For some remarkable people, foresight can be 20/20.
The end of Parshas VaYigash describes how Yosef took complete control of the agricultural and economic aspects of Egypt during the seven years of famine. He rationed out bread in exchange for money, cattle, and land; he relocated all Egyptians to government housing; and he imposed a 20% income tax on all future crops.
However, Yosef allowed a major exception. Under Yosef’s plan of commerce and taxation, the Egyptian priests were supplied daily portions of food without needing to relinquish their land, and they were not charged the crop tax (B’reishis 47:22). Interestingly, Yosef did not limit these exemptions to the years of famine. He formally legislated that the priests were completely absolved from all governmental responsibilities, and this law remained in effect for centuries after his death (v. 26).
Rabbi Baruch HaLevi Epstein zt”l, known as the Torah T’mimah, has a fantastic comment in his sefer, Tosefes Brachah. While this detail of the Egyptian tax code may not seem to be important for us to know, the reality is that it completely altered the course of Jewish history!
Let’s jump ahead to Sefer Sh’mos and consider our heroes, Moshe and Aharon, who seem to be in a constant, ongoing dialogue with Pharaoh. The question is glaring: How were these Jews allowed to spend so much time in the palace? Why weren’t they reprimanded for taking frequent breaks from their slave work? It must be, Chazal conclude, that not all Jewish people were subjugated into slavery. Indeed, Moshe, Aharon, and their entire tribe of Levi were excluded from the torturous Egyptian oppression (Rashi, Sh’mos 5:4).
How fortunate for us that Moshe and Aharon were free to roam about the country! This allowed them to communicate with Hashem, instill the people with hope, negotiate with Pharaoh, and of course, bring about the Ten Plagues. But why would Pharaoh have agreed to this exemption? Why did he allow one tribe to remain immune from governmental responsibilities, allowing for the possibility of “mass exodus”?
He didn’t; it was Yosef who ensured that all of this would happen! Rabbi Epstein explained that when Yosef established the priestly exemptions, he did so with this very outcome in mind. Blessed with the foreknowledge that decades of Egyptian tyranny were on the way, Yosef had the foresight to secure the freedom of the future Jewish leaders. By cementing into law that all priests in the land were free from any responsibilities, he allowed the Jewish priests – Sheivet Levi – the autonomy to bring about the eventual Jewish redemption.
More than a hundred years before the birth of Moshe Rabbeinu, Yosef HaTzadik had already set the stage for Y’tzias Mitzrayim!