Vayigash – Political Juggling

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The very end of this week’s Torah portion of Vayigash describes how Yosef, with his masterful knowledge and expertise, single-handedly came up with a way to save Egypt and the countries around it from a deadly, paralyzing famine, after 7 years of plenty, exactly as predicted from his interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams. He found favor in the eyes of the nation, for Hashem brings success to those that fear Him!

Yosef’s plan was to collect all the extra abundance of grain and produce that was harvested in the 7 years of plenty, to store them in warehouses as rations for the following 7 years of famine. He intentionally did not start to give out the rations to the people until they desperately needed them, lest they starve to death, and they gladly gave all their money in exchange for food. Once the money was all spent, they gave all their sheep and cattle in exchange for food. This all took place during the first two years of famine. Then, after two years of famine, Yaakov came down to Egypt with his family and the famine stopped, miraculously. So when the people came to Yosef begging for more food this time in exchange for land and their own servitude, Yosef took their land, but told them that he would give them seeds to plant, to produce crops. They would then be sharecroppers of the land, keeping 4/5 of what they produce, and they must give 1/5 to the king; which became a permanent tax. But Yosef never enslaved them, just used them as sharecroppers. Indeed, sharecroppers normally receive 1/5 of the profit whereas the owners receive the other 4/5, but Yosef switched that around, to which Pharaoh acquiesced, and the populace was quite pleased. As the pasuk says: “They replied, ‘You have saved our lives! Let us find favor in my lord’s eyes, and we will be slaves to Pharaoh’” (Breishis 47:25).

The Ralbag learns a very important lesson from the leadership of Yosef: “It is befitting of a person who has control over other people’s possessions that he should treat them with the utmost honesty and put as much effort as possible in ensuring their success, as well as not accepting anything from them even though he is the reason why the owners have their possession (or investments.) This is why the Torah tells us that Yosef brought all the money he earned, when selling grain, to the palace of Pharaoh and did not keep one iota. He then brought all the sheep and cattle to Pharaoh once the citizens had no money left. Afterwards he bought all the lands for Pharaoh in a way that Pharaoh was entitled to a fifth of the produce of the land. This was all due to [Yosef’s] good protection of the success over what he was commanded to accomplish, albeit that he contrived such a thing with much intellect, in a fashion that the citizens gave thanks to him and they said he had rejuvenated them,” [still in all he didn’t take anything for himself, though he deserved to receive part of what he earned.] (Click here for Hebrew text.)
Certainly Yosef must have had some salary or stipend that Pharaoh gave him to support himself and his immediate family. Yet Yosef treated his job with the utmost scrupulousness and didn’t take even one cent from anything that he collected while sustaining the Egyptians and the nations around them. He even put intense effort in ensuring the citizens had the best end of the deal, giving them 4/5 of the crops they produced and only taxing 1/5 for the king, as well as not truly enslaving them. With much effort, a thought out plan, and a lot of help from Hashem, Yosef brought the Egyptians and everyone else out of the great economic strife they were in. The citizens acknowledged his sincerity and success because he was honest and true to his word.

The Torah also tells us that: “Only the farmland of the priests he did not buy, for the priests had an allotment from Pharaoh, and they ate their allotment that Pharaoh had given them; therefore, they did not sell their farmland” (Breishis 47:22). The priests refered to here were the leaders of the communities, like the heads of local or state government; those that maintained law and order within the populace.

The lesson the Ralbag learns from this is that “it is befitting for a ruler, when he wants to do something which would be very difficult on his followers, that he should appease the leaders of his nation in a fashion that they will agree with his plan of action. If he does not do that in this exact manner, they might rebel against him. For this reason we find that when Yosef collected the grain for Pharaoh during the 7 years of plenty, besides what was needed to feed the citizens, Pharaoh made a condition to give the ministers of the land all their needs for provisions during the seven years of famine. This was the reason he was able to convince the citizens that he will sell them what’s needed on his own terms. He was not afraid the nation would rebel and steal the grain or assassinate him and steal the grain because he had the backing of the leaders.”
Yosef and Pharaoh understood that the devised plan would be very difficult to execute. Confiscating all the accumulated wealth, especially during such years of plenty, with only dreams as assurance to the populace that it is worth it and they should be trusted, would be hard for anyone to swallow. They knew they needed the support and backing of the lay leaders and local government officials to execute their plans. Therefore they guaranteed the local ministers all the provisions needed, up front, in exchange for keeping peace and civility during the tumultuous times, and it worked. 

But why wasn’t this looked at as a bribe, or even just unfair or unjust behavior which should have sparked a rebellion? Why were the upper echelons, the leaders, being treated differently and more favorably than the rest of the populace? Where was the justice, equality, and honesty in that?

We must say that since Yosef himself, the head honcho, took full responsibility for everything, acted with the utmost sincerity, honesty and efforts, which everyone was able to see and appreciate, then even if there were some decisions that might have looked, to the outside, a bit sketchy, they could and would be overlooked by the populace, since Yosef had earned their love and respect, as well as there being a system of everything being kept under control.

This is a lesson that the Ralbag learns for each one of us, even till today. We see from here that by going out of one’s way, above and beyond to ensure one can be trusted, that he really is honest and he sincerely puts all his efforts in creating a system of success then people will trust him no matter what type of decisions he makes.