The text implies that Joseph was the first of Jacob’s twelve sons to die:
“Joseph died, and then his brothers and everyone else in that generation” (Exod. 1:6).
Why was Joseph’s life shorter than that of his brothers?
The Sages suggested that Joseph’s early demise was due to his position of public office. When one assumes a position of authority, “one’s days and years are shortened” (Berachot 55a).
Yet this hardly seems fair. Why should those who dedicate their lives to public service be penalized by having a shorter life?
Working for the public good is certainly laudable. However, there are certain hazards inherent in such a path. Precisely because one is busy attending to important communal affairs, one may neglect one’s own personal needs. A communal leader may come to view his own needs — whether material, spiritual, or moral — as insignificant.
We may observe this phenomenon in Joseph. As viceroy, Joseph was busy supervising the national and economic affairs of Egypt. He saw his position of public office as the vehicle through which God’s covenant of Bein HaBetarim — which foretold the exile of Abraham’s descendants in a foreign land — would be realized.
When Joseph heard his father referred to as “your servant,” he did not object to this display of disrespect toward his father. Joseph was occupied with the overall objective; he did not want it to be compromised due to his obligation to show his father respect.
Joseph’s error is not uncommon. This is a universal lesson for all leaders: they should not allow any goal or aspiration, no matter how lofty, to lead them to disregard lesser obligations.
We find a similar idea in the special laws pertaining to a Jewish king. The Torah instructs the king to write his own sefer Torah and keep it with him at all times. In this way, “his heart will not be raised above his brothers, and he will not stray from the Law to the right or to the left” (Deut. 17:20). The Torah specifically cautions the monarch that, despite his involvement in critical national affairs, his public service should not lead him to neglect his private obligations. He is obligated to observe the law in his personal life, like every other citizen.
The Torah promises that a king who heeds this warning will be blessed with a long reign. Unlike those who fail the tests of public office, such a king will not live a life of “shortened days and years.”
Life is not just major goals and aspirations. All of us, even those serving in high public office, must conduct ourselves appropriately in all facets of life. Those who maintain their integrity in their personal lives will be blessed with success in their most important and loftiest goals.
(Sapphire from the Land of Israel. Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. II on Berachot IX: 25)