Shemot

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

"Joseph, his brothers, and everyone else in that generation died." (Exodus 1,6)

The Rabbis tell us that Joseph, in spite of the fact that he was younger than all his brothers, save for Benjamin, died ten years earlier than his siblings. For in our last week's portion we are told that Joseph was one hundred and ten years old when he died. Our Rabbis tell us that each of his brothers died at the ripe old age of one hundred twenty. Why did Joseph die ten years earlier than his brothers? The Pirke D'Rabbi Eliezer tells us that the reason was quite simple. Once, in Parshas Miketz, and four times in Parshas Vayigash, his brothers, in speaking to the yet unrevealed Joseph, refer to Jacob as "Jacob, your servant, our father." For each time - the five times he heard the phrase from their mouths, and the five times he heard this same phrase from his interpreter - without responding, a year was stricken from his life. Such is the sense of respect one must accord his parents in our tradition.

The Talmud (Berachot, 55a) provides a different reason for the shortened life of Joseph. "Rav Judah also said: Three things shorten a man's days and years. To be given a Torah to read from and refuse, to be given a cup of benediction to say grace over and refuse, and to assume airs if authority (become comfortable as an active and influential member of the government)... To assume airs of authority, as Rabbi Hama bar Hanina said: Why did Joseph die before his brethren? Because he assumed airs of authority." Two divergent views? Perhaps not. Let us try to recreate the times Joseph lived in for but a moment. Declared second to Pharaoh, the god king, Joseph was intrusted with the most important task facing the Egyptian Empire - survival. He strategized correctly, ordering storehouses to be built to prepare for the years of famine he prophesied would come. An undertaking of such magnitude surely could not be controlled by one man, no matter the visionary. Subordinates in the hundreds, perhaps the thousands, must have been employed by Joseph in the erection of the storehouses and the collection of the food. And with the coming of the famine, Egypt was inundated with individuals from all parts of the Middle East seeking that which would spell the difference between life and death for themselves and their families - food. Such a situation, happening as it did in a society where the vast majority of individuals lived as servants of an elite class, was ripe for physical, economic and emotional abuses.

At the pinnacle of this system stood Joseph, Viceroy of Egypt, removed from the masses, probably for the most part remaining in his palace, there to receive dignitaries from all parts of the world seeking his help. Joseph is referred to in our literature as Yosef HaTzadik, Joseph the Righteous One. No doubt his intentions and deeds, acted upon with this sense of righteousness, were realized in the assumption of a monumental humanitarian effort to feed the world. Thousands stood in awe of him not only because he held their very lives in the balance. He was second to Pharaoh - that unapproachable god in human form. Joseph's court was no doubt filled with venerables prostrating themselves before him, referring to him in the most laudatory of fashions, all to secure the food they needed to survive. The rabanot, the power of his station, did take its toll. For in normal circumstances, the reference to his father Jacob as "your servant" would have evoked a quick and decisive reply from a loyal and devoted son. Under these unusual circumstances, this totally inappropriate expression of respect for Joseph, passed by unnoticed by him in comparison to the venerations he daily experienced. The rabanot, the power of authority, had taken its toll on the character of Joseph.

For this he paid dearly - his life was shortened by ten years. In Pirkei Avot (1:10) we read, "...Shemaryah said: Love work, despise lordliness (rabanot) and do not become overly familiar with the government." The Rabbis understood the well known axiom "Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely." That Joseph seems to have been able to sustain himself as a moral and ethical Jewish individual amidst the pagan values of the Pharaoh's palace, is nothing short of a miracle. His actions regarding Potiphar's wife, his acceptance of imprisonment, his devotion to his cell mates, and his seeming ability to deal with the awesome power thrust upon him by Pharaoh, all point to the true Tzadik. For temptation surely stalked him at every turn. Yet he did not go unblemished. The natural respect he would have heedfully accorded his father under normal circumstances was tarnished. Time after time, again and again Jacob could be referred to as his servant without eliciting a response from Joseph. Power, especially governmental power, can be one of the most corrupting and debilitating influences in life. Yesterday's independent, once elected, is today's regular.

Those issues the independent railed against, once elected, become the issues he defends. The necessary compromises that must take place if government is to function, beg the question - "Where do we draw the line?" All this is implicit in the story of Joseph in Egypt. In the end Joseph does save the world and indeed his own people as well. Yet, just a few passages on we read, "A new King, who did not know Joseph came into power over Egypt." Whether he was actually a new King, or the same King who simply chose to forget all that Joseph had done for Egypt, is a question our Rabbis ponder. One thing is certain however, no matter the heights one achieves, no matter how much one accomplishes in his moment of power - all is transitory. What remains are the timeless values of Judaism imparted from one generation to another, from father to son, from Jacob to Joseph. In these values lies eternity. The golden chain of our heritage is first broken when the respect due parents, the harbingers of our values, is eroded.