Power of Softness

Jan 4th, 2012 by Rabbi Simcha Weinberg in Portion of the Week
“Softness triumphs over hardness, gentleness over strength .

The flexible is superior over at the immovable.

This is the principle of controlling things by going along with them,

of mastery through adaptation (Lao-Tzu).”

“Jacob lived in Egypt seventeen years, and the years of his life were a hundred and forty-seven. When the time drew near for Israel to die, he called for his son Joseph and said to him, ‘If I have found favor in your eyes, put your hand under my thigh and promise that you will show me kindness and faithfulness. Do not bury me in Egypt, but when I rest with my fathers, carry me out of Egypt and bury me where they are buried.’ ‘I will do as you say,’ he said. ‘Swear to me,’ he said. Then Joseph swore to him, and Israel bowed toward the head of the bed (47:28-31).”

This is the first, and the only time that Jacob has summoned Joseph since their powerful meeting seventeen years earlier. For some reason Jacob waits for the end of his life to speak with Joseph about this important issue. Jacob was not someone who paid attention to all the large advertisements urging people to “Plan Ahead!”

What did Joseph expect his father to address when he received the summons? Did he think that Jacob would finally speak to him about the brothers? Would Jacob urge Joseph to forgive them? Would Jacob ask for all the details of how Joseph ended up in Egypt? Did Joseph expect Jacob to urge him to continue to support and protect them? Or, did Joseph know that Jacob would speak with him about funeral arrangements?

We aren’t privy to the entire conversation between father and son. We don’t know how they greeted each other or what they discussed. We don’t know if Joseph asked his father why he had been summoned. The text shares with us only what is absolutely necessary for us to know, and does so in a way that conveys through the subtext the underlying message of this epochal meeting.

Jacob is speaking as both a father (“Be a Man!” “Receiving the Transmission,” and, “Haftarah-Vayechi-Reading the Text) and as a subject supplicating before the mandarin, “he called for his son Joseph,” both, ‘his son,’ and, ‘Joseph,’ the viceroy:

“If I have found favor in your eyes,” “Israel bowed toward the head of the bed,” both indicate Jacob addressing Joseph as the Egyptian viceroy. A summons, “Put your hand under my thigh and promise that you will show me kindness and faithfulness,” is a father speaking to his son, a person in power requesting an oath from a lesser person, just as Abraham made the same request of his servant Eliezer.

Jacob makes it clear that he expects Joseph the son to rise above his position as Joseph the Viceroy: “Do not bury me in Egypt,” something you do not say to the viceroy of the country that has welcomed you with open arms, gifted you with prime property, and supported you during a famine!

Once Joseph demonstrates his loyalty as son is greater than his position in Egypt, Jacob can be certain that the anamnesis of his death bed blessings will not trigger resentment and perhaps even vengeful feelings toward his brothers. Jacob demands, and Joseph accepts, that Joseph will primarily function as a member of the family and not as the powerful Egyptian viceroy.

The end of the previous portion, Vayigash, demonstrated Joseph as someone perfectly comfortable with taking full advantage of his awesome power. “Joseph acquired all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh (47:20).” “We will become serfs to Pharaoh (47:19).” “I have acquired you this day with your land for Pharaoh (Verse 23).” “So Joseph imposed as a statute till this day regarding the land of Egypt: It was Pharaoh’s for the fifth (Verse 26).” Joseph knew how, and was willing, to use his power.

Jacob understood Joseph’s intentions to protect the Children of Israel in the future so that they would not feel as outsiders (Rashi, 47:21), but he also understood that eventually Joseph would die, and the Egyptian historians would begin to examine his decisions and would write countless papers describing his arbitrary use of power to protect the throne. People would soon forget that it was Joseph who saved the nation (Exodus 1:8), and would deal with the long-term consequences of his usurpation of Egyptian land and independence.

Jacob used this meeting, in which he guided Joseph into insisting that his role as a brother, a member of a family, was far more important to him than his role as Viceroy. Jacob brought out the humanity of Joseph; he guided him into connecting to himself as a person, a quality he needed in his leadership skills. Jacob was softening Joseph.

I don’t know what Joseph was thinking upon receiving his father’s summons; but I do know that simply receiving a summons reminded him that underneath all his royal robes, he was still a son.

We often read stories of people who, with the best of intentions, assert their power over those weaker than they. Perhaps they should pay attention to Jacob’s powerful message to Joseph: If you want to use your power; always first remember that you, too, are a son to your father. Remember, when you spit at a little girl, that she is a daughter, just as you have a daughter; she is a child just as you were once a child. If you must use your power; use it with softness.

“Its (The Torah’s) ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace (Proverbs 3:17).” We may not use a Willow on Succot that has sharp edges because “its ways are ways of pleasantness,” and a sharp edge may make a small part of the Four Species unpleasant! We certainly may not use power and force to impose Torah in the most unpleasant of ways.

If someone gives you power use it  with caution. Silence is power

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