to help should not be regarded as brazen or audacious. After all, we never think of the Maccabees as impetuous, or condemn them for being rash, for taking things in to their own hands and battling the Syrian Greeks, cleansing the Temple and making it possible for Jews to worship their faith freely.

May you be blessed and Happy Chanukah to all.

The festival of Chanukah begins on Wednesday night, December 1st, 2010 and continues for eight days, through Thursday, December 9th, 2010.