Joseph: Lessons in leadership

Why does the Torah dedicate so much real estate to Joseph's solution to the famine?

Rabbi Dr. Dvir Ginsberg, | updated: 10:07

Judaism Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg
Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg

The climactic reuniting of Yosef (Joseph) with his family, as described in the Torah portion of Vayigash, brings to a close a critical moment in the history of the fledgling Jewish nation. Once Yosef ensures his family is taken care of, the Torah turns its attention to the famine (Bereishit 47:13):

“Now there was no food in the entire land, for the famine had grown exceedingly severe, and the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan were exhausted (vateilah) because of the famine.”

The next verses detail Yosef’s management of the famine (ibid 14):

“And Joseph collected all the money that was found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan with the grain that they were buying, and Joseph brought the money into Pharaoh's house.”

Once the money had been depleted, the people of Egypt approach Yosef (ibid 15):

“Now the money was depleted from the land of Egypt and from the land of Canaan, and all the Egyptians came to Joseph, saying, "Give us food; why should we die in your presence, since the money has been used up?"”

Yosef replies with an offer to exchange all the livestock owned by the populace for food. The people of Egypt agree, and the plan works for the year. Once again, though, they confront Yosef (ibid 18-19):

“That year ended, and they came to him in the second year, and they said to him, "We will not hide from my lord, for insofar as the money and the property in animals have been forfeited to my lord, nothing remains before my lord, except our bodies and our farmland. Why should we die before your eyes, both we and our farmland? Buy us and our farmland for food, so that we and our farmland will be slaves to Pharaoh, and give [us] seed, so that we live and not die, and the soil will not lie fallow."”

The Torah then reviews Yosef’s response, a plan involving a joint ownership of the farmland between Pharaoh and the citizens of Egypt.  The people of Egypt would be responsible for giving a portion of their produce to Pharaoh. Finally, after a total of thirteen verses, the Torah returns to the storyline Yaakov and Yosef.

Why does the Torah dedicate so much real estate to this aspect of the famine?

Ramban notes the problem, explaining that Yosef’s handling of the famine reflected his incredible wisdom. Thus, the objective of presenting the details of Yosef’s supervision is to highlight how brilliant he was. Yosef’s handling of the situation resulted in, using modern day metrics, positive polling numbers among the citizenry.

In reviewing the story, it is difficult at a first glance to sense where this incredible cleverness was found. What precisely did Yosef do that merits this type of praise? He managed the famine well, but how does this type of leadership deserve such powerful accolades?

Looking back at all Yosef achieved, it is easy to see his deep understanding of human psychology throughout the various narratives. He understood what Pharaoh needed to hear when he had his dreams. He created a detailed plan to ensure his brothers overcame their flaws, allowing for a coalescing of the nation. Here, too, Yosef understood the composition of Egyptian society, and sought to ensure their basic sense of self-worth was maintained throughout the upcoming tumult.

Yosef appreciated that for a wealthy and powerful society like Egypt, the threat of the famine could produce a complete dissolution of order. Once the people felt the effects of being unable to acquire food with ease, the description of “vateilah” is applied. Many commentators understand this to mean they started, for lack of a better term, to lose it. Yosef understood at that moment the grave psychological threat presented by the start of the famine. The people needed to feel the most minimal possible change as the situation began to deteriorate. They would still be able to purchase food, retaining its status as a commodity.

Yosef was not just managing the famine for the present. He also understood that the famine would come to an end, and the Egyptian society would return to its prior glory.
Once they run out of money, the people approach Yosef, and their language reflects a dire state of mind. While there was plenty of food left, the people claim they will die. Yosef sees the potential for panic, as their fears about their access to food become more pronounced. He continues to ensure stability, each next step handled resolutely, never allowing them to feel abandoned.

Finally, the people of Egypt come to Yosef and offer both their lands and their bodies to Pharaoh. Ramban notes, based on Yosef’s ultimate plan involving the joint land partnership agreement, that Yosef does not choose to have the people become slaves to Pharaoh. Why didn’t Yosef accept the offer from the citizenry?

Yosef was not just managing the famine for the present. He also understood that the famine would come to an end, and the Egyptian society would return to its prior glory. While the arrangement of being slaves to Pharaoh might be tolerated for the time being, once the economy recovered, the idea of being a slave would be anathema to their very social identity. They would rebel against Pharaoh, and chaos would certainly ensue. Thus, Yosef had his eye on the future as well when engaged with the challenge of the famine.

We can now have a better sense of Ramban’s characterizing of Yosef as so brilliant. His sensitivity as to what was necessary to keep the Egyptian people united and content during the time of crisis was critical. As well, Yosef was not merely responding to the present situation; he was ensuring the transition back to regular life was as smooth as possible.

This story, then, serves as the culmination of Yosef’s evolution to a leader. The young Yosef is described by the Torah and the Sages as someone suffering from narcissism, an outsized view of the self and little concern for others. He is rejected by his brothers and imprisoned, breaking this flaw, and slowly begins to become more engaged in those outside of himself. His attention turns to his brothers, desiring what was best for them.

The final expression of leadership takes place in these final verses. Yosef expressed the greatest traits of leadership, his interests tied to the benefit of those who were under his charge. He presents a stark contrast to the upcoming Pharaoh, a ruler whose delusions of deification and desire to enslave a population reflect the corrupted leader. In a world where many leaders embody narcissism, self-preservation, desire for power, and any other of the litany of corrupted traits, we must turn to Yosef and all he embodied to understand the correct path.