Parashas Vayiggash

This week’s parashah recounts how Yosef revealed his identity to his brothers and arranged for Yaakov to come to Egypt to be with him. Yaakov arrived in Egypt during the second year of the famine, and the Torah describes the events that took place upon his arrival. At the end of the parashah, the Torah relates how the Egyptians, having run out of money, asked Yosef to let them sell themselves and their land to him for bread and obtained his assent to this arrangement.
The Maggid notes a number of puzzling aspects of the account of the interchange between the Egyptians and Yosef. The Egyptians say (Bereishis 47:19): “Buy us and our land for bread, and we along with our land will be slaves to Pharaoh.” Here, the Egyptians use repetitive language, for once Yosef bought the Egyptians and their land in his capacity of viceroy on Pharaoh’s behalf, then obviously they and their land would become Pharaoh’s property. The Egyptians continue (ibid.): “Provide seed, so that we may live and not die, and that the land will not be desolate.” Next, the Torah relates (ibid. 47:20): “So Yosef bought all the land in Egypt for Pharaoh, for each of the Egyptians sold his field, because the famine had overwhelmed them, and the land became Pharaoh’s.” Here, again, we have repetitive language: If Yosef bought all the land for Pharaoh, then obviously all the land became Pharaoh’s.
Shortly afterward, Yosef tells the Egyptians (ibid. 47:23): “Behold, I have bought you this day and your land for Pharaoh. Here is seed for you, so that you may sow the land.” This statement is odd; it is phrased as if Yosef is giving the Egyptians news that they did not know before. Yosef continues (ibid. 47:24): “And it will be at the harvests, that you will give a fifth to Pharaoh, and four parts will be yours, for seed of the field, and for your food, and for those of your households, and for food for your little ones.” Here, the phrase “and it will be at the harvests” seems unnecessary. Finally, the whole discussion about seed – the Egyptians’ request for seed and Yosef’s agreement to provide it – is bewildering. If the land was stricken by famine, what use was it for the Egyptians to have seed to plant?
Regarding this last point, the Maggid cites a Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah 89:9 relating that upon Yaakov’s arrival, the famine stopped. He notes that, while we must accept what our Sages told us, it still would be worthwhile to try to explain how a famine that was supposed to last seven years lasted only two. Indeed, it seems that this outcome contradicts Yosef’s earlier statement to his brothers (Bereishis 45:6): “For this has been two years of famine in the midst of the land, and there are yet five years during which there will be neither plowing nor harvesting.” The Maggid offers an explanation for the end of the famine, and in the process resolves the difficulties raised above.
The Maggid begins by noting that the famine in Egypt was a supernatural occurrence – a Divinely-engineered miracle. Indeed, the Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 90:6 and 91:5) relates that the famine set in suddenly, and all the grain the people had kept for themselves during the years of plenty instantly rotted. Even the bread they had in their baskets rotted, the moment the seven years of plenty ended. The reason Hashem brought on this miraculous famine was that He wanted all the money and property in Egypt to be concentrated in the hands of Pharaoh. Hashem had promised Avraham that his descendants would leave Egypt with great wealth, and having all of Egypt’s assets concentrated in one place would make it easy for the Jews departing Egypt to collect the promised wealth. While the produce the Egyptians had stored away for themselves rotted, the produce stored in Pharaoh’s storehouses in accordance with Yosef’s instructions remained intact. In fact, during the years of plenty, Pharaoh’s storehouses were endowed with special blessing (Bereishis Rabbah 90:5). Thus, while the famine brought suffering to both the people and the animals of Egypt and its surroundings, it brought Pharaoh tremendous good, for he acquired thereby all the money and land in Egypt. Hashem orchestrated this sequence of events so that everyone would come to Yosef to buy grain, and he would thereby amass for Pharaoh a huge amount of money.
We can now see that there is no contradiction between Yosef’s statement to his brothers and the termination of the famine upon Yaakov’s arrival. The decree of famine was not imposed on the lands owned by Pharaoh. On the contrary, Hashem desired to bless his storehouses, so that, as we explained, he would amass great wealth that the Jews could eventually take. At the very same time that the provisions that the residents of Egypt and its neighbors had stored away rotted, Pharaoh’s storehouses were blessed. During the years of famine, what the Egyptians sowed did not grow at all, for Hashem had cursed their land, but when Pharaoh’s lands were sown, they produced an abundant crop. Accordingly, the Egyptians asked Yosef: “Buy us and our land for bread, and we along with our land will be slaves to Pharaoh; provide seed, so that we may live and not die, and that the land will not be desolate.” The repetitive language here and later in the passage emphasizes that the land was being taken over specifically by Pharaoh. Once the land became Pharaoh’s property, the Egyptians could sow it and reap a successful crop.
This is why the people asked for seed, even through the land had been cursed with famine – when the land entered Pharaoh’s possession, the curse was reversed. And accordingly, Yosef told them: “Behold, I have bought you this day and your land for Pharaoh.” He was stressing to the Egyptians the great favor he was doing them by buying their land from them on Pharaoh’s behalf, thus placing the land under Pharaoh’s aegis and thereby removing the curse. Yosef then continued: “Here is seed for you, so that you may sow the land.” Now that Yosef had taken over the people’s land on Pharaoh’s behalf, he could give them seed to sow. At this point, the famine effectively had come to an end.
After giving the people seed, Yosef told them: “And it will be at the harvests, that you will give a fifth to Pharaoh, and four parts will be yours.” Yosef chose his words here carefully. He deliberately did not simply say that the people should give a fifth of their crop to Pharaoh and keep the other four fifths for themselves. Had he done so, each Egyptian would have divided his field into two separate plots, with one plot a fifth the size of his entire field designated for Pharaoh and the other plot for himself. And had the field been divided in this way, the plot designated for Pharaoh would have flourished while the plot the Egyptian designated for himself would have remained cursed and grown nothing. The Egyptians would have then been empty-handed. Yosef therefore wisely and charitably advised them to sow their fields with the intent that Pharaoh have a one-fifth share in the crop produced in every section of the field – that they should divide each bunch of grain harvested into a one-fifth part for Pharaoh and a four-fifths part for themselves. In this way, the entire field would produce a successful crop, and the Egyptians would have an ample share.

David Zucker, Site Administrator

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