Don Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508) was a preeminent Jewish thinker, scholar, and prolific Biblical
commentator. In chapter 42, we read how Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams was correct.
Seven go-go years in Egypt came and went. A bitter famine began to rear its ugly head. This chapter
focuses on Jacob’s reaction to the harsh reality and existential threat.
“Now Jacob saw that there were provisions in Egypt. And Jacob said
unto his sons: Why do you look upon one another? And he said: Behold,
I have heard that there are supplies in Egypt. Go down there, and buy
for us there, that we may live, and not die.”
Abravanel asks: What is Jacob’s revelation, regarding the news that Egypt was flush with provisions?
After all, Egypt was a vast empire, with much fertile land. It regularly generated a surfeit of crops and
boasted plenty of food supplies. Certainly nothing novel about that. And, of course, Egypt’s
commodities’ market had been well-developed. What, then, did Jacob hear? And what did the patriarch
mean when he asked: “Why do you look upon one another?”
Abravanel explains that Jacob wasn’t interested in disclosing the obvious, namely that Egypt was a
veritable bread basket in the Middle East. Rather, the patriarch had heard that Egypt’s government was
opening their grain to non-Egyptians. “Now Jacob saw that there were provisions in Egypt. And Jacob
said unto his sons: Why do you look upon one another?”
Furthermore, Jacob saw that traveling businessmen were selling Egyptian grain to Canaanites. Jacob’s
family was paying retail. For this the patriarch rebuked his sons, demanding they stop twiddling their
thumbs, per se. “Go down there” Jacob scolded. “And buy for us there, that we may live, and not die.”
Jacob’s sons got an earful about hard work, and healthy attitudes toward making a living and supporting
their families. They should not act arrogantly, as if labor and toil were beneath their honor. Jacob bid
them to stop acting like they were rich and could afford to pay traveling merchants exorbitant prices.
“Go down there”, said Jacob. Don’t put on airs, as if it was too much trouble to go to Egypt and buy
food. In a word, Abravanel teaches the proper Jewish work ethic.
To paraphrase Abravanel: A man must degrade himself, when it comes to buying necessities. Indeed,
there isn’t an ounce of shame or embarrassment in it.