Parshat Miketz (Genesis 41:1-44:17)
This week’s reading, Parshat Miketz, opens with Pharaoh’s dream, which features skinny cows devouring fat cows, and thin, withered sheaves of wheat devouring sheaves that were full and beautiful. Pharaoh is troubled by his dreams, when the cupbearer remembers Joseph, who had correctly interpreted his dream, and suggests that Pharaoh consult with Joseph. With no other option in sight, Joseph is taken out of his prison cell, tidied up, and presented to Pharaoh. Joseph offers Pharaoh a detailed solution to the scenes that appeared in his dream. Pharaoh is so impressed by the spirited young fellow that he makes him the acting governor of Egypt:
“So Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘Look, I have appointed you over the entire land of Egypt.’ And Pharaoh removed his ring from his hand and placed it on Joseph’s hand, and he attired him [with] raiment of fine linen, and he placed the golden chain around his neck. And he had him ride in his chariot of second rank, and they called out before him, ‘[This is] the king’s patron,’ appointing him over the entire land of Egypt” [Gen. 41:41-43].
Removing the signet ring, attiring Joseph in regal clothing and having Joseph ride in a chariot are all classic examples of royal gestures (these were also done to Mordechai in the Book of Esther). Pharaoh is entirely serious with what he intends to do. He finishes defining Joseph’s powers with the following statement:
And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I am Pharaoh, and besides you, no one may lift his hand or his foot in the entire land of Egypt” [ibid. v. 44].
Totalitarianism at its “best”: no one may raise a hand or a foot without the king’s permission.
For years, I have grappled with the question of how a thirty year-old man, wise as he may be, could possibly succeed in performing the difficult task of managing an enormous empire, without any prior training or experience. What tools did he have to ensure his success? What checks and balances did he have in his head, as a young man who, in space of one day, is removed from the dredges of a tiny, dark prison cell and placed in a luxurious royal palace?
Was anyone worried that he might go down the path of so many leaders who had forgotten their origins and lost sight of where they were headed? Perhaps one verse, of ostensibly secondary importance, contains the answer to our question: “And he gave him Osnat, the daughter of Potiphera, the governor of On, for a wife, and Joseph went forth over the land of Egypt” [ibid. v. 45].
Who is this Osnat? Why the mention of her name and origins, considering that no such details are provided in the text for the wives of Jacob’s other sons? Why did Pharaoh need to find Joseph a wife? Couldn’t Joseph have tended to himself? We can only imagine how popular Joseph must have been those days. We recall that he was a good-looking man with wavy hair, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Potiphar’s wife desired him.
Once he reaches royal status, there’s no doubt that his reputation will reach all corners of the empire, and everyone would have wanted to be close with Egypt’s most eligible bachelor. Our Sages describe, in great detail, the many young women who would stroll down the city walls just to catch a glimpse of Joseph’s beauty, as he walked through the city streets.
Joseph dedicates himself wholeheartedly to matters of state: “… and Joseph went forth over the land of Egypt” [ibid. v. 46]. He did not have time to deal with finding himself a wife, and he clearly wasn’t hanging out at parties and having a great time. He was focused on one thing only: how to save the kingdom from the terrible famine that was sure to come.
On the simplest level, the Torah tells us that Osnat was the daughter of an Egyptian priest who did not necessarily come from noble stock. However, our Sages maintained that Osnat was the daughter of Dina, Joseph’s sister, who was adopted by this Egyptian family.
These two interpretations have something in common: they underscore the simplicity that Joseph wished to instill in his home. He knows that being appointed to a senior position could cause him to lose his sense of discretion. His way to counter that possibility was to build a family that, while remaining cognizant of its prominent social standing, nevertheless remembered where it came from.
When we read the names of Joseph and Osnat’s children, we realize how Joseph’s difficult past is brought to bear in his home. He calls his eldest son Menashe, because Hashem helped him forget (“Ki nashani Elokim”) all of the troubles he bore back home, and he calls his younger son Ephraim, because Hashem had made him fruitful (“Ki hifrani Elokim”) in the land of his affliction” [ibid., v. 51-52].
This suffering and hardship never leave Joseph’s mind. He never forgets where he comes from, even when he is at the height of his career. The secret to Joseph’s success is that he does not even take ownership of the solution to Pharaoh’s dream: “God will provide an answer that brings peace to Pharaoh” [ibid., v. 16].
Joseph knew that there is no substitute for hard work out in the streets. This is why he travelled throughout Egypt, preparing the land for the difficult days ahead, while maintaining the highest possible standard of modesty in his own household. This formula may well be applicable to today’s leadership, as well.