Shabbat Vayeishev 5774 – What Joseph lacked
Joseph is an intriguing character. The last 13 chapters of the book of Genesis are devoted to him - more than anyone else in the Genesis.
He was a much-loved child, who undoubtedly had many gifts. After he was sold into Egypt, he rose rapidly from being a slave to being in charge of his master Potiphar’s household. He was also good looking, so that, also in this week’s sidra, we read of how he got into trouble with Potiphar’s wife. But he also lacked some essential attributes. He did not understand the consequences of his actions.
He was self-absorbed, selfish and conceited. He seemed to have no idea that his brothers would be upset if he told them his dreams which obviously meant that they would bow down to him. He was oblivious to the effect of his words on others. It’s true that his father bore some of the blame for the way Joseph was. He made him his favourite, as you have so well observed in your D’var Torah. But we are told that Joseph was seventeen at the time of his dreams. He was old enough to take responsibility for his own actions, and have some insight into their effect on others. Even after he was sold to be a slave, he had very little empathy. Two weeks ago, I saw a moving one-man performance at Cambridge Limmud about the baker, whose dream Joseph interprets at the end of the Siddur. The actor acted the character of the baker, and told how he felt at being thrown into prison for no apparent reason. He described how he tried to avoid Joseph in prison because Joseph was so annoying. And he described how Joseph persuaded him to tell him about his dream, although he really knew what it meant anyway, and didn’t want to be told that it meant he would be hung. Joseph has no idea of the baker’s feelings and tells him anyway.
Judaism treasures wisdom. The book of Proverbs tells us: ‘Happy is the person who finds wisdom, who gains understanding, for its fruits are better than silver, its yield than fine gold.’ Yet wisdom alone is not enough. Wisdom without empathy can be heartless and even dangerous. We see this especially with regard to the person in Judaism who is most renowned for his wisdom, King Solomon. Solomon was undoubtedly wise in many ways. But he treated his people so cruelly that after his death they rebelled and the kingdom of Israel was split in two, with only two tribes remaining under the sovereignty of his son Rehoboam.
Joseph and Solomon both had wisdom but lacked kindness and humility. It was only after his brothers came to see him in Egypt twenty years after they had sold him into slavery that he began to be understanding, and to greet them with humility. Solomon never learnt.
Much as Judaism treasures wisdom, when the rabbis talked about what really mattered, they agreed: Elaha liba baya - God requires the heart. The prophet Micah, who lived in about the eight century BCE, summed up what God requires of us in another way: ‘Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.’ There can be no better advice than that.