Leadership – Privilege or Responsibility?

By Rabbi Jonathan Ziring

 Former Sgan Rosh Beit Midrash (Toronto, 2015-18)
Currently Ra”m at Yeshivat Migdal HaTorah, Modiin

“And when the money gave out in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, all the Egyptians came to Joseph and said, “Give us bread, lest we die before your very eyes; for the money is gone!” (Bereishit 47:15)
The previous parshiyot described the years of plenty and famine, and the wealth they brought Egypt. Yosef, by stockpiling during the years of surplus, made Egypt the only country in the area with food, forcing all the regional people to spend their resources there. The Or HaChaim (41:36) even argues that while the famine affected the entire region, only Egypt enjoyed the years of plenty, furthering its advantage over the surrounding nations.
However, it was not the common Egyptians who enjoyed the bounty – it was the royal treasuries. The Egyptians also bought food from Yosef, representing Pharaoh. As the famine intensified, they ran out of money, and slowly they traded away their land and freedom to the crown.
The pasuk that describes this moment, however, lacks symmetry. The first half records that the money ran out from Egypt and Canaan; the second half speaks of the Egyptians’ conversations with Yosef.  Why is Canaan mentioned?
Midrash Seichel Tov simply assumes that the pasuk is written in shorthand; Egypt includes Canaan for this purpose. Radak understands that the aggravated famine led to a shift in policy. When there were sufficient supplies for Egypt and foreign nations, Yosef sold to everyone. When there was only enough for Egypt, the Canaanites were forced to seek food elsewhere. The Netziv argues that Canaan, in fact, did not need grain. They had animals they could eat if needed; they just preferred not to. However, when forced, they relied on these alternate sources of sustenance.
Ramban sees a touch of cynicism in these comments. The Egyptians reminded Yosef that Canaan was impoverished. There were no buyers who would fill the coffers of Pharaoh. The only buyers left were the Egyptians, so Yosef might as well negotiate, for if the Egyptians died, there would be no buyers left. Tur HaAruch adds that they were specific in their claim. The money had not run out at once.  Rather, the poor people ran out of funds first, but for a while, the rich could still buy food.  However, by this point, there were no buyers left. It was only the Egyptians with their desperate requests.
Whichever interpretation is correct, the thrust of the pasuk is that the Egyptians, while they may have seemed liked the lucky ones in the early years, were no different than everyone else. Several Midrashim and Rashi allude to this. Noting that Yosef moved the Egyptians around (47:21), they suggest that Yosef wanted to remind the Egyptians they no longer had claim to their land. This was intended to prevent them from mocking Yosef’s brothers and being intruders in the land – they were all exiles. Rashbam (ibid) argues that this the intent was more straightforward – it was so that no one would be able to lay claim to the land they had relinquished. He notes that Sancheriv used this same strategy when he conquered territories, exiling and relocating entire populations to uproot all sense of ownership.  Pharaoh owned all, and that needed to be clear.
Contrast this to the Torah’s model of a Jewish king. He is forbidden to own too much money. He must respect property rights, as even the evil king Achav needed to find a legal pretense to take a vineyard from Navot (1 Kings 21). [See Sanhedrin 20b for the rights he does have.] Even wicked kings are found among their people during famines, trying to aid their subjects (2 Kings 6).
Similarly, the Torah continues by recording the only ones whose property was protected: “Only the land of the priests he did not take over, for the priests had an allotment from Pharaoh, and they lived off the allotment which Pharaoh had made to them; therefore, they did not sell their land.” (47:22) The religious functionaries were political cronies and reaped the benefits, even if no one else did.
As Nechama Leibowitz points out, this contrasts the Jewish ethos as radically as possible. The Leviim and Kohanim get no material inheritance: “God is their portion.” (Devarim 18:2)
In Egypt, the Pharaoh[1] and the priests were in it for themselves. In the Torah, both political and religious leaders are in it for G-d and their people. A Jewish leader is given servitude to his people, not authority over them (Horayot 10a-b, based on 1 Kings 12:7). This model is represented by Moshe, who eventually took the Jews out of Egypt to build the nation built on these values of selflessness and true leadership.

[1] As to whether Yosef bore responsibility for these policies, see the radical suggestion of my teacher, Rabbi Aryeh Klapper: http://www.torahleadership.org/categories/joseph_mai2_1.pdf