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Parshat Mikeitz

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November 22 of this year marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. Ask anybody who was alive at the time and old enough to be aware of what was going on in the world and they will recall for you exactly where they were when they heard the terrible news. While there are many leadership lessons, both good and bad, to learn from the events surrounding that dreadful day, I would like to focus on the iconic picture of Lyndon Johnson taking the presidential oath of office on Air Force One and the story behind the picture.

Johnson was very concerned that there be no question regarding the continuity of government. To this end, he quickly researched the particulars about taking the oath of office in Dallas while the plane was still on the tarmac. Upon clarifying that it would be fine[1]Johnson decided to take the oath on the plane before departing and have it photographed. He wanted those photographs immediately distributed to news organizations so that it would be clear to all Americans, and other governments, that the United States was not rudderless.

However, Johnson felt that for symbolic reasons he needed something else. Always intimidated by the Kennedy loyalists, and nervous that people would question the legitimacy of his presidency, he wanted Jacqueline Kennedy to stand next to him during his swearing-in. “No single gesture would do more to demonstrate continuity and stability – to show that the government of the United States would continue to function without interruption despite the assassination of the man who sat at its head – and to legitimize the transition…than the attendance at his swearing-in ceremony of the late President’s widow” (The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert A. Caro, 2012, chapter 12).[2]

When Jacqueline Kennedy had settled in her cabin, Johnson and his wife came back to see her. Seeing her beautiful outfit caked in blood, Mrs. Johnson encouraged Mrs. Kennedy to change her clothes. But she refused saying, “I want them to see what they have done to Jack.” At that point Johnson asked her about standing next to him when he took the oath. Although she was suffering terribly she answered, “Oh, yes, I know, I know.” Jacquie understood the importance of symbolism and a little while later when Kennedy aide Kenneth O’Donnell went to get her and see if she was up to it Jacquie said, “I think I ought to. In the light of history it would be better if I was there.”

The importance of symbolism being employed to legitimate power, especially when time is of the essence, is seen clearly in this week’s parsha. Having come to the conclusion that nobody was more qualified than Yosef to lead Egypt in anticipation of and during the approaching famine, Pharaoh appointed him prime minister. This appointment made Yosef the second most powerful man in Egypt. Realizing that the Egyptian people would have a difficult time accepting the appointment, Pharaoh immediately set in motion a series of actions to address this problem. Pharaoh, more than anyone, understood that Yosef must get to work right away and thus had no time to legitimize his position on his own. He thus enlisted the help of some symbolic acts to get the Egyptian people on board. The Torah describes (41:42) how Pharaoh gave Yosef his signet ring. Rashi explains that symbolically the giving of Pharaoh’s ring to somebody indicates that he is second in command. Ramban explains that the giving of the ring was the actual transfer of power. The person who possesses this ring has the actual power to legislate and enforce laws. The same pasuk also describes how Yosef was dressed in royal clothing and jewelry. These actions certainly helped convince people of his authority.

However, the next pasuk (43) describes what is arguably the most important symbolic gesture. Yosef is given the “second chariot” for his personal transportation. What is the “second chariot”? According to the Rashbam and Ramban it is similar to Air Force Two which is the official vice presidential plane.[3] Just as the president of the United States travels in Air Force One and the vice president travels in Air Force Two, Pharaoh traveled in the “first chariot” and his prime minister, in this case Yosef, traveled in the “second chariot.” Certainly traveling in the second most official chariot in Egypt would go a long way to legitimize Yosef’s position in people’s eyes.

Rashi, though, opines the following explanation, which in light of the Johnson episode becomes abundantly clear. Rashi explains that the “second chariot” is the chariot that travels right next to Pharaoh’s chariot. What could be a more sure symbol to the Egyptian people that Yosef was really the prime minister and should be accorded all the respect and obedience due that office, than Pharaoh himself riding next to Yosef and using his personal prestige to legitimize his rule.[4]

Leaders must never underestimate the value of symbolism and therefore must become masters of its proper usage. Pharaoh made two outstanding decisions that day. He picked Yosef to run, and thus save, the country and he did all that he could to ensure that the Egyptian people would respect him. Closer to our own time Lyndon Johnson used symbolism to enable a mourning country to move forward. And during this holiday of Chanukah, Jews around the world light candles to symbolize to one and all that no matter what befalls us, the light of Torah will always burn strong.

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[1] In fact, constitutionally the president-elect becomes president at noon on January 20 even without taking the oath. So too, a vice president who assumes the presidency due to the death of a president automatically becomes president regardless of whether or not he has actually taken the oath yet.

[2] P. 8201 of the Kindle edition.

[3] Actually, Air Force Two is the call sign of whatever aircraft the vice president happens to be on, similar to Air Force One being the official call sign of whatever aircraft the president happens to be on.

[4] This is similar to the midrash’s description of how Moshe insisted that Yehoshua deliver a public shiur while Moshe was still alive so that Bnei Yisrael would see that Moshe himself legitimized Yehoshua’s authority.

About the Author: Rabbi Dr. David Hertzberg is the principal of the Yeshivah of Flatbush Middle Division and is an adjunct assistant professor of History at Touro College.


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