Rabbi Yakov Haber
Rabbi Yakov Haber

The Extent of Chessed

At the end of Parashas VaYigash, we read of Yosef's massive transformation of Egyptian society. After the Egyptian people spend all of their money on food during the years of famine, Yosef insists that they first use their cattle and then their land as the purchase price for receiving food. Once all of the land is owned by Pharaoh,[1] Yosef gives the Egyptians seed to plant crops. They would keep 80% of the crops for themselves and deliver the other 20% to Pharaoh. In addition, all the farm-dwelling Egyptians were transferred to the cities. Yosef's motivation in doing all of this as well as the Torah's reason for recording it need explanation.

Rashi (from Chulin 60b) states that Yosef wished to eliminate shame from his brothers. Now that the Egyptians themselves were "exiles" in their own land they would not be able to mock the B'nei Yisrael as being exiles. Kli Yakar explains further that Yosef wished to instill within the Egyptian people sensitivity for the stranger, the Jewish nation, since they themselves were also "strangers". Netziv suggests that Yosef wished to arrange that his family should be able to dwell alone in the land of Goshen so that they would not assimilate with the Egyptians; he therefore arranged that the Egyptians living there would move elsewhere. Perhaps we can add that Yosef was trying to assure that his brethren and their descendants not acclimate to Egypt as their homeland. They should always view themselves as strangers longing to return to Eretz Yisrael[2] since even the native Egyptians also would now feel like strangers. Although many commentators explain Yosef's conduct as being beneficial for the Egyptians as well,[3] the consensus of the commentators seems to be that Yosef had his family's best interests in mind as well. Presumably, the fact that the Torah records these acts of Yosef indicates that they had relevance to B'nei Yisrael.[4]

The enormous acts of Yosef in order to preserve the dignity of his brothers and the future fate of K'lal Yisrael during their exile certainly inform us as to the lengths we must go to avoid embarrassing others and to seek their welfare in all ways. Yosef, as viceroy of Egypt, had enormous power in his hands to create massive societal changes in order to positively benefit his family. Even people in less powerful positions are clearly being charged by the Torah to utilize these positions not for self-aggrandizement but to help others and to avoid embarrassing them. Many stories of Gedolei Yisrael have been recorded as to the lengths they went to avoid embarrassing others or to otherwise benefit them. After a guest accidentally spilled his cup of wine, one host spilled his as well to eliminate his guest's embarrassment. Once, the Chafetz Chaim, after a relative took a nap on Friday afternoon, stayed up almost all night so that when his guest woke up very late at night, he would be able to make Kiddush for his guest at the still-set table so that the guest should not notice anything unusual and not feel bad for delaying them. Rav Meir Shapiro, the Rosh HaYeshiva of the famous Yeshiva Chachmei Lublin, would spend hours assuring that each student was properly cared for, a practice that many other Roshei Yeshiva followed and continue to follow as well. The Netziv spent hours each day answering every single letter he received whether the correspondent requested a p'sak halacha, advice or a b'racha. May we all learn from the conduct of Yosef HaTzaddik and our other luminaries who followed his example to do our utmost to help others.

[1] See Ramban that this serves as proof of Yosef's integrity as he gave all of the income to Pharaoh and kept nothing for himself.

[2] See Kli Yakar at the end of the Parasha who explains that B'nei Yisrael sinned by beginning to view themselves as permanent inhabitants of Egypt and not as strangers.

[3] See Ramban and Meshech Chochma that Yosef refused to acquire the Egyptians as slaves even against their own request. Also the fact that he awarded 80% of the crops to the Egyptians themselves indicated that they would receive much more than a slave or even a sharecropper would. See also Netziv that he preserved social groups when they were transferred to other cities.

[4] So explains Maharsha to Chulin (60b).

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