Rabbi David Walk
Yosef is one of the more enigmatic characters in our Bible. The last third of Genesis is devoted to him and his exploits. Yet we don't quite feel like we know him. I am often told by students and congregants that they don't like him. He seems to be a little full of himself. It's an interesting phenomenon how we personalize the events and characters in Tanach. And when I try to defend him, my arguments often fall on deaf ears. The most popular attacks are on his vanity and over blown view of himself. The two biggest complaints are his enthusiasm in relating his dreams to his brothers and his lack of communication with the family after his rise to power. Even though I'm not going to address those two issues specifically, I hope that I will present Yosef in a manner which will soften some of his rough edges.
Yosef is complex. Aren't we all? He does seem to grow and mature over the duration of his lengthy story. But before I discuss that aspect of Yosef, I want to present an interesting point raised by the Rav (Rabbi Joseph D. Soloveitchik, 1903-1993). He explains a famous Midrash about Ya'akov in a novel way. Last week we read that Ya'akov presents himself to Esav by recalling that he dwelt with Lavan all these years. The word for dwelt is garti, the Midrash turns that into a Gematria (numerical value) of 613, the exact number used to enumerate all the mitzvoth in the Torah, and the name of our kosher restaurant here in Stamford, CT. Therefore, the rabbis say that he was telling Esav that although he had dwelt with the evil Lavan for all these years, he still performed all the mitzvoth. The Rav points out that this can't be true, because the rabbis don't play word games like that. I would like to add that the statement also isn't factually accurate, because one of those 613 mitzvoth is the prohibition of marrying two sisters, which Ya'akov did in Lavan's house. So, the Rav opines that the pun is totally different. He emphasizes the use of the term garti, which means to be a stranger. Ya'akov remained true to the essence of our tradition because he remained a stranger in this far off land. That idea is critical for our continued long term existence in exile.
We need this description of Ya'akov's sojourn to teach us this important concept. However, the Rav then turns his attention to Yosef and asks why do we need so much description of his time in Egypt? He explains that Ya'akov and Yosef both spent at least twenty years alone in a foreign environment, but succeeded in remaining loyal to our tradition and destiny. But their circumstances were very different. Ya'akov was constantly harassed and abused by his father in law, but Yosef was always successful and admired, even pampered, during his long sojourn. We need both examples because there have been exiles of pain and there have been Diasporas of plenty and we need both examples to remind us how to stay loyal to the faith in both environments. Remain an outsider!
But the true growth of Yosef as a leader and historic role model isn't truly noticed until next week. When he is hauled up out of prison (albeit a privileged incarceration) to decipher Pharaoh's dreams he finally shows the results of a long maturation process. He interprets Pharoah's dreams and then, unbidden, offers some critical advice, 'So now, let Pharaoh seek out an understanding and wise man and appoint him over the land of Egypt (Genesis 40:33).' He may have had himself in mind, but I doubt it. It's hard to believe that he thought that a prisoner (and a foreigner and a shepherd) could be chosen for this important post. But Pharaoh looked at this young man and saw the man for the job. Because Yosef had become the character he described to Pharaoh. He was chacham (wise) and navon (understanding). This week he's only chacham, and he pays dearly for it.
What's the difference between the two? Let me use an example. This week the world of physics celebrates one hundred years since Albert Einstein presented his Theory of General Relativity to the world. That is one of the greatest examples of chachma the world has ever seen. Chachma is the 'Eureka!' moment. When some idea or concept becomes crystal clear to the really smart individual. Relativity is an example. The apple hitting Newton's noggin is another. Funny they both involve gravity. Yosef's dreams are a third instance. But Yosef didn't have a clue how to treat this inspiration. Instead of thinking matters through, he ran to tell the world. His world didn't react well. That's because he didn't have havana (understanding, no reference to Cuba). The navon knows how to apply the breakthrough inspiration. There are so many instances in history of a true genius never capitalizing on their insights because they no havana.
Now we turn to next week's scenario. Yosef hears Pharaoh's dreams and with that quick intellect immediately knows what they mean. Seven years of plenty and seven years of famine are on the way. But his experiences over the previous few years, with his brothers, with his boss' wife, in prison, have given him insights which have transformed him into a navon. He immediately tells Pharaoh what to do with this information. Pharaoh sizes up this still young man and sees that this is the one with both the smarts and the savvy to handle the job. Yosef spends the rest of his life implementing his dreams in a manner that no longer threatens his family. More on that in two weeks.
We all need both of those traits to navigate this difficult world in which we find ourselves. Just being bright isn't enough. We also require the social and emotional intelligence to apply the flashes of insight to really make our lives better. In other words, we need what Yosef acquired through his hard knocks: maturity.