by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – December 2, 2010

After wallowing in prison on trumped up charges for two years, Joseph is finally released.  Pharaoh has a dream and it is recognized that the only one that can properly interpret it for him is Joseph.  Joseph proceeds to tell Pharaoh that his dream connotes a period of seven years of prosperity in Egypt followed by seven years of famine.

After interpreting his dream, Joseph exhorts Pharaoh (Bereshit 41:33-36), “Now let Pharaoh seek out a discerning and wise man and set him over the land of Egypt.  Let Pharaoh proceed and let him appoint overseers on the land and he shall prepare the land of Egypt during the seven years of abundance.  And let them gather all the food of those approaching good years; let them amass grain under Pharaoh’s authority for food in the cities and safeguard it.  The food will be a reserve for the land against the seven years of famine which will befall the land of Egypt, so that the land will not perish in the famine.”

The latter day Torah scholar R. Eliyahu Lapian, cited in Lekach Tov, notes the puzzling nature of this last exhortation on the part of Joseph.  What is the necessity for a “discerning and wise man”?  To store up grain for so many years would seem to require someone with good organizational skills and diligence.  What, however, requires so much discernment and wisdom?

In answer to his question, R. Lapian points out that, indeed, had this been a routine storing, Joseph would not have suggested any search for wisdom and intellect – organizational skills and diligence would have sufficed.  However, in this case wisdom and intellect were essential.  During prosperity, especially for such a long period of time as seven years, people tend to take things for granted and would not be so concerned about saving up food.  On the other hand, when times are rough, people have a tendency to jump at every kernel.  In order to store away food during seven years of tremendous prosperity for the purpose of a period of famine later on in the future, one must adopt a sense of hunger and urgency despite the mass of prosperity all around.  Only through such a sense of urgency could the country’s coffers be properly filled up.  For this, one, in fact, requires a man of wisdom and intellect.  A wise man can “see” the future (see Mishna Avot 2:9).  He is not just aware of what is about to happen.  He sees it before his eyes. He can relate to it as if it is currently happening.  Through his wisdom, he knows how to direct his actions properly and subsist during times of prosperity along with feelings of hunger and urgency in the offing.  Only a “discerning and wise man” can truly succeed in completely staving off famine in the distant future while in the midst of many years of thriving prosperity.

In today’s day and age, many well meaning and caring people try, like Joseph, to do good for others.  Unfortunately, however, often, unlike Joseph, they do not approach the matter with wisdom and intellect.  When the situation is tragic, many are, thankfully, quick to help.  However, when the situation is not yet tragic, just difficult, but with some forethought could be comprehended as one that can become tragic, not so many are available to assist.  When matters have not yet reached tragic proportions, the not so wise individual cannot “see” the future that is developing.  As a result, a situation, had it been approached wisely with forethought, that could have been staved off or eased, becomes tragic.

The situation could be a housewife dying from cancer unable to prepare meals for her family, necessitating her husband to go to great expense to constantly purchase take-out meals for his family, eventually, along with the costs of medication and medical care, breaking the beleaguered bread-winner financially. Thankfully, once the situation has reached tragic proportions, numerous people arrive with home-cooked meals daily; but how much angst and aggravation could have been saved had just some of these people brought just some meals from time to time earlier on when that bread-winner was seeing financial disaster coming upon him?

The situation can be a man suffering from an enervating heart condition, unable to spend significant time with his children, requiring his wife to spend hours upon hours nursing him, leaving their children neglected, needing to fend for themselves and leading to their “getting into trouble”.  Thankfully, when the man finally passes away, all sorts of assistance, financially and otherwise, are offered to the sad widow; but by then some of the children have already gotten into situations that it is hard to get out of and have also developed a certain apprehension towards the outside world.  How much could have been avoided had just some of the attention showered upon them at the father’s passing been offered them when the father was still alive?

The situation may be a father with heart problems fighting to raise his child normally while his wife has developed severe emotional problems, causing both the father and child great aggravation. When the situation becomes utterly unbearable, some very caring individuals, thankfully, come to the father’s rescue, but scars have been left by the community’s apathy. How much sadness could have been avoided had just some of the many who spoke among themselves about this father’s problems with his wife reached out to him and his child earlier?

The situation might be a successful businessman at his wife’s bedside while she is fighting for her life for months in a hospital, as a result of which his business suffers.  Thankfully, when his wife dies, friends and family rally to his side, but his business has already fallen apart and so has his financial stability.  How much of this man’s distress could have been avoided had just some members of the community offered to volunteer for periods of time at his wife’s bedside while he tended to some of his clients?

All of the above are just some examples of real life situations that have occurred in different corners of the world to different people (who shall remain nameless) among many other such incidents.  These are examples of situations where applying wisdom and forethought could have averted or reduced tragic consequences.  However, as happens often, tragedy mobilizes people, and short of that people become complacent.  Joseph understood that in order to properly help another, one must be a “discerning and wise man” to properly prevent the other’s problems before they become tragic.  We can and should all take a lesson from Joseph.

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