August 8, 2002
Burden of Leadership
Parshat Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9)
After 22 years of separation, believing his beloved son dead, Jacob was startled to hear that Joseph was not only alive but that he ruled the land of Egypt. Yet, the Torah tells us that this news was not enough: When he saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to carry him, the spirit of Jacob, their father, revived. (Genesis 46:5)
What was it about the wagons that brought Jacob back to life?
The Midrash examines a curious wordplay. The wagons sent by Joseph are called agalot, the singular of which is a homonym with eglah (calf). The rabbis explain that Jacob was revived because the last Torah study he engaged in with his beloved Joseph before they were separated was the law of the Eglah Arufah (broken calf), found at the end of our parsha. (Deuteronomy 21:1-21:9)
The Torah mandates that if a murdered corpse is found in a rural area, the elders of the closest city perform a ceremony that includes the proclamation: "Our hands did not spill this blood nor did we see." Our rabbis were bothered by this formula and explained that it cuts much deeper than a declaration of innocence of murder: "The man found dead did not come to us for help and we dismissed him, we did not see him and let him go (i.e., he did not come to us for help, that we dismissed him without supplying him with food, we did not see him and let him go without escort)." (Sota 38a)
In other words, the community leaders must testify that they did everything within their power to make this wayfarer feel welcome in their town. Imagine any contemporary political leader making such a declaration. Can we picture the members of the L.A. City Council accepting responsibility for every traveler who comes through our fair town?
Yet, that is the standard the Torah demands of our leaders. This declaration admits of a great responsibility not only toward visitors, but, ultimately, toward their townsfolk. The level of hospitality and kindness that is the norm in their town rests on their shoulders -- if they can make this declaration, then they are indeed fulfilling their job. This means that the power invested in them by Torah law has not separated them from their "constituents" (as so often happens in any power position); rather, they have maintained a close relationship with the people and continue to keep their finger on the pulse of their community, which they are leading toward a full commitment to the ideals embodied in Torah.
Jacob's spirit was revived when he saw the wagons and was reminded of his last lesson with his son. But why?
When the brothers told Jacob that Joseph was now the governor of Egypt, he didn't believe them. What didn't he believe? That Joseph was alive, or that Joseph was indeed the leader of Egypt? Consider this: What motivation would the brothers have to lie about such a matter? If Joseph really was dead, what did they stand to gain by generating a rumor about his being alive?
Perhaps what Jacob didn't believe was that Joseph ruled in Egypt. In other words, Jacob may have been willing to grant that his son had somehow survived whatever terrors the past 22 years held for him, and had, through his brilliance, insight and charm, risen to a position of power in Egypt. As hard as this may have been to accept, it paled in significance next to the incredulous report that this governor of Egypt was still Joseph.
Whoever heard of the vizier of a major world power maintaining his youthful idealism and tender righteousness? When the brothers reported: "Joseph is yet alive, and he is governor over all the land of Egypt," Jacob did not believe them. When he saw the wagons, a reminder of their last discussion of Torah standards, he realized that Joseph had never relinquished the values taught by his father.
Leadership carries with it the burden of responsibility for all members of the community -- their physical welfare as well as the nurturing of moral growth and ethical conscience. This is the lesson of the Eglah Arufah -- a lesson Joseph never forgot.