"From prison he went forth to rule" (Koheles 4:14).
Rashi explains that Koheles is referring to Yosef, who
emerged from prison to rule over all of Egypt.
This event surely has a phenomenal message to teach. Royal
rule, as we probably envision it, requires special grooming
and training. One does not necessarily acquire this
preparation in an educational institution. Rather, it is
absorbed naturally by the environment surrounding the royal
family. But to emerge from behind bars and to rule over an
The transition from slavery to freedom is, in itself, a major
change, but from slavery to royalty? Exercising power over
other people requires certain personality traits which are,
necessarily, suppressed when one is imprisoned and robbed of
one's basic freedom. Self esteem, self reliance and
independence of spirit are all crushed. How then, can one be
transformed from a subservient creature to a dominant one,
all in one day? Can a slave be metamorphosed into a king?
This question is not straightforward; it begs itself.
In our era, royalty and ruling are coupled with strong-arm
power, raw might, or, in more modern terms, political
success. These concepts do not say it all. Rulership is the
power of imposing absolute obedience and discipline. And this
originates from within. Through self discipline.
Man is like a wild donkey which needs restraint, as much over
itself as over a city or country. Wild -- anti-
establishment, fiercely independent, savage. The stubborn
refusal, the stiff- neckedness which a person must exercise
towards his own self is no less than the natural hostility of
an entire country towards its own restrictive conventions and
mores, which a king must divert and control. Conversely, the
impact of the tactics of a person's drives, good or evil,
employed for/against himself, are no less deadly and dreadful
than the ammunition used on the front lines of a war,
conventional or not.
Just so, no less. "Better a man in control than a hero of
war, and one who dominates his own spirit than one who
conquers a city." The same energy required to wage war
against a city is demanded of the person of spirit in order
to control and sublimate that spirit. Even more. And one who
succeeds in conquering his temper and harnessing his unruly
spirit is the true hero; he has verily conquered a city. He
is king! This is why Yosef is considered an eternal
supporting pillar, yesod olom. He is the ultimate
example of self control. He was an aristocrat, a king, even
while he was in jail.
The Kuzari deals with man's inner struggle between the two
polar forces of good and evil, between his drives and his
thoughts, and compares this battle to a king and his troops.
His words are very striking:
"The refined person is the ruler!
"He is such a man whose senses, character traits and drives
are subservient to him, as it is written, `And one who rules
his spirit [is stronger] than one who conquers a city.' The
refined person is suited to rule others as well, for were he
to rule a country, he would dispense justice at large, just
as he is just and disciplined and measured towards himself,
his body and his spirit.
"He rules over his desires. He brakes and barricades them and
remains in charge, after supplying his body with its minimal
but necessary needs. He is the master of his temper and yet,
sublimates it to serve him when necessary in a positive
manner, like in rebuking and intimidating the wicked. In the
same manner does he give allowance for all of his limbs and
organs to fulfill their function in their necessary but
moderate fashion. So long as they serve his purpose, he
utilizes them but keeps them in check.
"All of his faculties: sight, hearing, imagination, memory,
thought processes -- all are at his service, harnessed to
fulfill their purpose, no more.
"This paragon of a man arranges his flock (his limbs and his
natural drives), activates his will power and controls it to
obey every command he dispenses and to execute it at once. He
utilizes his faculties and organs according to the dictates
of his good sense, brooking no disobedience, and commands his
mind to remain firm, unswerving to any false attractions, not
to be tempted by a vivid imagination or anything vain and
futile. Not to necessarily believe what the senses report,
just to weigh everything carefully with reason before acting.
If the intellect approves of something, the body can go ahead
and carry it out; if it condemns, he must reject that deed.
His will must be subservient to his intellect and only do
what it is permitted.
"This ideal man invites his power of imagination to conjure
up marvelous national experiences, like the giving of the
Torah, the Mishkan and the ritual of sacrifices. He commands
his memory to retain this imagery in his subconscious. He
rebukes those fantasies produced by his imagination which
obscure the truth and castigates his power of anger and lust,
lest they meddle with him and cause him to veer from the true
The result: "After he has mobilized and arranged his army of
spiritual forces in battle formation, he can allow his will
to guide his limbs with agility, efficiency and with joy."
What a marvelous description! This gives an entirely
different outlook, in contrast with the misguided conception
that construes a person as a single entity. The ego wants,
the ego acts, the ego and its weaknesses. He is the one and
only. But we are presented with an entirely different
conception. The person who is in control of his senses can
divide himself and study his alter ego distinctively. There
is the real `he,' which is represented by his intellect and
his innate sense of good. These become the commanders in
chief over the rest of his body, the organs which become
obedient soldiers, ready to serve.
From hereon in, all terminology adapts to the military:
orders, discipline, subservience, reprimands, conduct.
If, at the age of seventeen, in the home of Potifar, in a
strange land, Yosef was able to withstand terrible temptation
and emerge victorious, if he persevered, issued orders,
reprimanded, was obedient, and ruled over his impulses --
then he could and did emerge from prison to rule. Over
others, as well.
He was already king, even before. He had already reached that