Restraint & Its Consequences
Parashat Vayigash 5779 | December 14, 2018
Consider the concept of restraint: is it a virtue or is it a vice? What benefits come when we restrain ourselves? Do we cause harm when we force ourselves to do something we do not want to do? This week's Torah portion, Vayigash, is a lesson in restraint.
We read in these later chapters of the book of Genesis about Joseph. Joseph is Jacob's favored son among all his children since Joseph is his and Rachel's sole child. This favoritism breeds resentment among his brothers, and earlier in our story, they decide to toss him into a pit, only to see him taken into slavery. To cover up their massive familial transgression, the brothers fake Joseph's death, and allow their father to believe he is dead.
Sometime after this, Joseph finds himself down in Egypt, in Pharaoh's court, and rises to become Pharaoh's chief viceroy. He builds tremendous power in Egyptian leadership. When famine strikes, his brothers come to Egypt to seek food. Joseph recognizes his brothers, but they do not recognize him. The drama builds between his brothers and him, and Joseph is emotionally fraught. Should he reveal himself to his brothers? Should he help his brothers? So much could be gained from restoring their relationship. And, his brothers caused him so much pain early on in his life. Is he ready to let that hurt heal? His brothers are now vulnerable when he is not. They had tossed him into the pit, and now they are asking him to pull them out. Several times throughout this story, Joseph shows emotional sensitivity, coming to his words through tears. Joseph is trapped in an emotional knot, and the more the story evolves, the tighter the knot becomes.
Remember, Joseph's brothers are not yet clued into his true identity. They believe they have come before an Egyptian magistrate. But finally, in this week's parasha, Joseph can no longer hold back. He can no longer force himself to keep himself hidden to his own brothers. "V'lo ya-chol Yosef l'hit-a-paq, Joseph could no longer restrain himself before all his attendants" (Genesis 45:1). He sends everyone out of the court except for his brothers. He says, "Ani Yosef! Ha-od avi chai? I am Joseph! Is my father still well (alive)?" Imagine the brother's reaction: they stand before the grown brother who years earlier they left for dead. They tossed him into the pit, and now, they have come to him to rescue them.
The emotional tension for Joseph must be overwhelming, because at this moment, "v'lo ya-chol Yosef l'hit-a-paq," he could no longer restrain himself. As biblical commentator R' Nahum Sarna notes, "Twice before Joseph has broken down (the emotional impact is tremendous to bear)…. On this last occasion, Joseph had succeeded in controlling himself, but he can no longer contain his pent-up feelings." Like anyone who feels his or her heart overflowing, who just needs to share for the sake of his own soul, no longer could Joseph hold back. He needed to say, "I am your brother! It's me, Joseph!" And more importantly, "My father, our father, whom I love, how is he? Is he still alive?" Joseph is prepared to forgive his brothers and is ready to move beyond the agony they caused because if he could be reunited with his father, that means so much more.
V'lo ya-chol l'hit-a-paq, he could no longer restrain himself: What happens when our desires break over our self-imposed restraining walls?
Our biblical authors explore that same question in a later book, as well. In I Samuel 13, we read about another leader in our tradition who does not restrain his desires, taking impertinent action whose consequences are severe.
Saul is the first King of Israel. He is appointed by God, ordained by the High Priest Samuel, though Saul's reign only lasts two years. Saul is a warrior-king, leading the Israelites into war with the Philistines.
Once, Saul's son, Jonathan, sparks a conflict with the Philistines by killing a Philistine prefect. In reaction, the Philistines assemble for battle against Israel, bringing 30,000 chariots, 6,000 horsemen, and more troops than anyone can count. The Israelites see that they are in straits.
To prepare for the battle, Saul waits seven days, a fixed time that Samuel–as Priest–had set for purification. But Samuel did not come to perform the necessary sacrifices. Saul's troops begin to slip away. Saul's patience slips away. He feels that he cannot wait any longer, commanding his aids to bring forward the burnt offering and the communion sacrifice that is the priest's responsibility to offer before a battle, not the king's. Like Joseph, Saul must be under pressure. The world as it should be does not match up with the world as it is. Samuel said wait seven days, seek God's approval before moving into battle. It is Samuel who will offer up those sacrifices, so where is he? Saul perceives that they are behind schedule, and waiting any longer will sacrifice his army as troops slink away. Just as Saul is finishing the sacrifices, Samuel arrives, asking "Meh Astah?! What have you done?"
Saul replies, "I saw the people leaving me… You hadn't come at the appointed time… The Philistines are gathering… va-et-a-paq, so I forced myself to present the offerings." Saul cannot not restrain himself. He compels himself to do something he is not ordained to do, that he does not want to do, but that he feels necessary for his success.
