Never before have I studied the Torah as a blueprint for an efficient and effective crisis management plan.
In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Miketz, the Egyptian Pharaoh (not the one who enslaved the Israelites… we’ll meet him in a few weeks) learns of, plans for, and responds — brilliantly — to an international emergency.
As the parasha opens, Pharaoh has two bizarre dreams. In the first, seven scrawny, weak cows swallow seven plump, healthy ones. In the second, seven thin, scraggly ears of wheat swallow seven hearty, sturdy ones. Pharaoh, troubled by these dreams and unsure of their meaning, summons a reliable dream interpreter: Joseph, the Israelite, who has been languishing in an Egyptian prison for a crime he did not commit. Joseph quickly gets a haircut and a fresh change of clothes, and is brought before the Pharaoh. He explains that these dreams are one and the same:
Immediately ahead are seven years of great abundance in all the land of Egypt. After them will come seven years of famine, and all the abundance in the land of Egypt will be forgotten. As the land is ravaged by famine, no trace of the abundance will be left in the land because of the famine thereafter, for it will be very severe. As for Pharaoh having had the same dream twice, it means that the matter has been determined by God, and that God will soon carry it out” (Genesis 42:29-32).
Joseph suggests that Pharaoh appoint an official who will use the seven abundant years to prepare for the seven years of famine. Pharaoh doesn’t think twice: he hands Joseph his signet ring and appoints him ruler of Egypt.
In those first seven years, Joseph centralizes the Egyptian economy. He creates reserves of grain in each city, and saves up so much that, by the end of the seven years, it is impossible to measure just how much grain he has accumulated. And, as predicted, when the seven years of plenty end, all the nations of the earth suffer through the famine…except, of course, for Egypt. The Egyptian people live in comfort, and sell their surplus grain to the rest of the world, all thanks to Joseph’s incredible powers of prediction and planning.
Living through COVID-19, I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m actually a little envious of how well his plan played out. It seems perfect: Pharaoh learns of an impending crisis, immediately appoints a capable bureaucrat, and plans for the future. The Egyptians don’t popularize conspiracy theories, they don’t protest the collection of grain; they come together as a nation to do what needs to be done. And in the end, they benefit greatly, enjoying prosperity and plenty in a time of scarcity.
Of course, we lack a resource to which Joseph and the Egyptians had access: the power to predict the future ensured by an invisible, but omnipotent and ever-present God. Unlike in the biblical narrative, God never shared the fact that a global pandemic was on its way. God didn’t tell anyone how severe it would be, how long it would last, or just how drastically it would alter human life. If God did speak to any contemporary earthling to share these plans, we’d probably be right to have our doubts, to say the least.
Unlike our leaders today, Joseph knew with great certainty that he was making the right choices; if he weren’t, God would have steered him in a different direction. A guarantee from God that everything will turn out well in the end no doubt makes it easier to be a leader.
Ultimately, Joseph’s role was pretty straightforward: follow God’s plans, and everything will be just fine. We, who lack direct access to God and who don’t know the outcomes of our decisions, have it tougher. We face tremendous uncertainty each day: Which activities are safe and which are not? When will life return to normal? What will “back to normal” even mean?
To me, the most important thing we can do is aspire to have the faith of Pharaoh. Pharaoh himself did not speak directly with God. But he was able to trust Joseph’s dreams (which were, back then, the most reliable source of information); to appoint a capable leader (and give him a second chance by looking over the fact that he had spent time in prison); and to hope — and act — for the best.
May we, and our leaders, all borrow that ancient faith.