ParshatHashavua Study Center

ParshatVayeshev 5776/December 5, 2015

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Abarbanelon Joseph’s Success Story

By Shalom Colin[*]

Twice Joseph reached the second most important position in the court in Egypt. The first time, he was in the employ of the minister Potiphar and was trying his hand at administration for the first time in his life. The second came after two years of imprisonment, when he experienced a meteoric rise from bondage to the secondhighest ruling position, second onlytoPharoah. This pattern would repeat itself a number of times with various figures in Jewish history, the most prominent of whom was Don Isaac Abarbanel.

In his commentary on ParashatVa-Yeshev, Abarbanel puts the emphasis on the role Joseph’s faith played in his administrative ascendency. Joseph saying to Potiphar’s wife that he would be “sinning before G-d” was, in Abarbanel’s opinion, the model for his handling of administrative and financial matters. He comments (on Genesis 39):

Now Joseph, although the servant of rulers, always had the fear of G-d in his sight, and in all that he did he constantly beheld the Lord before him…For sometimes merchants would earn handsomely and succeed with their merchandise, but they would do so by trickery…but not so Joseph, for the Lord was with him and always before his eyes, so he would do no wrong and never speak deceivingly.

These remarks of Abarbanel reflect the period in his life when, as a young man, he served as chief financial advisor to the King of Portugal while remaining a proud and devout Jew.

In his commentary on ParashatMi-Ketzand Va-Yigash, Abarbanel expands on the account of relations between Pharaoh and Joseph, examining Joseph’s recommendations and governmental actions in terms of his own personal experience. The positions he held in the ruling courts of three states—Portugal, Spain and Italy—left a deep imprint on his commentary, providing us a valuable tool for examining Joseph’s actions.

No one could be better suited to the task of analyzing the nature of Joseph’s relations with the ruling house than Abarbanel, in view of the fact that Pharaoh imposed Joseph on them from above. In the Joseph narrative,Abarbanel finds strategic, financial and tactical planning, as well as implementation that takes constraints into account, and manifestation of political and emotional intelligence.

Abarbanel expounds on Joseph’s strategic perceptiveness from the verse, “no trace of the abundance will be left in the land because of the famine thereafter, for it will be very severe” (Gen. 41:31). Most commentators view this verse as emphasizing what was said in the preceding verse about the famine that would make the seven years of plenty be forgotten, whereas Abarbanel says that Joseph’s words are directed towards the year after the seven years of famine are over. He writes (on Gen. 41, s.v. “va-yomerParaoh”):

Even after the famine is over, the land will remain so depleted that it will not easily return to its former strength.

In other words, Joseph had in mind not only the years of plenty and of famine, but also the “return to normalcy,” the difficulties the land wouldexperience in again becoming productive as it had formerly been.

Right after concluding his presentation of the meaning of Pharaoh’s dreams, Joseph proceeds to advise Pharaoh on governing, even though Pharaoh had not requested such advice. Joseph not only addressed the central administration but also the method of delegating administrative tasks to overseers throughout the land. This is how Abarbanel interprets Joseph’s advice to Pharaoh (loc. cit.):

Great caution must be taken in appointing overseers, that they not take grain for themselves, for who would be trustworthy having the grain in his hands during the years of famine?…Overseers must be appointed throughout the land of Egypt, and then there will unavoidably be many thieves in this matter.

Joseph coupled the ability to cope at the governmental level with honesty at the administrative level. This advance planning would prevent the overseers from abusing the authority given them. According to Abarbanel’s commentary, Joseph knew how to delegate authority to the overseers, authorizing them to collect food and gather grain while at the same time placing restrictions on them (loc. cit.):

It would also be forbidden for those overseers to lay their hands on this grain, for it was deposited in trust with them…for the overseer could say: I received such-and-such an amount as a fifth-part from so-and-so. But when it comes to the wheat being purchased, as to the money he would receive for its purchase, he would not be able to steal.

