Meeting The Faces Of Need

By personally handing out rations, Joseph established a human connection and involvement with those for whom he provided.

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Joseph Takes Responsibility for Rationing

And now back to that poignant moment cited above--when Joseph is governing the land and dispensing rations to all who came for food. R. Shabtai Kohen comments on this verse, noting that "even though Joseph was the governor and everyone was at his command, he did not assign the disbursement of food to anyone else. Rather he did it all himself."

As chief operating officer, Joseph could have hired any number of people to help him. With the entire Egyptian population in need of rations, it would have been far easier to have a number of distribution centers. "This teaches us," says R. Kohen, "that when life is in danger, one may not rely on others. Joseph served as an example of how one must himself work at carrying out good deeds."

This interpretation suggests that when we have an opportunity to act, we must take responsibility and do so ourselves. We cannot rely on others, or on chance. Rather, we must make sure that responsible action is taken.

When we act directly, we make sure that things are done the right way. In Joseph's case, he knew that food had to be distributed very carefully and fairly for the people to survive seven full years of famine. By overseeing the process himself, he made sure that it was not mishandled.

Further, I think that by acting in this way, Joseph maintained humility and did not grow complacent in his high-ranking position. Being second only to Pharaoh, he could have lived in comfort, had others working for him, and distanced himself from the poverty-stricken masses.

Instead, he personally dispensed rations "to all the people of the land," seeing them face-to-face. He could see their clothes and their physical condition, hearing first-hand of how far they had come for food. Thus, Joseph was ever-conscious of the severity of the situation and the importance of his managerial role.

Food & Hope

As an aside, there is a play on words in this section. Jacob saw that there were "food rations" to be had in Egypt (Gen. 42:1 and 2) and Joseph "dispensed the rations" (Genesis 42:6)--both of these words have the same grammatical root in Hebrew--the letters Shin, Bet, and Resh.

The Plaut Commentary on the Torah points out that "since the tale was probably first told by the tribe of Ephraim who pronounced "sh" as "s" they heard shever (rations) as sever (hope)." This makes an "artistic double entendre"--those who went to Egypt received not only food, but hope. Thus, Joseph becomes a provider of rations and hope, equally important to sustaining the people during difficult times.

May we act with this level of personal responsibility in both our personal and professional lives, so we too can give help and hope to those in need.

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Jennifer Rosenberg was the Director of Research, Strategic Planning and Organizational Resource division of UJA-Federation of New York.