Democracy may have started in ancient Athens, or 18th century England, France, and the USA. But the convergence of digitalization, mobile technology and social media has taken democracy to unprecedented levels. This new democracy has obliterated boundaries, diminishing one of the most important tools of power: control. Loss of control has enabled silent revolutions that toppled governments, undermined establishments, challenged conventions and disrupted industries. (See Professor Taylor Owen’s important piece in the World Economic Forum last year, What can governments learn from digital disruptors?)
Enabled by this convergence of technologies women are revolting against powerful, abusive men. In just a few weeks, they have toppled icons of entertainment, the media and politics and terminated the careers of celebrities. In this final essay of a trilogy, (the first, Gender Abuse, and the second, Gender Abuse Continues) I suggest that this social revolution against men who abuse their power over women, is a symptom of a wider issue. The wider issue is the failure of individuals and institutions to adjust to a new, democratized, digitally connected world in which influence replaces control as the primary instrument of power.
When control is the lever of power, as it has been for millennia, strong people of weak character can yield enormous power and inevitably abuse their power to manipulate others for personal gain. Gender abuse, fraud and disadvantaged minorities are three areas where this manifests in business. To address issues like these at root-cause level we need to recalibrate the idea of power and how it is gained and used. In the new power model where influence rather than control determines power, character is crucial. In this new model the capacity to empathize and connect is more important than positional status.
Was Yoseif, now the second most powerful man in Egypt, a typical old-world, power-hungry control freak who used his position to abuse his brothers as an act of revenge, or was he a man of great character and sanctity? We know him as the latter, but the superficial reading of his story suggests the former.
As with many passages of Torah, to make sense of it and discover its relevance, this one needs to be read more deeply through the Talmudic or Midrashic lens of our oral tradition. In this case it is the Zohar that frames the episode in a way that makes sense of it.
The Zohar (I:199a) describes two power models that often interface with one another; the uncompromising power of Din or justice, and the adaptable power of Chessed or empathy and kindness. When Din punishes, it shows no mercy. Chessed on the other hand, following God’s own example, shows mercy even when judging bad people for their actions. Din is always portrayed as the left hand and Chessed as the right, indicating they both have a place in our lives and leadership. Either model in its extreme is destructive; a blend is preferred but Chessed should always dominate over Din. It is for this reason that we are deliberate about the way we perform the first mitzvah of each day, the ritual washing of our hands.
בעיא לבר נש לנטלא ידא ימינא בשמאלא בגין לשלטאה ימינא על שמאלא
One should fill the washing cup in their right hand and pass it to their left hand. The left hand then pours the water over the right hand, followed by the right hand pouring the water over the left. In this way the right hand subjugates the left hand to its service and only afterwards, in an act of condescension, extends its own service to the subordinated left hand.
Shimon and Levi, two of Yaacov’s sons are epitomes of Din. They were uncompromising in their retribution towards Shechem for the violation of their sister, and equally unforgiving towards Yoseif in his early years of taunting his older brothers; they were unwilling to recognize his merit – והם לא הכרהו . Yoseif, on the other hand, represents Chessed, the right hand. After temporarily subjugating his brothers to his authority, he extends to them a hand of brotherhood, kindness and support.
בשעתא דנפלו בידיה איהו רחים עלייהו בגין דאיהו שלים, והם לא הכירוהו, דאיהו, שמעון ולוי אתו מסטרא דדינא קשיא (זוהר, שם)
“When the brothers fell into his hands, he showed mercy to them because he was a complete individual (master of Chessed). They however showed him no recognition (when they were in the upper-hand) because they, especially Shimon and Levi, came from the side of tough justice.”
However, it is hard to see any thread of chessed in the way Yoseif subjected his brothers and his father to inordinate hardship before revealing himself to them. He falsely accused them of theft, threatened them with imprisonment and demanded that they pry young Binyamin away from his father and bring him to Egypt. Yoseif’s behavior, as described in the Torah, appears to be pure Din with no Chessed. He acts as a leader obsessed with control and intimidation rather than one who uses his character to influence and inspire.
The Zohar adds to the question: Yoseif’s behavior is not congruent with the man who demonstrated his saintliness time and time again. He is the only character in the Torah to whom we attach the title “Hatzadik,” (the pious one). Surely Yoseif knew the Torah that his father had taught him? He knew, for example:
בנפול אויביך, אל תשמח. ובכשלו אל יגל לבך (משלי ג')
“When your enemy falls, do not rejoice, and when he stumbles do not celebrate in your heart.” (Proverbs 3)
How could he have put his brothers through such suffering? The Zohar explains Yoseif’s motivation:
Yoseif saw that his brothers did not recognize him. They saw him in his positional status as Viceroy of Egypt, not in his personal stature as their righteous brother, Joseph. They bowed to him, and he remembered his dream (for the first time) realizing that what was happening in front of his eyes was Providential. Hashem wanted his identity to be obscured and He wanted his brothers to fear him. Quickly, Yoseif figured out why.
There are times in our lives when we wish we had the opportunity to replay an event so as to make a different choice from the one we made at the time. Absolute Teshuva only happens when, presented with a circumstance like the one in which he or she sinned, a person handles it differently the second time (Rambam, Teshuva, 2:1).
Yoseif, knowing his brothers (“And Yoseif saw his brothers and recognized them” Bereishit 42:7) knew that in all the years since his separation from them, this is what they, more than anything, must have yearned for. If only they had another chance to protect their younger brother and save their father from anguish, they would do it no matter what the cost to them! Yoseif realized he was being given the opportunity to force his brothers into a similar choice they had when he was a boy. They could choose to allow Binyamin to be imprisoned after he arrived in Egypt, or they could sacrifice their own lives to save him and find atonement for the choice they made regarding Yoseif so many years before.
Yoseif was overwhelmed by the excitement at being reunited with his family and had to struggle to restrain himself from revealing who he really was (45.1). He couldn’t wait to speak to them, inquire about his father and meet up with his beloved Binyamin; still he held himself back. The most generous gift he could give his brothers now was to scare them and demand that Binyamin be placed in captivity. This would present them with the opportunity they craved; to respond as heroes this time, save their brother and reclaim their rightful places in the history. Yoseif was not playing with power and control; he was not manipulating others for personal gain. Yoseif was acting counter-instinctually to afford his brothers the opportunity to regain their self-respect, their moral stature and their rights to become the foundation of their nation.
Yoseif had suffered abuse at the hands of powerful people in his own family and in Egypt. When he became powerful, he was not going to use his power for personal gain and certainly was not one to abuse others. Yoseif Hatzaddik was a man of sublime character. He was able to influence the King and inspire a nation. He had no need for control. He knew that when people derive their power from their inner sanctity and from their own character, they have no need to control others. Their power is correlated not to their strength or their positional status, but to their personal stature and righteousness. In the final analysis, as we emphasize on Chanukah, the inner power of sanctity and righteousness trumps the power of physical strength. The Jewish people have always been proportionally minute among the nations of the world, yet none has managed to annihilate them with their strength. Sanctity can neutralize physical strength and ultimately defeat it.
מסרת גיבורים ביד חלשים, ורבים ביד מעטים, וטמאים ביד טהורים, ורשעים ביד צדיקים,וזדים ביד עוסקי תורתך.
“You have given the powerful into the hand of the weak, many into the hand of few, and defiled ones into the hand of pure ones, and evil doers into the hands of righteous people, and villains into the hand of those dedicated to the study of your Torah.” ( - Al-Hanissim in the Chanukah prayers.)