George Washington’s Inauguration and Genesis
by Rabbi Reuven Mann
This week’s Torah reading describes the final days and the death of our last Patriarch, Jacob. In spite of all the setbacks and tragedies, he fulfilled his mission of creating the family which would be transformed into the Jewish People.
Our section of Scripture depicts the great respect that was shown to Jacob in death. All Egypt mourned for many days, and a delegation of the country’s most illustrious personalities accompanied the procession all the way to Canaan, no simple trek at the time.
The brothers, in accordance with their promise to Pharaoh, returned to resume their residence in Egypt. At that point, something strange and unexpected happened. The brothers were fearful that, with their father gone, Joseph would exact revenge for the evil they had done to him.
To us, this appears implausible. Joseph had had ample opportunity to “get even” with them, if that was his intention. Instead, he reconciled and forgave them with a full heart.
Not only that, but he saved them from the remaining years of famine. Relocating them in the choicest place in Egypt, he guaranteed that he would provide their sustenance. A full 17 years had passed, with no hint of animosity from Joseph. What could have prompted this fear, so great that it caused the brothers to concoct a blatant lie?
They said that their father had left a message beseeching Joseph not to avenge his brothers for their terrible crime. When they conveyed this to Joseph, he cried.
Joseph had been sold 39 years before. He had come a very long way and professed that it was “all for the good” and, moreover, was the express will of God. What caused the brothers to become suddenly fearful and suspicious?
Our tradition teaches that, upon Jacob’s death, they observed a change in Joseph’s behavior. When Jacob was alive, Joseph would invite the family over for meals, but now he ceased that practice. If he had sincerely forgiven them, why would he terminate these family gatherings?
Apparently, the brothers never truly understood Joseph. As long as Jacob was alive his main concern was to fulfill the commandment of ”Honor thy father and mother.” He knew that Jacob derived much satisfaction from seeing his family together. With his death, the incentive to socialize with his siblings no longer existed. However, we must ask, what about the ordinary desire to enjoy their friendship?
The answer I am about to offer may not be popular, but that does not deter me. True forgiveness requires that one yield all feelings of animosity and treat one’s former offender with respect and dignity.
It does not demand that one have a personal friendship and spend his leisure time with someone who mistreated him, and whom he subsequently forgave.
Joseph harbored no ill will against his brothers. However, they did not have a history of friendship. Remember that, in the early days, they could not even “speak peacefully” to him.
Joseph spent most of his adult life apart from his family. The key relationships he developed were with his own immediate family and with certain Egyptians.
When families are broken apart for a long time, something is lost that may be impossible to restore in later years. It is possible to truly forgive sins, but very difficult to become friends when no foundation for such a relationship exists.
I find it appropriate to conclude this essay with a fascinating story. One of history’s greatest leaders was our nation’s first President, George Washington. It can be reasonably asserted that, without his steadfast determination and ability to uphold his troops’ morale in the most trying and hopeless circumstances, this nation would not have come into being.
He was a truly modest individual and a regular reader of Scripture. When he was sworn in as President he placed his hand on a specific section of Genesis that he had selected.
The Bible was turned to the fiftieth chapter of Genesis, which tells of the death of the Patriarch Jacob. After his death, Jacob’s sons were afraid of their brother Joseph, whom they had sold into slavery years before. Perhaps now, with their father gone, Joseph would take his revenge. They bowed to Joseph, ready to be his slaves. But Joseph told his brothers, “Do not be afraid. Am I a substitute for God?”
Like Joseph, Washington knew he was no substitute for God. And he would not be a substitute for King George III of England, either, whose forces he had fought in the Revolution. He was not swayed by all the fanfare and praise. He would not rule this new nation; he would lead it. (George Washington: An Illustrated Biography, by David A. Adler, p.8)
If only contemporary aspirants for high positions would emulate the example of this nation’s founding father.
Rabbi Reuven Mann has been a Jewish educator and pulpit Rabbi for over 40 years. He is the author of the new book, “Eternally Yours; G-D’s Greatest Gift To Mankind—Torah’s Enduring Relevance for a Life Of Wisdom” (Exodus). The Book is available at Amazon.com