Translated and abridged by Rabbi Chanan Morrison
Out of Jacob's twelve sons, it appears that Joseph was the first to die. 'Joseph died, and [then] his brothers and all that generation' (Ex. 1:6). Why was Joseph's life shorter than that of his brothers?
The Sages explained the reason for Joseph's early demise was due to his public office. When one assumes a position of authority, 'his days and years are shortened' (Berachot 55a). Yet this hardly seems fair. Why should those who dedicate their lives to public affairs be punished with fewer years?
Working for the public good is certainly laudable. However, there are certain hazards in such a career. Precisely because one is occupied attending to important communal needs, one may come to disregard his own personal needs. A communal leader may view his own needs — whether material, spiritual, or moral — as insignificant and inconsequential.
We may observe this phenomenon in Joseph. As viceroy, Joseph was busy supervising the national and economic affairs of Egypt. And he saw in his public office the vehicle by which the covenant of Bein HaBetarim - foretelling the exile of Abraham's descendants — would come to pass. When Joseph heard his father referred to as "your servant," he did not object. Joseph was occupied with the overall objective; he did not want it to be compromised due to his personal obligation to show respect for his father.
Joseph's mistake was not a private failing. This is a universal lesson for all leaders. They should not allow any goal or aspiration, no matter how important, bring them to disregard lesser obligations.
The King's Sefer Torah
We find a similar idea in the special laws of a king. The Torah instructs the king to write his own sefer Torah and keep it with him at all times. In this way, "his heart will not be raised above his brothers, and he will not stray from the Law to the right or to the left" (Deut. 17:20). The Torah specifically cautions the monarch that, despite his involvement in critical national affairs, his public service should not lead him to ignore his private obligations. He is obligated to observe the law in his personal life, like every other citizen.
The Torah promises that a king who heeds this warning will be blessed with a long reign. Unlike those who fail the tests of public office, such a king will not live a life of 'shortened days and years.'
Life is not just major goals and aspirations. All of us, even the most prominent leader, must conduct ourselves appropriately in all facets of life. Those who maintain their integrity in life's private aspects, will be blessed with strength and energy to succeed in their most important and elevated goals.
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Rabbi Chanan Morrison of Mitzpeh Yericho runs http://ravkookTorah.org, a website dedicated to presenting the Torah commentary of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, first Chief Rabbi of Eretz Yisrael, to the English-speaking community. He is also the author of Gold from the Land of Israel (Urim Publications, 2006).