Online Torah

Back to Shiurim List

Vayigash 5767

By: Rav David Milston


Yosef the Righteous Economist


Ya’akov has journeyed to Egypt; he has been reunited with Yosef, and the family has settled in its own suburb of Goshen, but then we read a parasha that seems redundant:


“And there was no bread at all in the land; for the famine was very severe, so that the land of Egypt and all the land of Cana’an languished from famine. And Yosef gathered all the money found in the land of Egypt, and in the land of Cana’an, for the corn which they brought: and Yosef brought the money to Pharaoh’s house. And when there was no more money in the land of Egypt, and in the land of Cana’an, the whole of Egypt came to Yosef, and said, ‘Give us bread, for why should we die in your presence, for there is no more money.’ And Yosef said, ‘Give your cattle; and I will give you for your cattle, if you have no money.’ And they brought their cattle to Yosef, and Yosef gave them bread in exchange for horses, and for the flocks, and for the herds, and for the asses, and he fed them with bread in exchange for all the cattle for that year. When that year ended, they came to him in the second year, and said to him, ‘we will not hide from my lord; we have neither money nor cattle with which to pay, there is nothing left but our bodies and our lands: Why shall we die before your eyes, both we and our land? Buy us and our land for bread, and we and our land will be servants to Pharaoh: and give us grain that we may live, and not die, that the land shall not be desolate. And Yosef bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh; for every man sold his field in Egypt, because the famine prevailed over them: so the land became Pharaoh’s. And as for the people, he removed them to the cities from one end of the borders of Egypt, to the other. (Bereishit 47: 13-21)


Rashi (Ibid. 47:12,) explains that this entire section is not referring to the state of affairs immediately after Ya’akov’s arrival in Egypt, but rather it is an in-depth account of the first two years of famine before Ya’akov’s descent. This is consistent with Chazal’s predominant view that the famine did in fact stop as soon as Ya’akov arrived in Egypt.[1]


If that is the case, why does the Torah choose to give us a detailed explanation of Yosef’s financial stratagem during the years of famine after they are already over? Why do we need to know these details at all?


The Ramban (verse 14) answers the second question. He says that the detailed account of Yosef’s economic plan teaches us to appreciate Yosef’s true wisdom, and his impeccable honesty in business. He transferred all of his profits directly to Pharaoh; he kept nothing for himself, and he had no private ‘Swiss bank account’ back in Cana’an. On the contrary; he was employed by Egypt and he did everything in Egypt’s best interests.


But why are we told this now? Surely, it would have been more appropriate for the Torah to mention this earlier?


Since verses 11 and 12 (the verses immediately preceding the passage quoted above,) deal with Yosef’s treatment of his family upon their arrival in Egypt, we might have thought that Yosef abused his position in order to benefit his family. Therefore, the Torah sees it necessary to make it perfectly clear that everything he did was perfectly proper and just. His two-year record during the famine - when he had every chance to cheat the system, but chose not to do so - only confirms this assessment.  


Yosef is called Yosef the Tzaddik, the righteous one. I have always thought that Chazal wanted us to understand this tzidkut – righteousness, as a reflection of Yosef’s ability to cling to the Almighty through thick and thin. Alternatively, I have heard it suggested that the epithet Tzaddik is specifically attached to Yosef because he refuses to blame his brothers or his father for his 22 years of exile. In the light of the Ramban’s comments, maybe we can suggest another reason.


A story is told of a renowned shochet, who after many years of devoted work came to the Chafetz Chaim[2] and told him that he was seriously thinking of retiring from his lifelong trade and opening up a small grocery store. The Chafetz Chaim asked him why he had decided to change professions. The shochet explained that the ritual slaughtering of an animal was a very serious responsibility, and there were so many halachic issues involved, that he felt that despite his lifetime experience and knowledge, the time had come for him to move to a profession that involved less halachic responsibility.


The Chafetz Chaim stood back in amazement, and explained to the shochet that he found it hard to understand why he would choose to leave a trade in which he was a halachic expert, to enter a trade in which he was clearly not halachically well versed at all.


The very fact that the shochet believed there were no real halachic issues involved in store keeping was proof enough to the Chafetz Chaim (once the owner of a grocery store himself) that he should remain a shochet for the rest of his life!


I constantly find modern relevance in this story. When asked to define their religiosity, many Torah-observant Jews will refer to Kashrut, Shabbat, Pesach, etc, issues that we generally categorize as mitzvot between man and the Almighty. Many are very much aware of the first volume of the Shulchan Aruch – known as Orach Chaim, but are significantly ignorant regarding Even HaEzer, Choshen Mishpat and large sections of Yoreh Deah.[3]


We often regionalize our religiosity to shul and chagim, when a true servant of God should really be interested in developing a relationship with the Almighty wherever he or she may be and whatever he or she is doing. How often do ‘truly religious’ people seem to genuinely forget the halachic issues when it comes to money and business? Are Torah regulations ignored because they might affect profits?


