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The Private Life, The Personal Life Parshas Vayechi

Dedicated in the merit of a speedy recovery for Dina Baila bas Perl

“Yes, We Did!” was the headline of the New York Times coverage of President Obama’s farewell address. They were referring to his closing words, after reviewing all the change that took place over the course of his eight years in the Oval Office, the President concluded by invoking his original campaign slogan, “Yes, We Can” by proclaiming, “Yes, We Did.”

The National Review was a little less flattering, and headlined, “Barack Obama’s Farewell Speech: Grandiose and Self-Flattering. And Fox News’ headline spoke of a hidden message that the President was trying to convey to the American People.

But what they all missed was the most important line of all, a sentiment which the President shared, which all of us, regardless of any politics should rally around and learn from. The President of the United States, in what was undoubtedly a political speech, broke from the theme to address his daughters: “Malia and Sasha,” he said, “under the strangest of circumstances, you have become two amazing young women, smart and beautiful, but more importantly, kind and thoughtful and full of passion. You wore the burden of years in the spotlight so easily.” And here it is, ladies and gentleman – “Of all that I’ve done in my life,” he said, “I’m most proud to be your dad.”

 

There is no position in the world, where one’s entire life is lived on stage. Every cough is dissected, every outfit is analyzed, every frown is a message, and every acquaintance is a political statement. Being president means you have to more or less forgo your right to privacy and a private life. Forget the intrusive analysis for a second, but imagine this, every day of your life is a photo-shoot! I don’t know about you but picture day is rather stressful. When you are president, every day is picture day; not just for the president, but for the First Lady and for their children.

All of that is extremely challenging. Not simply because of the stress of looking good or saying the right thing; that’s hard but there’s something far more difficult. The real challenge is that if so much of one’s life is public, so much of what one does is on display, on a stage for all to see, it is all too easy to entirely lose connection to one’s private life, to one’s inner life, and to one’s family. For the president to say that his greatest accomplishment was his private life, not the stage, that is a powerful, and inspiring message. The fact that his daughter, Sasha, did not attend the most public and important speech of the year because she had an exam the next day in Washington further underscores the point – their private life was indeed more important than their public life.

In the past few Torah portions, we read of someone who struggled with this dichotomy of being the public man vs. the private one. Yosef, the most powerful man in Egypt after Pharaoh, was living his dream – literally. He dreamt of being powerful, of being a king of sorts – and he was. He led the most influential and powerful force in Ancient times. Publicly, he was at the apex of power and success.

And yet, in the final episode of the Yosef saga, we find that Yosef was actually broken. His brothers, after the passing of their father Yakov, approach Yosef and beg him to forgive them for their terrible sin, for having sold him as a slave, and Yosef, upon hearing their request, breaks down into tears.

This is not the first time Yosef cries. He cries seven times! – the most for any biblical character. The tears he sheds throughout these Torah portions all have one common theme – they are tears of loneliness, they are tears of alienation from a family that he so badly wishes to connect to.

And the most bitter of all tears are the tears he cries when his brothers ask him for forgiveness. You know why Yosef is crying after they ask him for forgiveness? Because he had forgiven them 17 years ago! He had supported them all of this time! He had tried so hard to be one of the boys, to be part of the family. But it didn’t work.

The brothers never saw him as Yosef their brother, they saw him as the vizier to Pharaoh, as a politician. And they asked themselves, does he really love us? Does he really care for us as family, or is this all still part of Yosef’s charade? And so they ask him for forgiveness because they still don’t feel connected.

The brothers were never were able to get passed the public persona that Yosef built for himself, and so Yosef, upon realizing this, cries bitter tears of loneliness. The public persona could not give way to the private man of the family which he so badly wished to be. He was so consumed with his public life that no one was ever sure if this was the real Yosef. (This idea is based on the beautiful essay, Yosef’s Tears, by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein)

I used to think that the saddest song of all is Harry Chapin’s Cat in the Cradle – And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man in the moon
When you coming home, dad?
The song speaks of a father who is always too busy to spend time with his son, until it’s too late. The father, by example, teaches his son that spending time with family is not so important, and eventually it comes back to bite him. But far more tragic is the father or parent who puts more stock in their public life than their private one. The parent or spouse who acts one way in public, who acts lovingly, patient, and charming in his or her public life, but at home, he or she is anything but.  A child growing up in that home won’t end up calling his dad to say hello, like in the song. A child growing up in such a home, will end up resenting his parents for the rest of his or her life.

Rabbi Chaim Vital, the student of the famous 16th century Kabbalist, the AriZal, once wrote that when one comes to heaven, after 120, they will be judged on their relationship with G-d and they will be judged on their relationship with their fellow man; their interactions with other people. The entire judgment of how we treated others revolves around one thing – how we acted with our own family.

That’s heavy stuff. Because when we are on the stage, whether we are a public figure or we simply in public, it’s easy to be nice. It’s when we stop acting, when the door’s closed, and the blinds are drawn, that’s when our true identity comes through. When all of our energy is focused on developing our public persona, we and everyone around us suffers. We suffer because, like Yosef, our true identity is confused with our act. And we suffer because in acting inconsistently, we trample our personal life and the people who matter most.

The Torah concludes the book of Bereishis on this tragic note; Yosef understood perfectly what was important in life, he desperately wanted to be connected to family, but his public life was too big and too all-encompassing to allow for a personal life. He died in isolation, a man of unparalleled success, both materially and spiritually, surrounded by family, but not connected to them. His parting tears should serve as a powerful reminder for us all.

L’havdil, President Obama will be stepping down this week, after eight years in the Oval Office. Whether you agreed with his legislation and views or not is irrelevant, we have a deep debt of gratitude to President Obama for having served this country faithfully, in the way he saw fit. And I am especially grateful for the final message that he shared with the American People; that our public life is not more important than our private one. Our greatest success, our greatest accomplishments do not take place on the stage, they take place at home.

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