The following passages are excerpts from Emma Block’s D’var Torah given Saturday evening December 13th. They are in reference to this week’s Torah portion – Vayeshev.
This is an epic portion, telling the famous story of Joseph, one of the great heroes of the Torah. But our great hero, like many others, is a complicated two-sided person.
How and when did Joseph change so drastically? He goes from bratty boy to self-made man. I thought that perhaps it took place the moment he was in the pit, he had fallen as low as possible, and realized that he would have to work his way up again. He realized that he drove his own brothers to hate him enough that they wanted to kill him. Perhaps in that moment, he felt he had somehow earned this fate, and knew he would have to recreate himself.
For another explanation I turned to Rashi, a famous Torah commentator from before the 15th century. He says that the shift in fact took place much earlier. After the dreams, when Jacob asks Joseph to look after his brothers in Shechem, Joseph responds to his father’s request by saying “Henieni” or “Here I am.” The phrase is a recurring one in the Torah. Most famously, when God calls Abraham, the first Patriarch, telling him “Lech Lecha – Go forth from your father’s land to a new land that I will show you.” Abraham too responds, “Henieni.” This is the ultimate expression of servitude and modesty. Joseph answers his father with this phrase just a few verses after he dreams that his father was bowing to him! This tells us that he was already beginning to shift, being brought down to earth. All he needed to see was his brother’s and father’s rage at his dreams – something imagined – to know that he needed change in real life.
There are two very different Josephs: the first we see is bratty boy in his father’s house, who uses his father’s favoritism to assert power over his brothers. The second is a resourceful and patient Joseph in Egypt, who is able to gain power again, only now through hard work, suffering, and righteousness. In this, we learn about two types of leadership. One that is given, and the other which is earned.
The Oxford American Dictionary defines “Leader” as: the person who leads or commands a group, organization or country and followed by the others.
Therefore, I would say Joseph was not really a great “leader” at all amongst his brothers. His brothers don’t actually respect him at all. With this given leadership it isn’t really your power in the first place, it is someone else’s power that they have fed you, but the people around you don’t necessarily respect or recognize you as a leader. You are not really basing your leadership on your own values, but rather, someone else’s.
With leadership earned, you gain more responsibility and understanding through your own life experience. I think you do have to know what it’s like to be at the bottom before you can reach the top. You don’t necessarily have to have suffered a great deal, but just know what it’s like to be oppressed or subjugated by others, or by the system.