The same people who will only drink Chalav Yisrael; will only eat glatt meat; will only buy shemura matzot, etc. often seem to leave the Torah aside when it comes to business, or at best, find the necessary halachic loophole in order to justify their questionable market activities. Why are we suddenly lenient in trading, when we wouldn’t dream of eating treif or buying less than the very best etrog?


I dare to suggest that the lack of correct ethics and ideal halachic behavior in the business world stems from a fundamental lack of faith in the Almighty. Parnassa (making a living,) is something that occupies our minds day and night. We all know that not only are we responsible for our own physical wellbeing, we are also responsible for the wellbeing of our families. When in a troubling predicament, we may prefer to become involved in legally questionable activities, rather than be impeccably honest, because we can ostensibly ensure financial stability in our homes, rather than lose out on an ‘important deal.’


The ideal is that our belief in the Almighty should encompass all we have to do in our trading, but at the same time drive us to strictly adhere to the Halacha. Surely then, the Almighty will help us with our parnassa.  In the same way that we choose not to work on Shabbat and chagim in the knowledge and belief that we are doing what the Almighty commanded us to do, we must endeavor to apply that exact same faith in our business activities and financial transactions every day of the week.


This was the Chafetz Chaim’s message to the shochet. Do you honestly think that being a good Jew begins and ends with Kashrut? Do you believe that when you run a grocery store, there are no issues of taxation, interest, pricing, deception, etc?


Now we see the Ramban’s explanation in another light. Yosef was Prime Minister; he was a man of significant power, second only to Pharaoh. He had the ability to do whatever he wished to do, yet he never once abused that power; he was honest to the hilt. He passed every cent he earned to Pharaoh; he performed his duties sincerely to the best of his capabilities. Yosef was not only successful in retaining the spiritual norms taught to him by his father whilst in Egypt, he was an exemplary role model of how religious Jews should behave in the financial arena; hence Yosef the Tzaddik.


Yosef the Tzaddik teaches us something else too. In our generation, one often gets the impression that there is only one way to serve the Almighty. Every Jew has to endeavor to spend as much time as possible in the Beit Midrash. The truest way to serve Hashem is by learning Torah day and night; everything else is of no importance. But is that really the case? No one can or would want to deny the centrality of learning Torah to our lives, but what of those who find it difficult to sit and learn Gemara and Rishonim? What of those who have the required skills to become surgeons, social workers, professionals who can help in the general advancement of society? Are we suggesting that every Jew should endeavor to learn Torah, and sit in yeshiva all day?


This subject deserves more attention than I can give in this book. However, we do know that until relatively recently, even our greatest sages insisted on earning their own keep. They insisted on not benefiting from their Torah; as we mentioned earlier, the Chafetz Chaim was a grocer; the Torah Temima[4] was a bank clerk. Learning and teaching Torah was not to be defined as a profession; it was a way of life that was integrated into the realities and needs of our everyday existence. One sometimes gets the feeling that if one is not in kollel or teaching in a yeshiva then one can never reach the true levels of a believing Jew.


Yosef teaches us otherwise. He was not a Rosh Yeshiva, neither was he in kollel; he did not even teach in a high school. Yosef did not travel the land of Israel converting the masses, like his great-grandfather. He did not remain in Eretz Yisrael like his grandfather, relatively protected within the Abrahamic colony, whilst consolidating Avraham’s ideology. Neither was he an ‘ish tam yoshev ohalim – ‘a perfect man who sat in tents (learning,)’ as Ya’akov was at the beginning of Parashat Toldot. From the age of 17, Yosef was a man of the world. He worked for Potiphar; he survived two years in jail, and he served as Prime Minister of Egypt for many years. And of all the great figures in Sefer Bereishit, he is known as Yosef HaTzaddik!


This is an awesome lesson! When serving the Almighty, it is not so much what you do but rather how you do it. We have no doubts that Yosef learnt Torah as much as he could; we have no doubts that the service of the Almighty was always on his mind, but the role model is so much more.


In Yosef HaTzaddik we see the finest example of how to inject the Almighty into every part of our lives, to live with Him every moment of the day! The Torah details his halachic stringency in business to teach us that religious expression need not be reserved for those who are able to excel in learning, or for attention to detail in Kashrut, but rather for every God-fearing Jew who simply wishes to connect to the Almighty!



[1] See Rashi, Bereishit 37:34.

[2] Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, 1838-1933.

[3] The Shulchan Aruch is the code of Jewish Law, complied by Rabbi Yosef Caro in the 16th century. It has four sections: 1. Orach Chaim, which deals with topics such as daily activities; Shabbat; Chagim; Tefilla; Brachot. 2.Yoreh Deah, which encompasses subjects such as Shechita; Kashrut; idolatry; interest; Niddah; honoring one’s parents and teachers; Talmud Torah; Tzedaka. 3. Even HaEzer, which deals with subjects such as marriage and family, and the laws of divorce. 4. Choshen Mishpat, which teaches us about courts of law; judges; general business law; ownership of property; damages; wills, and theft.

[4] Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein, 1860-1941.