Here’s my commentary on Calmness, the Mussar emphasis for the coming week. For more teaching on Mussar, the Jewish discipline of character development, check out www.rivertonmussar.org.
Calmness of spirit allows us to act, rather than react, when the pressure is on. In a moment of crisis, calmness is essential to doing the right thing.
Joseph displays great calmness throughout his story, especially at its turning point, when he appears before Pharaoh to interpret his dreams. It’s not hard to imagine the scene. Joseph has been confined for years in a dungeon (bor or pit in Hebrew; Gen. 41:14), a place that must have been dark, squalid, and bare. Suddenly, guards come and whisk him out of the place, get him to clean up and shave and give him a new set of clothes. Then, before he can grasp what is happening, they lead him, still squinting in the bright sunlight, into the splendid surroundings of Pharaoh’s throne room. But Joseph has no time to adjust to the changes; he is immediately presented with the challenge of interpreting Pharaoh’s dream, which, he is told, all others have failed to interpret. The spotlight is on Joseph who has been hidden in the dark for years, and he responds with great calm: “It is not I; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer” (Gen. 41:16).
Joseph displays the same quality a few years later when his brothers, whom he has not seen for twenty years, appear before him in Egypt to buy food. Joseph is at his daily work when suddenly all of his brothers minus Benjamin are bowing before him, not knowing who he is. Whatever Joseph felt at that moment, he realizes that some things have to happen before he can be reunited with his brothers. He must test them, to see whether they have repented of their sin against him and against their father, and have learned to practice loyalty. The test turns out to be rather elaborate and time consuming. At key junctures Joseph is overcome with emotion, but maintains his outward calm. Thus, when Joseph imprisons Shimon and demands that the brothers bring Benjamin down to him, he overhears them say, “Alas, we are paying the penalty for what we did to our brother” (Gen. 42:21). Joseph goes aside to weep, but restrains himself in his brothers’ presence and maintains his focus on the test he must oversee. Later, when Benjamin arrives, Joseph greets him, and, “With that, Joseph hurried out, because he was overcome with affection for his brother, and he was about to weep. So he went into a private room and wept there. Then he washed his face and came out; and controlling himself he said, ‘Serve the meal’” (Gen. 43:30-31). Then he went on to carry out the rest of his plan, which was necessary for true reconciliation with his brothers.
From Joseph’s example we learn not only the importance of calmness, but also that calmness is not the absence of emotion. Rather, it is the ability to restrain ourselves amidst emotions, whether ours, or those of the people around us, and maintain our focus on right behavior. But, how does Joseph come up with so much self-restraint and focus? Perhaps part of his secret lies in the words he speaks to his brothers after he finally reveals himself to them: “And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life” (Gen. 45:5). Joseph recognizes God at work, even in the most difficult and painful chapters of his story. Likewise, God has a purpose in our lives that is not shaken by the shocks and upsets we must endure. Surely that knowledge is the key to calmness of spirit.