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Inner greatness - to be the one while you are second in command

Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

The Torah Portion begins with Joseph revealing himself to his brothers; he informs them that they need not feel guilty for what they had one because God was guiding the course of events that brought them to this incredible situation. “God has sent me ahead of you to insure your survival in the land and to sustain you for a great deliverance.[1]“ Joseph’s role was to ensure the physical well-being of Jacob’s family during their stay in Egypt. Later in the Portion the Torah alludes to the fact that Judah was responsible for ensuring the spiritual well-being of the family in Egypt, it was he who preceded his brothers in coming there so that he could set up yeshivot (places of Torah study)[2]: This division of roles between Joseph and Judah established a pattern for Jewish history; Joseph is the facilitator by paving the way in gashmiut (the physical realm) and Yehuda is the ultimate King, leading the Jewish people in ruchniut (the spiritual realm). This relationship is most plainly borne out by the respective roles of Mashiach ben Yosef[3] and Mashiach ben David[4]. Mashiach ben Yosef will fight the wars, destroying our enemies and paving the way for Mashiach ben David to build the Third Temple.

One important aspect of Joseph’s role is that it is essentially a secondary one - his job is to facilitate Judah’s position of King. Indeed, a brief analysis of Joseph’s time in Egypt shows that Joseph was well suited to a role of ’number two’: He first becomes the head of Potiphar’s household - second to Potiphar; then he rises to a similar position in prison, second to the prison warden. And finally he assumes the role of Viceroy in Egypt, second to Pharaoh. This pattern indicates Joseph’s role as the number two, the facilitator. A person could easily find this role unsatisfactory - playing ’second fiddle’ to someone else could pose a considerable challenge to a person’s character traits. A key aspect of Joseph’s greatness is his willingness to accept his role as the facilitator with joy.

Two of Joseph’s most famous descendants were faced with a similar challenge to accept a secondary role but responded to it in drastically contrasting ways: In next week’s Portion, Vayechi, Jacob alludes to these two people; he notes Ephraim’s greatness because of his future descendant, Joshua. However, he also prophetically sees that one of the most evil Kings of Israel, Jereboam, would emerge from Joseph. Both these men had the potential to follow Joseph’s example of being a prime facilitator but only one succeeded whilst the other failed dismally. Why did they take such divergent paths?

Joshua is most famous for being the devoted student of Moses. There are numerous instances of Joshua showing his submission to his Master. The Torah describes him as Moses’ attendant[5], and the Rabbis explain that he would take towels to the bathhouse for him and would rise early every morning and select the largest of the manna and give it to Moses[6]. In Torah learning he dedicated himself to understanding and emulating his teacher to the extent that the Talmud Yerushalmi says that even in matters that he had not heard from Moses, his own reasoning corresponded with what had been told to Moses at Sinai[7]. Joshua was completely content with his role as second to Moses, he did not feel as though it belittled his own standing, rather it elevated him to incredible heights.

Indeed the Medrash tells us that it was the merit of Joshua’s submission to Moses that caused him to become the leader of the Jewish Nation: “God told Moses, Joshua constantly served you and accorded you much honor. He came early to your house of assembly to arrange the benches and spread the mats. Since he served you with all his might, he is worthy of serving Israel.[8]” Joshua happily accepted his role as ‘number two’ and consequently attained the ultimate position of leader of Israel.

Joseph’s other relative alluded to in Vayechi, Jereboam,, also had the opportunity to emulate his distinguished ancestor and accept a position of facilitator but failed dismally. In the Book of Kings we see that he was initially a righteous man and Torah scholar[9]. God decided that the kingdom of Israel should be split into two as a punishment for the Kingdom of David[10], and he sent the Prophet, Achiya to grant Jereboam the Northern Kingdom which would consist of the vast majority of Israel. Moreover Achiya promised him that if he would follow in the ways of the Torah then he would meet with great success. He did however point out that Jereboam’s kingship was only a result of the sins of King Solomon and that ultimately it would return to the descendants of King David. Jereboam’s role was to be a leader but a temporary one, whose purpose was to be the instrument of punishment for the Kingdom of David. Had he accepted this role then he could have emulated Joseph and Joshua and been recorded as one of the great leaders in Jewish history.

Jereboam, however, was unwilling to accept the position of facilitator or ‘number two’. He desired to be the King in his own right and was not prepared to subjugate himself to anyone. He worried that when the nation would perform the Mitzva of Hakhel in the Temple only the King of Israel would be allowed to sit down but he would have to stand up. When the people would see this they would rebel against him and return to the kingdom of Yehuda[11]. In order to prevent this threat to his power he set up two golden calves in the North and banned anyone from going down to the Temple. Jereboam’s action was the catalyst for the constant Idol Worship that plagued the Northern Kingdom and he is known as the ultimate person who causes others to sin[12].

Even after he began to sin God gave him one last opportunity to repent. The Gemara says that God grabbed Jereboam by his garment and said to him, “’Repent and I, you and the son of Yishi [David] will stroll together in Gan Eden“ Given this incredible opportunity to redeem himself Jereboam asked, ‘Who will be at the head?’ God answered that ‘Ben Yishi’ – David - would be at the head - when he heard this he refused to do repent[13]. Jereboam could not accept being second to anyone, even though he was offered the greatest reward of Garden of Eden. His arrogance was the cause of his destruction, he wanted power but instead he is one of the Kings that receives no portion of the next World[14].

Joseph was invested with the role of facilitator in Egypt , preparing the way for Judah, he accepted his role with joy and was able to reach true greatness. Joshua, too, achieved his potential through his willingness to subjugate himself to Moshe. Jereboam could not do so and lost his opportunity for distinction. This is a powerful lesson; we should all strive to be as great as possible, however there are times when Providence clearly tells us that certain attainments are not best for us. For example, a person may work hard in learning Torah and learn a great deal and yet not attain the teaching position that he would like - what we must realize is that anything beyond the realm of our free will is in the category of Providence - we can strive to be greater but there is no benefit in fighting the Providence. Whatever role in life we attain, that is the position through which we can fulfill our purpose.

[1] Vayigash, 45:7.

[2] Rashi, 46:28.

[3] The redeemer who will be a descendant of Joseph.

[4] The redeemer who will be a descendant of King David, who in turn descends from Judah.

[5] Behaa’aloscha, 11:28.

[6] Batei Midrashos, 234.

[7] Yerushalmi, Peah, 1:1.

[8] Bamidbar Rabbah, 11:28.

[9] Melachim 1, Ch.11.

[10] At this time King Solomon had just died, and was succeeded by his son Rechavam.

[11] Ibid, 12:27-28. Sanhedrin, 101b.

[12] Avos, 5:22.

[13] Sanhedrin, 102a.

[14] Sanhedrin, 90a.

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