Parshat Miketz (5782)
The First Lesson in Public Administration
By Larry Herman, December 4, 2021
Giving the drash on parshat Miketz (מִקֵּ֖ץ) when it coincides with Hanukah and Rosh Ḥodesh is a little bit like a doing a root canal – you all want this over with quickly. In fact, you’re probably wondering if it’s even necessary. Or, “where’s Mickey Rosen when you really need him?” He’s not here, so you’re stuck with me. But I’ll try to channel Mickey.
We’re in the midst of the Joseph Story, which I believe is the longest continuous narrative in the entire Torah if not the entire Tanach. It’s the dramatic story of family conflict, the astonishing rise of Joseph, and ultimately family reconciliation.
But I want to focus on another aspect of this story as told at the beginning of our parsha. Chapter 41 is, I think, the first lesson that we are given in the Torah about management, public administration, and even a little economics. And while I have not checked, I’d be surprised if management gurus like Peter Drucker or Steven Covey haven’t made reference to parts of the story in their books.
You all know the basics of the story:
- Pharaoh has 2 dreams
- Joseph interprets the dreams
- Pharaoh puts Joseph in charge
- And Joseph’s wise leadership saves Egypt, and not coincidentally, his own family.
But there is much detail in the story that can be used to illustrate good practice in management and public administration. It starts with the morning after pharaoh’s dreams in verse 8:
41:8 … and [Pharaoh] sent and called in all the soothsayers of Egypt and all its wise men, and Pharaoh recounted to them his dreams.
Lesson: Get advice! Call in your management team and technical experts when you have a problem.
Verse 8 continues:
41:8 but none could solve them for Pharaoh
Lesson: If you don’t know, don’t bluff. Pharaoh’s advisors admit that they don’t have any good answers.
41:9 And the chief cupbearer spoke to pharaoh…
Chief cupbearer? What CEO invites advice from his barkeep?
Lesson: Empower your junior staff to speak up. Good ideas don’t always come from the top.
We skip to verse 14:
41:14 And Pharaoh sent and called for Joseph and they hurried him from the pit.
Lesson: Be willing to seek outside counsel directly without hesitation. Pharaoh doesn’t send an emissary, ask for credentials, or schedule a meeting a week from Tuesday.
Verse 14 continues:
41:14 and [Joseph] shaved and changed his garments
Lesson: First impressions are everything. Good grooming and attire are essential. Joseph makes himself presentable and appears promptly. Pharaoh was impressed, so he asks Joseph
41:15 And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I dreamed a dream and none can solve it, and I have heard about you that you can understand a dream to solve it.”
Notice what Pharaoh does here:
Lesson: State the problem, objectives and expectations clearly.
41:16 And Joseph answered Pharaoh saying, “Not I! God will answer for Pharaoh’s well-being.”
Lesson: Be modest but positive. Joseph doesn’t make excessive claims regarding his skills while still expressing confidence in his ability to succeed in the assignment.
41:17-24 In verses 17 through 24 Pharaoh lays out the details of his dreams.
Lesson: Provide your consultant with all of the information necessary for him to succeed in the Terms of Reference. Don’t withhold information or make him search for it.
41:25-32 Then in verses 25 through 32 Joseph explains the meaning of each of the dreams, part by part, telling him that there will be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of drought.
Lesson: Present your report promptly and speak to the client in simple language that can be easily understood. Note also that Joseph doesn’t ask for more time or resources. Avoid project delays and cost overruns.
41:33 And so, let Pharaoh look out for a discerning, wise man and set him over the land of Egypt.
Lesson: Establish the need for your services indirectly. Joseph introduces a role for himself without explicitly putting himself forward as the ideal candidate. Pharaoh will think that it’s his idea.
41:34-36 Let Pharaoh do this: appoint overseers for the land and muster the land of Egypt in the seven years of plenty. And let them collect all the food of these good years that are coming and let them pile up grain under Pharaoh’s hand, food in the cities to keep under guard. And the food will be a reserve for the land for the seven years of famine with will be in the land of Egypt, that the land may not perish in the famine.
What has Joseph just done?
Lesson: Make an Action Plan! Joseph lays out step by step, an easily understood plan to deal with the problem.
How could Pharaoh respond other than…?
41:39,40 And Pharaoh said to Joseph, … there is none as discerning and wise as you . You shall be over my house and by your lips all my folk and be guided.
Lesson: Look for talent and when you find it, give it authority. Pharaoh recognizes Joseph’s brilliance and is willing to delegate authority to him with clear objectives.
41:40-41 “By the throne alone shall I be greater than you.” And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “See, I have set you over all the land of Egypt.”
Lesson: Keep your management lines tight and avoid unnecessary intermediate levels of management. Pharaoh makes Joseph accountable directly to him.
41:44 And Pharaoh took off his ring from his hand and put it on Joseph’s hand and had him clothed in fine linen clothes and placed the golden collar round his neck. And he had him ride in the chariot of his viceroy, and they called out before him, Abrekh, setting him over all the land of Egypt. And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I am Pharaoh! Without you no man shall raise hand or foot in all the land of Egypt.”
Lesson: Ensure that the authority you delegate is clear. Pharaoh made sure that everyone would know the authority and power that he conferred on Joseph.
41:45 And Pharaoh called Joseph’s name Zaphenath-Paneah,
[ צָֽפְנַ֣ת פַּעְנֵ֒חַ֒] and he gave him Asenath [אָֽסְנַ֗ת] daughter of Potiphera, [פּ֥וֹטִי פֶ֛רַע]priest of On, as wife.
Lesson: Give people appropriate titles and compensation. Promotions to positions with meaningless titles are no substitute for a good salary.
And what’s the first thing that Joseph does in his new post?
41:46 And Joseph went out from Pharaoh’s presence and passed through all the land of Egypt.
Lesson: Get to know the lay of the land before you start. By visiting the work site and the people Joseph gains the credibility he will need to implement his plan.
The chapter describes the specific policies that Joseph implements:
41:48 And he collected all the food of the seven years that were in the land of Egypt and he placed food in the cities, the food from the fields round each city he placed within it.
Lesson: Government should purchase surplus crops to stabilize prices and farm revenue. Joseph was practicing good agricultural policy.
41:49 And Joseph piled up grain like the sand of the sea, very much, until he ceased counting, for it was beyond count.
Lesson: Investing in storage capacity and maintaining strategic reserves is another part of good public policy for commodities.
And once the drought begins…
41:56 And Joseph laid open whatever had grain within and sold provisions to Egypt.
Lesson: When there are shortages, release strategic reserves to stabilize prices.
41:57 And all the earth came to Egypt, to Joseph, to get provisions, for the famine had grown hard in all the earth.
Lesson: International trade benefits all parties. Joseph permitted exports which strengthened and enriched the Egyptian state.
There’s more to the story, continued at the end of parshat Vayigash, when Joseph turns Egypt into a feudal state by acquiring all of the livestock, land and other wealth of the country, turning the people into slaves and sharecroppers. There’s a very different political economy lesson there, but I’ll leave that to the darshan next week to explain it.