Yet, his impatience hurts himself and his family. Samuel responds forcefully, "Nis-kal-ta, You acted foolishly." Saul's compulsion has consequences. For not following God's command, his reign will be short, and his dynasty will not be established. These actions directly pave the way for David, the son of Jesse, to ascend as king over Israel.
Joseph and Saul, in critical moments, decide to force themselves to action. For Joseph, his action allows for reconciliation with his brothers. And, his decision to reveal himself enables him to reunite with his father before his father's death. Saul, on the other hand, is a victim of his own lack of patience. He feels the pressure between his troops and the impending battle with the Philistines. Samuel is not holding up his end of the agreement. And so he acts, but for that action, will pay an ultimate sacrifice.
Sometimes forcing ourselves to do something can work in our favor. Sometimes our restraint fights against us. Consider this concept of restraint: is it a virtue or is it a vice?
In the Western tradition, we have long espoused restraint as a virtue. In Plato's Republic, he describes temperance as one of the four virtues for any individual, along with wisdom, courage, and justice. The virtue of temperance has evolved over the centuries, leading to sayings like "everything in moderation." Benjamin Franklin taught that one should "Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation" (The Autobiography). The Eastern Buddhist tradition also esteem self-control, seeing it as part of the eight-fold path. Around civic leadership, we also prize restraint. The leader who shows restraint and consideration under pressure is later described as diligent, thoughtful, and calculating, in the best of ways. The ability to control oneself has kept us safe in times of tremendous danger.
Yet, like both Joseph and Saul, we know that restraint has its limits. I think of lessons learned from our history with prohibition. Before 1920, when prohibition was made the law of the land across the United States, alcoholism, domestic violence, and trouble with public drunkenness were pervasive. And so, temperance was touted as a virtue and forced on our society through law. But, imposed restraint on those who did not want to be restrained created a communal underground overflow and reaction to prohibition. The restraint created more problems. I wonder if the benefits were not overcome by the unintended consequences? On a more personal level, what of the person experiencing emotional strife, real grief or loss, and the reaction of a friend or family member is "Oh, get a grip! Restrain yourself!" Or, like a parent who tells young boys to toughen up, that real men don't cry. What damage is done when we tell ourselves or tell our loved ones to hold back from their feelings?
Through a Jewish lens, though, the picture is grayer. Restraint is not clearly virtue or vice. Instead, temperance is the goal. Messing up, and finding the middle again, that is the path. Maimonides describes the Shvil HaZahav, the Golden Path or the Golden Mean, as the pursuit for all of our actions. Maimonides brought together Aristotelian philosophy with Jewish thought, and so we can draw a through line from the Western tradition. An example he gives: One should provide between ten and twenty percent of one's income to charity, but one should not give more than twenty percent, squandering his or her own resources. If you're dieting, do not subsist on a minimal diet, nor should you accustom yourself to only eating the best foods and wine. Balance is the goal.
But the balance between the Joseph and Saul stories is illustrative. We all have moments in our lives where we live in extremes. Like Joseph, we are overcome with emotion when our desires do not match up with the world as it is. Like Saul, we can become impatient when our expectations do not match up with reality. Our systems are flooded, and we can no longer hold back.
A few months ago, when heading out on a family trip, my family and I did not leave enough time to get to the airport. We arrived at the ticketing counter right on the edge of them no longer being able to accept our bags and issue us our boarding passes. I watched the ticketing agents watch us as we came up to their desk. Here were two young parents with a toddler in tow, bags hanging off of us, roller-boards being pulled from behind with every available hand. I told the agents that we knew we were running late and asked what the chances were they could still get us onto the flight. They looked at one another. Clicked at their keyboards for a moment, and asked us for our IDs. We made it on the plane. I saw in their eyes a considered calculation: tell us no, because we were later than we should have been, and then deal with me potentially going off on them for the next while. Or they could stretch, get us onto the flight, maybe our bags would not make it, and then that would be our problem when we arrived at our destination. They let us onto the plane. I was glad they made that decision. Because I can promise you that if they said no, I do not think that I would have been able to restrain myself, to take the shvil ha-zahav. My system would have flooded. I would have probably not been my best self.
Our tradition is wise to offer us these two versions of Joseph and Saul as they are because they show us these men's imperfections. That they cannot restrain themselves from their desires, that they are overcome and take action. In Joseph's case, that brings about healing that otherwise would have been stifled. Unfortunately, Saul stifles his own reward. Being human is not about being an automaton, always doing just as we should, but constantly evaluating and striving. Trying to do our best, knowing that we sometimes miss the mark, but learn from that, grow from it, and find more and more that we are in fact able to live a life of righteousness and worth, looking down and realizing that we have been following the shvil ha-zahav.
May we each continue to strive to be our best selves, finding restraint useful when necessary, forcing ourselves to take action when we must, and owning the consequences whether good or bad, for the sake of our more perfect selves.