SALT - Friday, 6 Tevet 5776 - December 18, 2015

  • Rav David Silverberg

            After Yosef reveals his identity to his brothers, he explains to them that God sent him to Egypt “because there have now been two years of famine throughout the land, and there will be another five years without plowing or harvesting” (45:6).  He proceeds to instruct them to bring Yaakov and their families to live in Egypt where he would support them, “for there are another five years of famine” (45:11).  As Yosef had prophetically foreseen seven years of famine, and only two years had passed, he summoned his family to live in Egypt so he could provide for them during the remaining five years.

            The Tosefta (Sota 10), as cited by Rashi (to 47:19), notes that in the final section of Parashat Vayigash, where the Torah tells of Yosef’s management of Egypt during the famine, we read that Yosef distributed seed for sowing after two years of famine.  Whereas Yosef had predicted that no food would be produced for another five years, the Torah explicitly states that Yosef gave the citizens seeds with which to plant and produce food, a percentage of which they gave to Pharaoh.  The Tosefta thus concludes that when Yaakov arrived in Egypt after the second year of famine, the harsh conditions ended in his merit, and agricultural activity resumed in the country.  And thus although Yosef predicted five more years without food production, in truth the conditions improved as soon as Yaakov arrived.

            Rav Moshe Mordechai Karp, in Va-yavinu Ba-mikra, elaborates on this point, that Yosef erred in his prediction.  Yosef had assumed that his father and brothers would depend on him for their sustenance, but in truth it was just the opposite – Yaakov brought the blessing of sustenance upon Yosef and the rest of Egypt.  Rav Karp adds that this might be the Gemara’s intent in Masekhet Sota (13b), where it posits that Yosef was punished for listening to Yehuda refer to Yaakov as “avdekha avinu” – “your servant, our father” – without protesting.  The reason why Yosef did not protest, Rav Karp suggests, is because he indeed saw himself as Yaakov’s “master” in the sense that he assumed he was needed to support him.  In the end, Yosef was proven wrong, as Yaakov actually restored the prosperity of Egypt.

            This insight reflects the fine line that exists between a sense of mission and responsibility, on the one hand, and hubris, on the other.  Certainly, we are encouraged to identify needs that we feel we can fill, and problems which we feel we can solve.  However, in this ambitious quest, we run the risk of overestimating our importance and the extent to which we are truly needed.  We need to try to find ways to contribute without falling into the trap of believing we are more important than we really are.  Yosef was undoubtedly correct that God sent him to Egypt to complete an important mission, but it appears that he went a bit too far in assessing this mission.  This should serve as a warning to us all that while we, like Yosef, should recognize and embrace the roles that Providence has assigned to us, we must, at the same, maintain a humble awareness of our limited importance in the grand scheme of things.