Pete was promoted to a new position of authority over the department of which he was previously a part. He was concerned that his former team members would fail to recognize his new role. He asked me if there were any lessons in ancient Jewish wisdom about gaining and retaining the respect of others. I explained that the key was self-restraint and that he could no longer join in the company’s “Fun-Friday” high jinks as he used to. He would need to be extra diligent in exhibiting self-respect.
Wise parents instinctively do this all the time. They know that they have to behave with dignity and self-respect in order to develop in their children a natural respect for them. This is the Scriptural passage I teach in order to illustrate this point.
The book of Exodus opens with one of the most perplexing puzzles in Scripture. How could King Pharaoh forget all that Joseph had done for Egypt and turn against Joseph’s family, the Israelites?
Genesis 41 describes how God helped Joseph achieve prominence. Joseph’s foresight not only saved Egypt from a seven year drought and famine but also transformed Egypt into the regional power of the time. People came from everywhere to shop for food in Egypt.
When the patriarch Jacob died, so revered was he that the Egyptians mourned him for seventy days. (Genesis 50:3) When Joseph died, he was such a symbol of national prestige that the Egyptians would not allow him to be buried back in the Land of Israel where his father lay. Instead he was buried in Egypt. (Genesis 50:26)
One would have expected the powerful feelings of gratitude and warmth towards the descendants of Jacob and Joseph to have lingered for a while. Yet, quite astonishingly, by the eleventh verse of the new book of Exodus, we discover that the Jews are already being discriminated against, taxed, and oppressed.
What brought about this unprecedented hostility towards the Jewish citizens of Egypt? Ancient Jewish wisdom identifies a clue in this language:
The Children of Israel were fruitful and swarmed and increased and became very, very strong and the land was filled with them.
If some of the phrases seem a bit redundant, that is because in Hebrew, the Lord’s language, each conveys additional information, teaching that added responsibility accompanies added success.
Fruitful = God gave the Israelites the blessing of large families.
Swarmed = Unfortunately, these large families weren’t meticulous in their behavior, instead behaving obnoxiously like rodents for whom the term ‘swarm’ is usually employed.
Increased = As a result of their talents and abilities, they achieved prominence and influence.
Very, very strong = Unfortunately, they began throwing their weight around rather than remembering that they were guests in the land.
Filled with them = As a result of the above conduct, despite being a minority, they nonetheless seemed to be everywhere and in control of everything.
Joseph saved Egypt and was highly venerated. Then all of a sudden a new king persuaded an entire grateful nation to oppress the Jews? Yes, indeed, provided that the Israelites abandoned the principles, the ethic and the idealism of the once respected Joseph.
Had the Jews remained true to the values that Jacob and Joseph instilled into them, Pharaoh would not have feared them. Had their values not eroded, his attempts to persuade his people would have been futile. The Egyptians no longer identified the Jews they knew with the Jacob and Joseph of their legends. Their respect for Israel vanished.
A key to earning, gaining, and retaining respect of others is to exhibit control of our impulses in how we eat, speak, work and play. It is one of the most important lessons of leadership whether at work or in the family and one that needs constant attention.