Joseph and Self-Restraint

What are the top qualities of a leader? In Developing the Leader within You, Reverand John Maxwell writes that one of the chief characteristics of a leader is self-restraint. Self-restraint?! Aren’t leaders people of action, decision makers? Maxwell says yes, but that in addition to leaders knowing when to act, they also need to know when to restrain themselves. Knowing the difference between when to restrain oneself and when to speak or act is a hallmark of true leadership.

The Hebrew word for self-restraint is להתאפק. The word appears twice in the Humash, both times referring to Joseph. One is in this week’s portion, when Joseph first sees Benjamin, and the other is in this week’s portion, after Judah’s plea to Joseph to let Benjamin stay with the other brothers. In the former, Joseph is overcome with emotion, having not seen Benjamin since childhood. He blesses Benjamin and then quickly leaves the room to cry, wash his face and return in control of his emotions. This ensured that Joseph could to hide his identity from his brothers and hide his emotions from his Egyptian underlings. As second-in-command, Joseph has to uphold his image as the grand vizier, and an emotional outburst might have shown weakness to the Egyptians.

In next week’s portion, however, Joseph is no longer able to restrain himself. Judah has an impassioned plea on behalf of the brothers to save Benjamin’s life as well as Jacob’s; for if Benjamin does not return, Jacob will die. Joseph is so moved by the plea for Benjamin’s life that he cries out “Have everyone withdraw from me!” at which point he reveals his identity to his brothers. He makes an attempt to hide his emotions from the Egyptian attendants while simultaneously removing his mask as the Egyptian grand vizier. Joseph as the stern, distrusting Egyptian taskmaster disappears and is replaced by an emotional, benevolent brother.

What lesson does this portion teach us? A true leader needs to know the circumstances when to restrain himself/herself from speaking or acting out yet also when words and action are required. At times a leader must be an actor,  yet at other times s/he must directly respond to the situation at hand. This is of course easier said than done, which is why I believe Reverend Maxwell holds self-restraint as one of his pillars of leadership. Self-restraint is something each of us can do: after all, even the villainous Haman restrained himself from going after Mordecai in Chapter 6 of the Book of Esther! May each of us do what we can to emulate Joseph in having the wisdom to know the difference between when to respond and when to be restrained.

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