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That Was a Leader

Yosef Hatzaddik was the archetypical leader — a man who was governed by his values, and thus gained the status of a true ruler untainted by the stain of personal interest. What wouldn’t we do for that kind of leadership today?

When I read this week’s parshah, I can’t help but feel envy mixed with admiration. Admiration for the way Yosef Hatzaddik used his leadership skills to carry a nation through a crisis, and envy when I compare his greatness to the pettiness of our current leaders.

I see Yosef and think, what integrity! What dedication to a goal, and disregard for personal interest! As the mefarshim make clear, such was Yosef’s conduct when dictatorial powers were handed over to him in the land of the Nile and the Pharaohs. He ruled with Divine chesed, inspired directly by G-d, and even Pharaoh recognized this: “Since G-d has given you all this knowledge, there is no one as wise and understanding as you” (Bereishis 41:39). As the great mussar masters tell us, a person who has yiras Shamayim and Divinely inspired knowledge possesses not just wisdom and understanding, but also the ability to be a successful statesman.

As the State of Israel faces a leadership crisis, with the political dwarfs supposedly in charge of the country too absorbed in their infighting to attend to the needs of the state and its people, the image of Yosef Hatzaddik towers infinitely above them.

Allow me to cite just three examples from the parshah, out of many that illustrate Yosef’s righteousness as a national leader.

The pasuk says, “Yosef was the ruler over the land; it was he who provided sustenance to the entire land” (42:6). The Ha’amek Davar comments, “Yosef was the ruler and the provider of sustenance, and just as he was solely in command, he was solely in charge of providing sustenance. He himself would stand and sell grain to the people.” That is, the leader was out there, distributing food rations like the lowest-ranking of his aides. Such was his faithfulness to the duty assigned to him.

We can certainly assume that Yosef had established some sort of agency for the implementation of his economic plan. Surely he had a whole system of underlings tasked with collecting and storing the grain during the years of plenty, guarding it, and carefully parceling it out during the years of famine. But Yosef didn’t merely put this system in place and leave it to run itself. Yosef’s absolute integrity compelled him to take personal responsibility, not merely relying on those under his authority, but to be out there, on site, ensuring that the operation was being conducted with complete propriety, “so that no wrong should be done to anyone, and to serve as an example to people of how much one must exert oneself in the attribute of mercy” (Sifsei Kohein).

Thus Yosef demonstrated his concerns that the food supplies should be distributed fairly and equally, and no corruption should creep into the system. But that was not all.

We find in one of the mefarshim, citing a midrash, that Yosef tasted no bread until nightfall throughout all the years of famine. That was true leadership: putting the people’s needs before his own, not even sitting down to a meal until the day’s distribution was finished. Do we ever see behavior like that among modern leaders of state?

And there’s another point that the mefarshim learn from the pasuk “Yosef collected all the silver that was found in the land of Egypt… and brought it into Pharaoh’s house” (47:14). The Ha’amek Davar explains, “Scripture is citing Yosef’s faithfulness, how he enriched the regime and didn’t squirrel anything away for himself.” And this, says the Ha’amek Davar, is why his work was blessed and the treasury was bursting — because a trustworthy man is abundantly blessed.

Yosef, as we know, was given unlimited authority in Egypt. Pharaoh relied on him completely, and Yosef surely could have helped himself generously to food supplies as well as the money that was pouring into the state coffers from the sale of grain. No one would have raised a fuss if he had skimmed some of the cream from the top of all that wealth. But that was not Yosef’s way.

Nor did Yosef show any extra generosity to his inner circle. There was no protektziya in his government, not even for his own beloved father. The pasuk tells us that when Yaakov Avinu arrived in Egypt, “Yosef sustained his father, his brothers, and all of his father’s household with bread, according to the [number of] children” (47:12). He certainly could have showed favoritism to his family and given them more than the set rations everyone else received, but in his absolute integrity, he gave them sufficient portions and no more, in accordance with Chazal’s teaching: “At a time when the public is suffering affliction, a man must not say, I will go home and eat and drink, and all will be well with me.” Under Yosef’s government, the royal family didn’t feast sumptuously and enjoy the wealth that the palace had amassed while the masses were told to tighten their belts.

From these pesukim we learn what makes a truly successful leader. Yosef ruled with, and was ruled by, yiras Shamayim, and merited Divine inspiration that led him as he led his subjects safely through their greatest crisis. His total dedication to his responsibilities made him Egypt’s national savior.

If only those figures currently floundering in the upper echelons of Israel’s power would learn from his example, then perhaps we’d have leaders who deserve that title, too.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 792)

 

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