This week's parsha
How Did Joseph Become the Most Politically Powerful Jew in History?
We’ve all heard the inspiring story of Joseph: He was sold by his brothers into slavery, was accused of abuse by the wife of Potiphar, and spent 12 years in prison. Then, within one day, he went from being a pitiful slave to an all-powerful viceroy of Egypt, second only to the Pharaoh, and single-handedly saved the known world from hunger. It’s the ultimate rags-to-riches story.
How did Joseph have the proper leadership skills to be the most politically powerful Jew of all time? Becoming a true leader takes years of self-mastery and character refinement. Yet Joseph was merely 30 years old and had spent nearly half his life in a dungeon!
Let’s take a closer look at Joseph’s life to see how he exhibited leadership skills and refined his character even early on:
Joseph Is Kind
Jacob had two wives -- Rachel and Leah -- and two maidservants-turned-concubines -- Bilhah and Zilpah. Leah bore six sons; Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah each had two sons. The sons of Leah would act condescendingly toward the children of the maidservants. Conversely, Joseph, the elder son of Jacob’s favorite wife, would treat them with love and equality. As the verse says, “He befriended the children of Bilhah and Zilpah.”According to one commentary, this was the original cause of Leah’s children’s hatred toward him, which eventually led to them selling him into slavery.
Joseph Is Humble
When in the home of his master Potiphar (who was a minister in Pharaoh’s Cabinet), he had the name of G‑d on his lips, always showing gratitude and blessings to his G‑d. Even as he was promoted and eventually became the manager of his master’s estate, he was constantly mindful of his G‑d.
Joseph Is Disciplined
Life was achieving a new normal for Joseph, until the wife of Potiphar tried to seduce him into sin. A lonely boy far from home and abandoned by his brothers would be excused for caving into his impulses. He was merely seventeen years of age. However, Joseph overcame this test of character. Angry that she was snubbed, Potiphar’s wife accused him of abusing her. This landed him in prison.
Joseph Is Bold
In prison, he quickly rose to the role of leader and was appointed by the warden to service the other inmates. When he saw two inmates, a butler and a baker, looking upset,5 he inquired after their wellbeing. He listened to their dreams and interpreted them correctly. Two years later, when Pharaoh had two dreams that needed to be interpreted, it was the reinstated butler who reluctantly mentioned the Hebrew slave who had helped him with his dreams back in jail.
Suddenly, Joseph is plucked from prison and finds himself standing before the mightiest man alive. He calmly interprets the Pharaoh’s dreams, predicting seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. He then has the courage to offer a solution. Pharaoh is duly impressed and quickly appoints him as second-in-command, thus making him the most politically powerful Jew in history.
On Self Mastery
There is an insight by the Degel Machaneh Ephraim that frames this whole conversation beautifully. As mentioned, we read in this week’s Parshah of Joseph being rushed out of the pit, getting a haircut, changing his garments and being brought to Pharaoh. The word the Torah chooses to use for garments is simlotav (שמלותיו). The letters in this word are the same letters as the word moshlotav (משלותיו), which translates as “his rulerships,” in plural. Why? Wasn’t he just a ruler in one position, as viceroy of Egypt? According to the Degel, this teaches us that Joseph led in every environment that he found himself.
He befriended the shamed. He kept the name of his Creator on his lips. He stood up to temptation. He made of the best of a terrible situation in prison, and even cared enough to inquire about the welfare of his fellow inmates.
When the time came to lead and save the world from hunger, he was ready. He had been working on his character all his life. His time had come.