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Fighting Famine

The Torah portion of Mikeitz relates how Yosef distributed food to the starving people of the “entire earth” during a time of famine.1 He was able to do so because in the preceding years of plenty, “he placed food in the cities; the food growing around each city he placed inside it.”2

At first glance we may conclude that he placed food inside the city next to which it grew. But this conclusion raises the following difficulties:

Why does the verse have to emphasize that Yosef placed the food in the nearest city; would we think he had transported it to a more distant one?! Moreover, why does the Torah find it necessary to tell us where he placed the food?

Rashi3 answers by explaining that “the food growing around each city he placed inside it” means the following: “Each kind of soil is best suited for certain types of produce, therefore earth from the area [where the produce was grown] was placed together with the produce, keeping the food from rotting.”

Thus, “he placed inside it” refers not to placing food inside the city next to which it grew, but rather to preserving the food by placing soil from the area in which it grew together with the produce itself — “inside it.”

There is a lesson in this Rashi :

A Jew’s principal “produce” consists of the Torah he learns and the mitzvos he performs. When a Jew amasses a huge amount of “produce,” he must know that in order for it to be “preserved,” he must surround it with “earth from that place.”

“Earth” symbolizes self-abnegation, as we say at the conclusion of the Amidah :4 “Let my soul be [so humble that it is] as earth to all.” This feeling of humility and self-effacement makes possible the actions of the next verse: “Open my heart to Your Torah, and let my soul eagerly pursue Your commandments.”

There is an additional lesson alluded to by Rashi : the “earth” must be from the place in which the produce grew. This means to say that a person’s humility must be “in place.”

Being so humble as to be defenseless before the blandishments of one’s evil inclination, or being so servile that one is stepped upon by all — not least by one’s own evil inclination — is described as misplaced humility.

In this regard, a person must be “fierce as a leopard and courageous as a lion” — a statement found at the very beginning of the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, and thus crucial to its fulfillment.

With regard to Torah and mitzvos as well, if one is so meek that he avoids leaving his familiar surroundings to spread Torah learning for fear that the outside world may have an undue influence on him, his humility too is entirely out of place.

On the other hand, being humbled by the fact that the Torah is G-d’s Word, and as such so completely transcends comprehension that in order for a created being to succeed in his studies he must constantly be aware of the Giver of Torah — that is humility that is “in place.”

Here the Torah teaches us yet another vital lesson:

Yosef sustained the “entire earth” during the time of famine. This means that in a time of spiritual famine — a period of ignorance of Torah and things Jewish — it is incumbent upon each and every Jew (every Jew being spiritually termed “Yosef”)5 to provide even those outside his immediate surroundings with spiritual sustenance.

Here Rashi teaches us that the spiritual food which one gives a fellow Jew must be of a permanent nature (“keeping the food from rotting”); he must see to it that the lessons will sustain the recipient all the days of his life.

Based on Likkutei Sichos Vol. XXV, pp. 220-226.


1. Bereishis 41:57.
2. Ibid. verse 48.
3. Ibid.
4. This text is originally found in Berachos 17a.
5. Tehillim 80:2, and commentary of Rashi and Metzudas Dovid ibid.; see also Likkutei Sichos XXV , p. 252ff.


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