Looking back in time it is amazing to realize that every so often we encounter a 24-hour period with a timeless impact on the trajectory of human history. These periods, though short in actual time, through the convergence of multiple factors, produced historic decisions—decisions that arguably affected humankind forever after.
A classic example of this is the 24-hour period following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. To capture the historic significance of this day, historian Steven Gillon recently published the book, Pearl Harbor: FDR Leads the Nation into War, (2011), which focuses on FDR’s crisis management from the time he heard about the attack on December 7 until his speech to Congress on December 8 requesting a declaration of war.
Today we look back to that time with an air of inevitability. However, nothing was inevitable that day. FDR had to be forthright with the American people but not too open as to cause panic and rush to submission. He needed to galvanize the country for war, not only against Japan, but against Germany as well, without allowing his comments to focus on Germany, since many Americans still viewed the war in Europe as a European problem. Some of the most important decisions he made during those 24 hours concerned the speech he would give to Congress on December 8.
Cordell Hull, the Secretary of State, opined that the speech should be a relatively long statement presenting to the American people the entire history of America’s relations with Japan and all the Japanese actions leading to war – culminating with the attack on Pearl Harbor. FDR, however, for effect, wanted to keep the speech short. He was a firm believer that less was more. FDR also worried that a longer speech would force him to reveal more details about the losses at Pearl Harbor, which would serve both to dishearten the American people and embolden the Japanese. He was afraid that once the Japanese realized how badly damaged the American military was they would strike at the United States mainland. He also realized, according to Gillon, “that focusing too much attention on the Pacific would limit his ability to lead the nation to war in Europe” (p.149).
Perhaps some of the most important decisions of that day revolved around the actual writing and editing of the speech, which FDR did himself. The original speech was dictated to his secretary with the following first sentence. “Yesterday, December 7th, 1941—a day which will live in world history—the United States of America was simultaneously and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”
When FDR reviewed the typed remarks, he made some handwritten tweaks. The words “world history” were replaced by the more emotion filled word infamy and the word “simultaneously” was replaced with the more frightening word suddenly. As Gillon writes: “Thus was born one of the most famous lines in presidential oratory” (p.72). Later that night, when meeting with his aid and confidante Harry Hopkins, he added the following closure at the Hopkin’s suggestion: “With confidence in our armed forces—with the unbounding determination of our people—we will gain the inevitable triumph—so help us G-d.”
The importance of recognizing an immense opportunity contained in a small amount of time, and maintaining control in order to take full advantage of the situation, is seen at the beginning of this week’s parsha when Yosef is hurriedly summoned to appear before Pharoh to interpret his dreams.
After Pharoh related his dream to his advisors and failed to receive a satisfactory explanation for it, the chief butler informed him about Yosef and his powers of dream interpretation. The Torah describes (41:14) that Pharoh sent immediately for Yosef. Due to the extreme urgency of the situation Yosef was rushed out of the dungeon. For Yosef, the next 24 hours or so were of critical importance. He had several key decisions to make—decisions that would impact his future and the future of Bnei Yisrael.
Upon being released from prison, the Torah informs us, Yosef groomed himself and changed into attire appropriate for Pharoh’s court. Rashi explains that Yosef did this out of respect for the monarchy. Later commentators expand upon Rashi’s point. According to various commentators there were halachic problems with Yosef grooming himself in an Egyptian hairstyle and dressing in accordance with Egyptian custom. However, the halachic tradition permits certain allowances for people who must interact with the secular rulers. Yosef’s first decision, as it were, was whether to rely on these allowances and demonstrate his ability to blend in or rather to maintain his separatist image.
The second decision he had to make was how to respond when Pharoh credited him with being an outstanding dream interpreter. Although he had much to gain by accepting the praise, Yosef’s integrity and fear of Hashem compelled him to acknowledge publicly that he was but a simple agent of G-d. His third decision was not to limit his words to merely interpreting Pharoh’s dreams but to dare to reach beyond his mandate as a dream interpreter and suggest a policy to guard against the dangers of the predicted famine.