Date: December 15th 2017

Parshat Meketz describes how Yosef (Joseph) interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams. The dreams, he said, foretold seven years of abundant harvests followed by seven years of severe famine. Yosef then advised Pharaoh to store the surplus food during the first seven years of plenty, and his counsel was heeded. Once the famine began, there were widespread food shortages, and the people had no choice but to purchase their grain from the storehouses of Egyptian Crown. 
The famine also affected the Forefather Yaakov (Jacob), his 12 sons and their families who were living in Israel. As some commentaries explain, it became apparent that, to avoid hunger and possible death from starvation, they too would have to buy food in Egypt. Nevertheless, time passed, but not one member of the family actually did anything to secure th needed provisions. Finally, Yaakov commanded his children to journey to Egypt to procure food, warning them that without this purchase, they might all perish. 
Why didn’t they act sooner without being told to do so? Inaction could have endangered them all. That is, the lives of Yaakov, his sons and the Jewish people of the future. The Commentary of the Sforno (by Rabbi Ovadia Sforno 1475 - 1550) explains that their inaction was due to the Talmudic dictum: “A pot owned by partners does not become cold nor does it cook” (Eruvin 3a). 
The Talmud’s words regarding the “pot of partners” describe a psychological phenomenon of group dynamics: A task being done by a body of people will tend to remain uncompleted. Explaining this Talmudic idea, the Commentary of Maharsha (by Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer HaLevi Eidles, 1555-1631) adds that each member of the group vails to act and assumes that another member will attend to the matter. So the pot remains neither cooked when needed, nor chilled when that is called for. 
Yaakov and all his sons were partners — members of a group that, collectively, needed to procure food. Consequently, the job remained completely undone. 
In cases similar to the actual Talmudic example of the pot, the issue is typically benign; whether or not a given food item is served in its optimal state is isn’t very important. But wouldn’t a joint responsibility for something more crucial elicit a different outcome? What if the situation is potentially life threatening? What if the people of the group were extremely high-minded and capable? Could one expect a different response from the group? Would people then overcome their collective inertia and act immediately? 
The task before Yaakov and his sons was indeed most crucial; it was a life-and-death situation. Although all human life is precious, their lives were especially important. Yaakov is referred to in Talmudic literature as the chosen (most perfect) of the Forefathers. His great family was the Jewish nation of the future. They were the sole proponents of monotheism in an idolatrous world. If food were not procured in Egypt, all of them plus all they represented in their present and future world could have been destroyed by starvation. It’s hard to imagine a more urgent yet achievable task being placed before a more virtuous and capable group of individuals. Could there ever be a greater likelihood that a group would overcome its inertia and act? 
Yet, had Yaakov left it to the group, they may very well have starved to death due to the mummifying psychology of the “pot of partners.” They only acted and journeyed to Egypt after the explicit command of Yaakov. Evidently, the paralysis of the “pot of partners” can incapacitate people in any situation, notwithstanding the uprightness and wisdom of those involved and the fact that so much was at stake - including their own lives. 
From the response of Yaakov, one can also discern the method for overcoming this phenomenon of collective inaction. Yaakov understood that as an entity, the group itself would do little or nothing to save itself, mortal danger notwithstanding. The dynamic of the “pot of partners” stifles communal response, irrespective of the talents of those involved and the seriousness of the situation. Yaakov therefore personally assumed control of the situation, thereby averting disaster. This teaches that a group can best realize an objective when one of its members assumes leadership and acts with the cooperation and assistance of the others. 
These Dvars generally avoid weighing in on political controversies. Having said that… The extent to which a government should create bureaucracies to help its citizens has long been a hotly debated topic; for example, America’s Obamacare Bill has polarized the political Left and the Right as few other issues in recent memory. 
The source text of this Dvar indicates that by definition, management by a group is far less efficient than by an individual. Applied to government, who, for example, should be held responsible if a government-run program is mismanaged? At the very least, it is the senators and congressmen who voted to fund it, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget that approved the expense, and the paid professionals who administer it. This translates into four overlapping jurisdictions all being responsible for the same government program. Accordingly, the extent to which government is involved with an undertaking will likely correlate to its measure of inefficiency and dysfunction. 
Again! This is not meant as a commentary on the benefits or perils of big government. Rather, it is merely a statement on some of the likely consequences of management by government. Due to the inherent multiple and overlapping jurisdictions, a government bureaucracy simply cannot be run effectively. As in the Talmud’s case of the pot of partners, those who should act will tend not to do so, and will instead leave the job for others. The end result will be higher prices and a diminution of output.  
There are certain undertakings that must be managed by the government; one example is the military. But those who favor replacing the private sector with government control in ever more  areas (such as healthcare) should bear in mind the Talmudic dictum: “A pot owned by partners does not become cold nor does it cook.” 

This is a much edited version of the dvar that was previously emailed on December 13th 2012. It was taken from this writer’s volume on Bereishit, “Defining Humanity.” 

You are subscribed to Jewish Heritage Initiative using

You may automatically unsubscribe from this list or change your subscription
by visiting

For more information, visit or send mail to

Mailing List Powered by Dada Mail

<< Previous: JHI Dvar Torah on Parshat Vayeshev

| Archive Index |

Next: JHI Dvar Torah on Parshat Vayigash >>

(archive rss , atom )

this list's archives:

An occasional mailing from the Jewish Heritage Initiative on relevant Torah topics.
Visit us online at

Subscribe/Unsubscribe on Jewish Heritage Initiative

* Required

Powered by Dada Mail 3.0.3 Stable
Copyright © 1999-2008, Simoni Creative.