The Secret Plan to Fight Famine

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Tuvy Miller

Ripped from his jail cell because of his unique powers of interpretation, Yosef appears before Pharaoh and offers a well-received reading of the king’s enigmatic dream. Plenty followed by famine will strike Egypt, though he does not say why. Yosef then shifts suddenly and declares the following (Bereshit 41:33):

וְעַתָּה יֵרֶא פַרְעֹה אִישׁ נָבוֹן וְחָכָם וִישִׁיתֵהוּ עַל אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם

Now let Pharaoh see (lit. look out) a man discreet and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt. [1]

Pharaoh never solicited Yosef’s counsel and it seems foolish to offer it, especially given his lowly status. Nonetheless, he suggest a forward-thinking plan to ensure Egypt’s survival which Pharaoh not only adopts, but places in Yosef’s hands. He elevates Yosef to a position of tremendous power within the government that far outstrips even the powers that Yosef outlines in his proposal. Even if Yosef anticipated Pharaoh’s favorable reaction, where did he get the gumption to speak this way, and how did he know that Pharaoh would choose him? More importantly, what motivated him to suggest the plan?

Our approach begins with understanding Yosef’s use of the word ירא.  We would expect יבקש (as in Esther 2:2) as the proper verb for a personnel search process.  By saying “point out” rather than “seek”, Yosef implies that the person is already standing before Pharaoh.  He thus subtly shifts Pharaoh’s focus onto those present, including himself.

ירא also bolsters the significance of verse 37, where the “matter was good in Pharaoh’s eyes and in the eyes of his servants.”  Pharaoh and his servants recognize Yosef’s hint and they use their “eyes” to gaze upon him and select him.  Finally, when Pharaoh finishes formalizing Yosef’s royal appointment, he declaims “ רְאֵה נָתַתִּי אֹתְךָ עַל כָּל אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם-See, I have set you over all the land of Egypt” a sign that Pharaoh recognized the subtlety of Yosef’s formulation and respected the ambition that he perceived behind it. Yosef took a risk in presenting this plan.  

But even if Yosef limited the field to those in Pharaoh’s presence, on what basis could he expect Pharaoh to choose him specifically?  Pharaoh would presumably look for someone with experience in food collection and management.  Could Pharaoh have known that Yosef possessed such skills? [2] Where would have gained such experience?   

Upon his arrival in Egypt, Yosef was bought by Potiphar, an advisor of the king described as the שר הטבחים. Rashi understands this appellation to mean that Potiphar was the chief butcher for Pharaoh. [3] The text describes Yosef’s rise to prominence which eventually led him to oversee all the household affairs, even the food that Potiphar ate (following Rashbam’s understanding of כי אם הלחם אשר הוא אוכל).

If Potiphar was the king’s chief butcher, then to run his household, including the culinary apparatus, must have required prodigious skill. With responsibility for an extensive food supply, not to mention the need to entertain guests in a manner befitting a royal minister, the head of his household would spend time handling large shipments of food, management of the storehouses and the actual cooking. Yosef’s success directly contributed to Potiphar’s political stability and prestige. Furthermore, the meteoric rise and success of a slave would likely have attracted the attention of Potiphar’s peers, possibly even the king himself. This argument is reinforced through the textual link of the word פקד that appears in the Potiphar section  (ויפקדהו על ביתו) and in Yosef’s advice to Pharaoh (ויפקד פקידים על הארץ). The link signifies that in his advice to Pharaoh, Yosef was appealing to his previous experience in Potiphar’s house to legitimize his plan and also indicates that at least in Yosef’s understanding, Pharaoh knew of his success in managing the household.

Thus, Yosef had prior experience of which Pharaoh was aware and would have contextualized Yosef’s apparent outburst in front of the court.

Having explored one possible source for the audacity to speak in front of the king, we must explore the question of why Yosef felt the need to suggest his plan in the first place. Perhaps he word ראה will play an even more central role in answering this question.

