The Cost of Leadership – VaYigash 5784

D'var Torah | Genesis

Curiously, the Torah text implies that Joseph was the first of Jacob’s twelve sons to die: “Joseph died, and then his brothers and everyone else in that generation” (Exod. 1:6). First Joseph dies; then his brothers. But Joseph was the eleventh of the twelve brothers. Only Benjamin was younger. By any actuarial estimation, Joseph should have lived longer than his older siblings. His premature passing is surprising.

The Sages suggested that Joseph’s early demise was due to his position of public office. When one assumes a position of authority, “one’s days and years are shortened” (Berakhot 55a). Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook comments that this hardly seems fair. Those who dedicate their lives to public service should not be penalized by having a shorter life. But Talmud does not see premature death of public office-holders as punishment, but as reality. “Rabbi Dama, son of Rabbi Hanina, said: Why did Joseph die before his brothers, as evidenced by the order in the verse: “And Joseph died, and all his brethren, and all that generation” (Exodus 1:6)? Because he had a position of authority, and those who did not serve in a leadership role lived on after he died.” As the Talmud states elsewhere: “Stay far from positions of authority that bury its practitioners.”

Leadership roles are not merely demanding: they are life shortening. The stress that comes with public service, the need to serve all yet satisfy none, is cumulative and detrimental. It is remarkable that anyone would seek public office at all.

Joseph was thrust into his role. In order to save the Egyptians from famine he had to deprive Egyptians of their flocks, their herds, their land, and finally, their freedom (Genesis 47: 17, 20, 25). Eventually, these societal-changing decisions took their toll.

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Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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