Parshat Miketz by Talia Cottrell
There is a famous expression that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Modern democratic theory espouses the notion that political power not be concentrated in one person or in one institutional body but that it be divided among different groups with different interests. Much of our historical experience with dictatorial regimes has also taught us the dangers of absolute leaders.
In Parshat Mikeitz, Joseph is brought face to face with Pharaoh, the supreme ruler of Egypt, who is also considered as a god by his subjects. Joseph is faced with a life-threatening predicament; he is brought up to Pharaoh’s palace as a presumed expert in dream interpretation and now must interpret the dreams to Pharaoh’s satisfaction, ever mindful of the punishment meted out to those who displease the Egyptian king. Joseph, however, does not choose the safer path of simply inventing a more pleasing interpretation; he recognizes his moral responsibility to tell Pharaoh the difficult but genuine interpretation of the dream. He sees that the people of Egypt, as well as people through the Middle East, are going to suffer a tremendous famine like no one has ever seen before; he cannot leave the palace without informing the most powerful ruler in the region of the imminent tragedy. Joseph, however, is also wise. He understands that Pharaoh’s response to this revelation will not be to consider how to help the common people in his land. Joseph realizes that in order to accomplish want needs to be done for the common people, including his own family, he needs to appeal to Pharaoh’s own interests. Joseph devises a plan in which Pharaoh’s government collects food during the years of plenty, which it than can sell to the people during the years of famine. Joseph’s plan gives the absolute ruler of Egypt even more power and resources, but it also guarantees that food will be available for all during the devastating impending famine. Pharaoh, probably more out of his own interest than the interests of others, accepts.
Although we are lucky enough to not have to face absolute rulers, as advocates of social justice, we often must face looming power structures in trying to reach our goals. Like Yosef, we must recognize our responsibility to act for the good of mankind despite the difficulties we might face. But like Yosef, we must also recognize that even the most absolute and corrupt of rulers can be used for the good, if we learn to speak the language of power and interest.