In the beginning of chapter 42, the famine has hit the land of Cana’an and Ya’akov decides that his family requires additional supplies in order to survive. The verse that describes this realization is quite telling:

וַיַּרְא יַעֲקֹב כִּי יֶשׁ שֶׁבֶר בְּמִצְרָיִם וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב לְבָנָיו לָמָּה תִּתְרָאוּ

Now Jacob saw that there was food in Egypt, and Jacob said to his sons: ‘Why do you look one upon another?’

The double usage of ראה here is not intrinsically significant, unless we read it in light of Yosef’s use of the same root in the previous chapter. Bolstered by the knowledge that Pharaoh already acknowledged his prowess, and by the confidence that God had granted him the ability to interpret dreams, Yosef presents his plan to Pharaoh. The unstated reason for doing this is that he knows the residents of Cana’an will require food during the famine and wants his family to come to Egypt. [4] Yosef cannot mention this outright to Pharaoh, but the ראה link signals to the reader that this is the core of his plan. In essence, Yosef’s utters ירא in order to ensure וַיַּרְא יַעֲקֹב.

Further evidence that this was Yosef’s motive emerges from the fact that when the brothers actually go down to Egypt, the verse tells us that they did so “כִּי הָיָה הָרָעָב בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן.” This seems to be unnecessary information [5] given the implicit reason Ya’akov exhorts his sons to go to Egypt for food and given the verse (41:44) which indicates that the famine had spread to the lands beyond Egypt, presumably including Cana’an. The very next verse provides an additional piece of information, describing Yosef’s role as the primary food distributor in the area. On one level that anticipates their meeting with him, but also hints to the fact that the famine in the Land and his role as the משביר are closely linked. He became the משביר so that when the famine hit Cana’an, he could assist his family. The last piece of evidence for our approach to Yosef’s plan is that when the verse talks about the brothers coming before him for the first time it says “וירא יוסף את אחיו.” When they come before him, Yosef obviously sees them, but the “seeing” here is meant to signify that on a deeper level, this has been Yosef’s plan all along. He wanted his family to come down to Egypt so that they would have food during the famine. [6]

This episode presents a powerful notion to ponder.  We often assume that a frontal, vocal approach works best with people we want to help.  This is partly because we want to demonstrate to others that we care about them, and on some level, we seek a certain measure of self-gratification that comes with a more public display. Yosef pushes us to consider that sometimes, we may be most effective at caring for others by using subtler, more staid means. The other person may not have any hint that I was involved in helping them and though I lose a certain dimension self-gratification, I gain another when I see that acting in this way was best for them.



[1] All Biblical translations adapted from JPS 1917 ed.

[2] It is of course possible that Yosef’s audacity derived from the confidence that his dreams gave him or, as Netsiv argues, from the knowledge that God was with him and that he was an agent of the Divine plan. Our interpretation takes a different route that attempts to explain Yosef’s behavior in slightly more naturalistic terms. This alternate perspective does not, however, necessarily negate the first two.

[3] Many of the other classical commentaries (Radak, Ibn Ezra, Ramban) contend that he was the king’s chief executioner, the king’s justice. This approach yields a slightly different approach to Yosef’s prior experience, but further analysis is beyond the scope of this discussion.

[4] Either to have them bow before him in fulfillment of his earlier dreams, to provide for them or both. Upon further reflection, given that the text (42:9) indicates that Yosef’s  recollection of the dreams occurs after they appear before him, it would seem that his primary aim here is to provide for them. This overall interpretation of Yosef’s ‘hidden’ plan assumes that Yosef bad a far more active role in this Divinely ordained process than one might originally have thought.

[5] Radak implies this and Shadal explicitly notes this.

[6] See Ramban (41:33) and Abarbanel (end of ch. 41) for approaches that overlap with ours.


Tuvy Miller (SBM 2013) is in his second year of semikha at RIETS and teaches at SAR High School as a Beit Midrash Fellow.


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