The financial planning for the kingdom of Egypt was manifest in regulating grain prices, increasing revenues for the royal house and reducing distribution costs (loc. cit.):

You will also have to be wise, when buying the grain cheaply during the years of plenty, not to let the price rise, and likewise, when selling it in the years of famine…and so he amassed a vast fortune for the king…that it not have to be transported from town to town, for that would involve great expenditure on loading and moving…so that the overseers gather some of the grain in the same towns where it will be purchased.

Abarbanel viewed Joseph’s words as economic planning on the state level, guiding consumption in the light of human behavior in times of economic crisis. Joseph anticipated that it would be difficult for the administrative level and the citizens to adjust to the extreme changes that would take place between the years of plenty and the years of famine (loc. cit.):

If a new decree be issued in Egypt many quarrels might arise over it; therefore, he should select a wise person to join him, someone who understands what this means and who can act as administrator over the Egyptian people.

Fears would be allayed and uprisings kept under control by providing food for the masses (loc. cit.):

The people would be appeased thereby, having food in the towns that could be sold there in sufficient quantity in time of need, while the rest remain safeguarded.

However the greatest test that Joseph had to pass, in Abarbanel’s eyes, was coping with the administrative officials who knew where he had come from—a slave from a foreign land—and be able to work with them even though he had been imposed on them as their boss by Pharaoh. Their opposition was directed at Pharaoh for not promoting one of their own to senior administrator, but preferring Joseph over them, and of course also at Joseph, for having been brought from the outside and not from among their ranks (loc. cit.):

Lest jealousy be sparked among his minions and they hate Pharaoh…and being wise and prudent as well gentle, he did not lord it over them, for there were several wise and prudent figures in Egypt…and perhaps Joseph was fearful lest the Egyptians be jealous of him on account of his power.

Abarbanel lived from 1437-1508. The story of his life is so rich, it could equal the biographies of several people put together. He grew up in Portugal and there he attained the rank of financial advisor, having the King’s ear, just as he described Joseph’s position in Potiphar’s house (Gen. 39):

Seeing how successful and honest he [Joseph] was, he [Potiphar] entrusted everything into his hands and would not ask him to give an accounting, as one would of others.

With the change of government, Abarbanel fell from grace of the new ruler, and when he learned of a plot in the court to dismiss and arrest him, he fled to Spain, penniless. Rumor of the exceptional abilities he had shown in Portugal reached the ruling figures in Spain, and there, too, he attained the rank of chief advisor to the crown. However in 1492 he was expelled along with the rest of the Jews of Spain and immigrated to Italy. Abarbanel tells of the plot against him in Portugal in the autobiography he wrote in his introduction to the book of Joshua:

G-dless people…speaking evil of me…sent me a delegation of messengers of evil, with the king’s words: Get yourself down here.

On the information that was leaked to him, in the wake of which he saved his life by fleeing, he writes:

And I innocently set out for the court…but at the inn enroute a person…said to me: flee for your life.

In his commentary on the three weekly readings—Va-Yeshev,Mi-Ketz, and Va-Yigash—one can see a reflection of the saga of his own betrayal in the way he describes Joseph’s success in rising above the sovereign’s close associates who would disown him (Gen. 41):

When he stood before Pharaoh, no one could say a word against him. But when he would leave, to go anywhere throughout the land, he faced great danger…but nobody challenged him, for it was from the Lord.

It seems that Abarbanel perceived a certain similarity between his status in Portugal and Spain and the status of Joseph in Egypt. In the introduction to his commentary on the Haggadah, he writes in a style reminiscent of Joseph’s success:

Forthe Lord made me productive in that land, and there the Lord decreed blessing in my store-house.

However in his commentary on ParashatVa-Yigash he explains the difference between the blessings the Lord bestowed on Joseph and his father’s house in Egypt and the blows that fell upon himself in the various courts in which he served (Gen. 46):

For Divine providence saw to it that while there was famine in the land of Egypt, Joseph supported his father’s entire household, and no blood-thirsty and deceitful people denounced him.

Translated by Rachel Rowen


[*] Shalom Colin is director of an accounting company and a member of NahalatOfir Congregation in Ephrat.