Three well known quotes:
Shakespeare (c. 1596-1599): "Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown" (Henry IV Part II Act 3)
French National Convention (1793 - attributed to Voltaire but not supported by evidence) "Ils doivent envisager qu’une grande responsabilité est la suite inséparable d’un grand pouvoir." - roughly translated as " They must consider that great responsibility follows inseparably from great power."
Lord Acton ( 1887) "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely"
Many global events have taken place since we met last Shabbat, not least the targeted killing of Iranian General Quassem Solemani in Iraq, under the direct orders of President Trump.
I am not going to comment on the rights or wrongs of this action, but the interesting element lies in noting the consequences of what has transpired since - from the needless deaths of dozens of mourners at his funeral, to the ongoing, Iranian sourced violence in the region.
As my quotes highlighted, power is a very delicate tool - which can be used and misused in equal measure - to highly beneficial or intensely destructive ends.
This week's parsha details both the final days of Jacob and of his favourite son, Joseph.
As Jacob lies dying...
(1) And Jacob called his sons and said, “Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come. (2) Assemble and listen, you sons of Jacob; listen to Israel your father:
Jacob has gathered all of his sons together and is about to use his power to reveal how their history will pan out. What will happen when Moshiach comes, but his Divine gift is removed from him and instead, he uses his abilities to bless them, to set them on their way - to lay out a route that they may follow.
Although some of the blessings seem like curses....
(3) Reuben, you are my first-born, My might and first fruit of my vigor, Exceeding in rank And exceeding in honor. (4) Unstable as water, you shall excel no longer...
Rabbi Sacks in this week's Covenant and Conversation writes:
"the fact that he is blessing all twelve together in the same room before at the same time...we have not yet seen this before. There is no record of Abraham blessing either Ishmael or Isaac. Isaac blesses Esau and Jacob separately. The mere fact that Jacob is able to gather his sons together is unprecedented and important. In the next chapter - the first of Exodus - the Israelites are, for the first time described as a people. It is hard to see how they could live together as a people if they could not live together as a family."
Jacob knows the crucial role he has a father of the nascent Jewish people. He understands the responsibilities that are inherent in his position. He knows that, even if he has harsh words to say to his eldest three sons - they will be righteous and wise enough to see these as constructive criticism, borne out of paternal devotion and love. As they call it these days "tough love". As Shakespeare wrote, for Jacob "uneasy lies the head that wears the crown". yet, "with great power comes great responsibility".
The result we see in the next book of the Torah leads us to the exodus from Egypt, the giving of the Torah and ultimately, the preparation for entering the Land of Israel at the end of Devarim.
Although Gd removed the Shechinah at the outset of his address, this did not impede his ability to "do the right thing" as a father and leader.
Examining Joseph's use of the power invested in his position, brings us to a different conclusion.
A few weeks ago, we read how Joseph, at the age of 30 has been placed in the highest position possible by Pharaoh.
Lord Sacks reminds us how:
"During the plentiful years, Joseph travels around the country, arranges for collection of grain from the farmers and ensures that it's all stored safely. As the drought takes over and deepense, the entire nation turns to him for food."
But slowly. his position of authority starts to fill his head with new, dangerous ideas.
When the Egyptians have used up all their money for buying grain, they come to Joseph asking for food, telling him that they will die without it. He tells them that he will sell it back to them in exchange for ownership of their livestock. They comply and bring their horses, donkeys, sheep and cattle.
The following year, he sells them grain in exchange for their land. The result being, that within three short years, he has transferred ownership of all the money, livestock and private land to Pharaoh (excluding the lands of the Priests).
The Torah is describing a situation whereby Pharaoh has total ownership of the people, their belongings and wealth. In other words, the Egyptian people themselves have become enslaved to Pharaoh.
(יט) לָ֧מָּה נָמ֣וּת לְעֵינֶ֗יךָ גַּם־אֲנַ֙חְנוּ֙ גַּ֣ם אַדְמָתֵ֔נוּ קְנֵֽה־אֹתָ֥נוּ וְאֶת־אַדְמָתֵ֖נוּ בַּלָּ֑חֶם וְנִֽהְיֶ֞ה אֲנַ֤חְנוּ וְאַדְמָתֵ֙נוּ֙ עֲבָדִ֣ים לְפַרְעֹ֔ה וְתֶן־זֶ֗רַע וְנִֽחְיֶה֙ וְלֹ֣א נָמ֔וּת וְהָאֲדָמָ֖ה לֹ֥א תֵשָֽׁם׃
(19) Let us not perish before your eyes, both we and our land. Take us and our land in exchange for bread, and we with our land will be serfs to Pharaoh; provide the seed, that we may live and not die, and that the land may not become a waste.”
(19) Let us not perish before your eyes, both we and our land. Take us and our land in exchange for bread, and we with our land will be slaves to Pharaoh; provide the seed, that we may live and not die, and that the land may not become a waste.”
Rabbi Sacks then writes:
"We tend to assume that the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt was a consequence of, and punishment for, the brothers selling Joseph as a slave. But Joseph himself turned the Egyptians into a nation of slaves. What is more, he created the highly centralised power that would eventually be used against his people".
Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
It is reasonable to suggest that Joseph's actions were designed with the most altruistic of purposes. He felt that he had a role to play and as second-in-command to Pharaoh, no less, he was responsible to ensuring the best outcome for the country that had become his home. Nevertheless, the result of his policies would have long lasting ramifications our ancestors.
Yet, later we learn that a new Pharaoh arose, who knew not Joseph". Joseph's power had indeed released the proverbial genie from the bottle.
Jacob and Joseph demonstrate how fickle the use of power can be, even when deployed with the best of intentions.
Jacob understood that he had a crucial role to play and even when limited by forces that were beyond his control, he was able to view the landscape with a foresight that ensured the smooth transition of leadership to a new generation.
His son, however, maybe due to a very different experience of life, made very human and understandable mistakes which ultimately led to the enslavement of an entire population by an individual whose outlook on the world was vastly different.
This resulted in the destruction of his entire army in the raging waters of the Sea of Reeds, many years later, along with the decimation of the country that he had pledged to save during the years of the drought.
With great power, comes great responsibility and it behoves us to remember how important this is when we are granted the ability to make a difference.
That we are still here today, after all these years, testifies to the fact that our ancestors followed his father's example instead.