Several commentators try to understand the breadth of Yosef’s answer to Pharaoh’s dream. Ostensibly, Yosef is only asked about the dream’s meaning, not what to do about it. But rather then stopping there, Yosef continues to tell Pharaoh what to do and about the need to appoint someone truly wise and understanding to administer the plan. By doing so, he sets himself up to be appointed to that major post. According to Ramban, this was exactly Yosef’s intention. Others, however, disagree and feel that when God sent Pharaoh the dream, it was in order for him to take appropriate action. Hence Yosef was simply giving him a fuller picture of what the dream was meant to communicate to him.
Of course whatever Pharaoh’s expectations were, once Yosef hears the dreams, he is in a difficult situation. One the one hand, this is an easy ticket to power. However is that a good thing? Pirkei Avot 1:10 teaches us to hate office – presumably that is speaking even among Jews. But among gentiles, it is even more problematic. For beyond all of the moral traps that come with power, there is the additional issue of standing out as a Jew. For unless such a Jew is universally popular, it will give his political enemies one more cause to bring out hatred of Jews.
On the other hand, giving Pharaoh the interpretation and just walking away was equally fraught with danger. The expression, “Don’t shoot me, I am just the messenger,” is only popular because so many such messengers have been shot! And though Yosef’s news was not totally bad, it could have easily ended up that way for lack of good counsel or implementation.
But there must have been a middle road, in which Yosef could have reasonably satisfied Pharaoh without having to take on the tremendous burdens of becoming the prime minister of the greatest power of the time. All he had been looking for was a ticket out of jail. Except for the incident with Potiphar’s wife, he had shown himself to be extremely useful and loyal to his employers. Now that he finally came to Pharaoh’s attention, the latter had every reason to take him out of jail and put him somewhere in his administration. Yosef could have then spent the rest of his years at a cushy government job that would give him the time that he surely wanted to devote to his family and to more spiritual pursuits. As for how he would manage through the upcoming famine – were it to be mismanaged – since God had kept such a watchful eye over Yosef in the past, he had good reason to believe that He would continue to do so during such an event as well.
But all of this is from the narrow perspective of whether this is good for Yosef, or for the Jews more generally. And while this is often the way we look at things now, it seems that it is not the way Yosef looked at it. In other words, the most reasonable explanation for Yosef stepping up to the plate is because he was really concerned about the Egyptians. As fellow beings created in the image of God, he was concerned about their welfare; and he understood that his talents were the best suited to bring the Egyptian nation through this potentially devastating crisis. And it is for that reason that he was willing to pay the price that the burdens of office would bring to him.
If we are surprised by such an attitude, it must be from not reading one of the most important statements of Jewish thought ever written – I am referring to Netziv’s famous introduction to Bereishit. There he explains that true concern for all mankind was one of the cardinal traits of the Avot. If that is true, having lived with two of the Avot – his father and grandfather – and certainly influenced by the legacy of the third, it would actually only seem natural for Yosef to do what he does in this story.
That this is what God wants from the Jewish people more generally is shown by His attitude towards another famous and generally righteous Jew who took the exact approach several centuries later. That was Yonah, who showed complete indifference towards the gentiles of Nineveh. Indeed, the only defense tradition can offer for him is that he saw that what was good for the people of Nineveh would be bad for the Jews. And yet in spite of this defense, it is clear that God was not very impressed with Yonah’s attitude.
This is not to say that asking whether something is good for the Jews is not a legitimate question. But Yosef teaches us that it should never be our only question.