Vayechi 5781: King or Servant?
Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26 )
GOOD MORNING! As we close the book on 2020, I wanted to reflect on the two most important stories of the year: the pandemic and the political strife. Unfortunately, this column is only two pages long so I could only choose one. As I have written in this space quite often about the pandemic, I decided to turn my focus on politics.
In His classic work Politics, Aristotle writes that man is a “political animal” because he is a social creature with the power of speech and moral reasoning. Reflecting upon this, and in particular to the relationship between animals and politics, I began to wonder what is the origin of the donkey as the symbol for the Democratic Party and the elephant as the symbol for the Republican Party.
It turns out that both symbols originated in the 19th century. The Democratic donkey was born in 1828 during the presidential campaign of Andrew Jackson. His political opponents shrewdly noticed the similarity between Jackson’s name and the coarser appellation for donkey, and immediately started using it as his first name to refer to him pejoratively.
Jackson, who may have actually invented the concept of “there’s no such thing as bad publicity,” seized upon the donkey as a symbol for his campaign and printed it on all his campaign posters. He went on to defeat John Quincy Adams and became the first Democratic president.
The Republican Party was formed in 1854 and six years later Abraham Lincoln became its first member elected to the White House. The symbol of the elephant may have originated during the Civil War when “seeing the elephant” was an expression used by soldiers to mean experiencing combat. Both the donkey and elephant were brought into the mainstream consciousness by political satirist and caricaturist Thomas Nast who drew them prominently as symbols of the Democrats and Republicans in his political cartoons for Harper’s Weekly.
Animal Farm, one of the most famous and important works of the 20th century, was written by George Orwell as an allegorical novella of the events surrounding the Russian Revolution of 1917. In his book, Orwell assigns different animals to represent the different political players in the drama of the revolution and slyly highlights their idiosyncrasies.
The book satirizes some of the biggest Russian political personalities of that era; Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, and Molotov among others. They are mostly depicted as different types of pigs who stage a revolution to get rid of the drunken farmer (representing the Czar) and take over the farm. The book was quite incendiary for its era, and the manuscript was initially rejected by a number of British and American publishers.
The 20th century, though, saw actual animals running, or at least attempting to run, for political office. In 1959, a Brazilian rhinoceros named Cacareco was proposed as a write-in candidate by journalist Itaborai Martins who was disappointed with the human candidates. The rhinoceros garnered more than 100,000 votes for city council, soundly defeating every one of the human candidates.
A decade later, Cacareco inspired another political movement: The Rhinoceros Party of Canada. The satire political party argued that rhinos make the perfect politicians because they are “thick-skinned, slow-moving, and not too bright (but can move fast as heck when in danger).”
In 1980, the state of New Hampshire had Colossus G. Benson, a 500-pound silverback gorilla, listed as a presidential candidate for the Vegetarian Party in the New Hampshire primary election. A local chimpanzee served as the gorilla’s campaign manager and went to the Secretary of State’s office to handle all the paperwork. His owner pointed out that New Hampshire law did not stipulate that those filing to be on the ballot had to be human and said that the gorilla met the age requirement as well as the requirement of having been born in the United States (Detroit). Contrary to popular belief, he never quite made it to the White House.
As a rule, Judaism teaches that there is much to be learned from the world around us, and in particular from the animal kingdom. Judaism recognizes there are characteristics and traits that can be observed in the animal kingdom that can inform and inspire how humans relate to others, to themselves, and even to the Almighty.
The Talmud cites many examples of this and here are some of them; we can learn modesty from cats, honesty from ants, and fidelity from doves. Cats discreetly attempt to cover their waste, ants steadfastly refuse to steal (if an ant carried a piece of wheat other ants can smell this and they will not take it), and doves mate for life – teaching us loyalty and fidelity as the dove has relations only with its mate.
Another passage in the Talmud (Kiddushin 82b) goes a step further. There the Talmud describes what kind of professions certain animals would assume if they were to enter the work force. For example, the lion would be a porter and the fox would be a merchant.
While it is easily understandable how the cleverness of a fox would be useful to transform him into a successful merchant, it is difficult to understand why a lion – the “king of the jungle” – would choose the lowly job of a porter. What is the Talmud trying to teach us?
The answer can be found in a curious verse from this week’s Torah reading; “His eyes shall be red with wine and his teeth white with milk” (Genesis 49:12).
This blessing was given by Jacob to his son Judah – the progenitor and source of royal lineage in the Jewish nation. The royal line and the eventual messiah are descended from the tribe of Judah. While it is fairly easily understood what wine has to do with royalty, what is this cryptic message from Jacob about the teeth being white with milk?
The Talmud (Kesuvos 111a) gives an absolutely fascinating explanation for this verse, and in doing so defines the role of a monarch. The Talmud reads the verse literally (which translates into “white teeth preferred than milk”) and goes on to explain that we see from this verse that it is better to show a person the white of one’s teeth (i.e. in a smile) than to give him milk.
The Talmud is saying that merely giving someone milk will only sustain them for a short while. But genuinely smiling and acknowledging someone provides that person with a feeling of value and self worth, which is much more valuable and lasts far longer. A smile lifts a person’s spirit and transcends any fleeting physical gift.
The Talmud is imparting a very deep message regarding Judaism’s view of leadership. Real leadership is about empowering others to actualize their potential. In Judaism’s worldview, leadership isn’t about the majesty of the position, rather it is about taking the steps necessary to allow others to grow and blossom into who they were meant to be.
This is why a lion, king of all the animals, would choose to be a porter. The proper role of a king is not about his self-aggrandizement, it is about empowering others and making them feel important and significant. The true king desires more than anything else to fulfill his role in empowering others. If that means acting as their porter (and carrying all their “baggage”) then so be it. This is what it means to be a public servant.
This is the message that Jacob wanted delivered to the royal line and future kings of the Jewish people. They will certainly have the wine of royalty, but it must be used with the “white of one’s teeth” to empower others.
Vayechi, Genesis 47:28 - 50:26
The parsha, Torah portion, opens with Jacob on his deathbed 17 years after arriving in Egypt. Jacob blesses Joseph's two sons, Manasseh (Menashe) and Ephraim (to this day it is a tradition to bless our sons every Shabbat evening with the blessing, "May the Almighty make you like Ephraim and Manasseh" – they grew up in the Diaspora amongst foreign influences and still remained devoted to the Torah. The Shabbat evening blessing for girls is "to be like Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, and Leah"). He then individually blesses each of his sons. The blessings are prophetic and give reproof, where necessary.
A large retinue from Pharaoh's court accompanies the family to Hebron to bury Jacob in the Ma'arat Hamachpela, the burial cave purchased by Abraham. The Torah portion ends with the death of Joseph and his binding the Israelites to bring his remains with them for burial when they are redeemed from slavery and go to the land of Israel. Thus ends the book of Genesis!
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If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.
– John Quincy Adams