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THE IMPOSSIBLE TAKES A LITTLE LONGER

Friday, 29 December, 2017 - 1:46 pm

Ian from my bank left a message for me. When I called back, the bank operator asked for his last name, and I explained he hadn’t left it. When she asked for his department, I said I didn’t know.

 

“There are 1,500 employees in this building, sir,” she advised me rather curtly. “You must tell me the last name.”

 

After a few more brusque comments, I asked her for her name.

 

“Danielle,” she said. “And your last name?” I asked.

 

“Sorry,” she replied, “we don’t give out last names.”

 

This week's Torah portion, Vayechi, relates how Jacob sent for his son, Joseph, Prime Minister of Egypt. His end was near, and he requested to be buried in the ancestral burial place in the city of Hebron, in the land of Canaan.

 

Joseph replied, “I will do as you have said.”

 

I will lie with my forefathers, and you shall carry me out of Egypt, and you shall bury me in their grave. And he said I will do as you say.

 

Jacob was persistent: And he said, "Swear to me." So he swore to him, and Israel prostrated himself on the head of the bed.

 

Why was Jacob so adamant that Joseph takes an oath to carry out his wishes? Did he have the slightest doubt regarding Joseph's integrity? Joseph assured his father, “I will do as you say!” Why was it necessary to make Joseph swear?

 

Equally disturbing is a statement by the commentator Rashi explaining why Jacob bowed to his son after he took the oath: [Although the lion is king,] when it is the time of the fox, bow down to him.

 

Why in the world is Rashi defining Joseph as a fox who must bow down at the time when he is boss? What does this mean?

 

Jacob certainly did not suspect Joseph of any negligence or carelessness. He knew that Joseph would try to keep his pledge to his father. Since, however, he was the viceroy of Egypt, with many governmental duties and responsibilities, circumstances might arise that may delay or even halt this from taking place.

 

He might encounter red tape from the government. Maybe a clerk would discover an ancient bylaw making it impossible for Joseph to transfer Jacob’s body to Israel. Joseph may be the powerful Prime Minister, but he is still subjected to state laws and under the jurisdiction of Pharaoh, who wanted Jacob buried in Egypt.

 

Jacob knew the infamous power of government committees. “A committee is a group of people who individually can do nothing, but as a group decides that nothing can be done.”

 

This was the purpose of the oath. It was to obligate Joseph to do what may seem to be the impossible if such a situation would arise. It is said, “the difficult we do immediately; the impossible takes a little longer.”

 

If Joseph would have simply said, “I will do it,” he would have certainly tried to do it. But if circumstances beyond his control might have arisen—as they did indeed—he might have given up. Having him swear was the game changer. When someone swears he will do something, his commitment to the matter is transformed from merely trying to do it, to a far deeper commitment to getting the job done, even if all hell breaks loose. Yet this wasn’t enough. Jacob did not only ask Joseph to swear. After the oath, Jacob bowed down to Joseph. Why?

 

Now, we can appreciate Rashi’s comment: “When it is the time of the fox, bow down to him.”

 

In The Prince, Machiavelli (a famous Italian Renaissance historian and politician, 1469–1527…), writes: “A prince being compelled knowingly to adopt the beast ought to choose the fox and the lion because the lion cannot defend himself against snares and the fox cannot defend himself against wolves. Therefore, it is necessary to be a fox to discover the snares and a lion to terrify the wolves. Those who rely simply on the lion do not understand what they are about.”

 

Lions are proud and regal. They are in your face and they will eat you all up. Foxes, on the other hand, run away from you. They are timid and fearful. Yet they do things behind the scenes. They're slick and suave. A leader, Machiavelli maintains, must be both a lion and a fox.

 

Generations before him, Rashi, quoting the Talmud in tractate Megillah, tells us that the fox, too, has his time; the fox, too, has his unique skills as a leader, even if he is not the lion.

 

Jacob saw Joseph as a fox, not a lion. Sure, he was the viceroy of Egypt, but he was not the “king of the jungle.” He ran the show, but he was not the ultimate boss. Pharaoh made it clear from the start that “the throne would remain larger than you.” He was second to the king, but not king. He was the fox, not the lion.

 

As such, he needed to be empowered to be able to stand up to Pharaoh and the government and insist that Jacob’s wish is fulfilled. When the fox reigns, you must bow to him to empower him to be as fearless as the lion and accomplish his mission. When Joseph saw that his father, the patriarch of Israel, was bowing down to him—it filled Joseph with a sense of inner confidence and strength, infusing him with power and vigor to be able to take on all of the obstacles that might come his way. The bow, Rashi is telling us, was Jacob allowing Joseph to feel his own power, greatness, and potential. It is the fox, not the lion, who needs that sense of pride when he is in the position of leadership.

 

Jacob was also giving Joseph a second message: “You may have to be like a fox, not a lion.” Sometimes the best way to deal with “red tape” is from behind the scenes, not through confrontation and combat. Be wise and shrewd to figure out how to get this done in a clever way to avoid initially all the possible pitfalls.

 

We all have a tendency to claim that certain things are impossible. We often say, “I would love to participate, I would love to attend Torah classes, I would love to come to Shul, wrap Tefillin, give more charity, work on my marriage, get into shape, say I'm sorry, kosher my kitchen, work on my temper… But you know it is impossible now. I have prior arrangements. The weather is not good, I am tired from work, my wife needs me.”

 

But so often it is not that it is impossible, but that we are not fully committed. We do not perceive it as a top priority worth fighting for. We say I will try, and we might mean it, but we do not put ourselves on the line. Hence, we tend to neglect or just forget it.

 

We're like the man who saw his doctor about his memory. "You see," he said to Dr. Markowitz, "I seem to be getting forgetful. I have too many senior moments, and it’s getting worse. I'm never sure I remember where I parked; it takes me 20 minutes to find it in the parking lot. I don't remember if I replied to a letter, or where I'm going when I finally leave the house, or what I'm going to do once I get there…. 

 

"I really need your help and advice. What do you suggest?" The doctor thought for a moment, then answered in his kindest tone: "Pay me in advance." Some of us are scared of “bowing to someone,” because it might reflect that we are small.

 

But really great people know how to humble themselves in order to make other people shine! When you are truly confident, you can allow yourself to be vulnerable and humble to bring out the best in others.

 

Do you know how to really compliment and show appreciation to your spouse? To your children? To your loved ones? To your students? To people who work with you or for you? To friends and colleagues? To strangers?

 

Arrogant, insecure people can’t truly compliment or show gratitude to others. They cannot embolden others—they are too full of themselves, and they are afraid they will become smaller in the process. But great people have no qualms about elevating others to greatness or lowering themselves so others can climb and achieve their greatest potentials.

 

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky
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