Thursday, 02 Dec 2010

Written by Rabbi Aaron Goldstein

‘And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Observe, I have placed you in charge of the entire land of Egypt.” Pharaoh then removed his signet ring from his hand and put it on Joseph’s hand (Gen. 41:41-42a).

There is great benefit to be found in engaging in communication with our ancestors, whether they are Biblical, from the classic Rabbinic period, Medieval biblical commentators and all those since. I particularly like chatting with Ramban and Rashi and often find myself laughing out loud as our conversation progresses, as it did when I read Ramban on ‘And Pharaoh took off his signet ring from his hand.’ He quotes Rashi and then states: ‘The correct interpretation is…’ and gives his correct (!) opinion.

Yet as I was having fun with my conversation I made a connection to a real issue that is experienced increasingly: the signet ring, or today the power of attorney.

What a situation it is when a person who has been responsible for their affairs all their life decides, is recommended to, is forced to give up that right. What a situation it is for the child who has always looked to their parent for support and advice to be put in the situation of being the parent. Such is the shift in responsibility involved in power of attorney.

I could not represent in these few words, the complexity and multitude of individual experiences. Yet I wish to recognise the pain that is often expressed. In some scenarios this will be the primary feeling and yet as our experience and thinking becomes greater1,   we might also create alternative mind-sets that may provide opportunities to enrich life.

Ramban comments of the signet ring, ‘The correct interpretation is that the king’s ring contains his seal, just as it is said, “And sealed with the king’s ring (Esth. 8:8).” The king thus gave Joseph his seal so that he should be a “leader and a commander” (Isa. 55:4) of the whole government, and seal with the king’s ring whatever he desires.’

In the commentary of Ramban, there seems to be the possibility for what we might see as perversion of power. Joseph used the signet ring to nationalise land to provide the basics for survival from the famine and starvation faced by the people. Yet Egypt also grew rich by turning the desperation of individuals into servitude. Both Haman and then Mordechai use the signet ring, for, as Ramban puts it, ‘whatever he desires’, that in their case included the destruction of the ‘foe’. Ramban may merely be describing what he sees in the Torah text but in this issue, I find a greater model of responsibility in Rashi’s commentary on our verse.

Rashi states, ‘The giving of the king’s ring is a sign that a person to whom he hands it is to be second to him in rank.’

The notion that in power of attorney, one is being made ‘second’ to the other might be a useful model. Fair regard and honour of the elder needs to be present in this relationship, just as integrity is demanded of the ‘second’. The primary concern is still the honour of the elder.

Danny Siegel translates hiddur (honour), in Leviticus 19:32 as, ‘You shall rise before an elder and allow the beauty, glory, and majesty of their faces to emerge.’ May we in our own lives and in support of others involved in power of attorney, hold up that signet ring to reflect light on their lives, and our own.

Rabbi Aaron Goldstein
November 2010



1For a Jewish perspective you might consider Rabbi Dayle A. Friedman, Jewish Visions for Aging, Jewish Lights Publishing, 2008.

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.