Parshat Miketz: Lessons on Leadership

By Rabbi Shlomo Wallfish, senior faculty at the Robert M. Beren Machanaim Hesder Yeshiva

Parashat Miketz begins at the climax of a story in which Joseph is the protagonist. Though he had experienced rises and falls all along his journey, and though even more serious challenges still awaited him, as we’ll read later in this Parasha and in subsequent parshiyot, the most powerful turn of events occurs at the very beginning of our Parasha, when, within a very short time, he goes from filthy prisoner to the head of state of one of the largest empires of his day.

Beyond the external circumstances and divine providence, it would be interesting to explore the changes Joseph was experiencing within. This was a process that expressed his maturity and development over the years.

Even as a youth, Joseph was rather impressive. He had aspired to lead and stand out. His father, Jacob, had apparently wanted to cultivate these character traits, but Joseph’s brothers become intensely antagonistic toward him due to his childish demeanor. This happens all too often. As it was, the feeling that Joseph was favored above them all didn’t sit well with them, and we mustn’t forget that in Abraham’s family, only one son inherited his father’s spiritual and material wealth, while the rest would need to find their way around in foreign lands (and besides, the heir would almost never be the eldest son). Joseph makes almost every possible mistake, and this exacerbates the enmity his brothers felt toward him. Naturally, this could never justify the horrible thing they did to him, but our story focuses on Joseph, who hadn’t done enough to dispel the negative sentiments his brothers had for him.

Once Joseph reaches Egypt, he comes into his own. His talents quickly come into play, and Potiphar trusts him with everything. We should note that Joseph was very loyal to his master, and that his behavior wasn’t the main reason he experienced another fall from grace, when he was thrown into the dungeon, but he seemed to have made several more mistakes on the way, which helped lead him to this miserable state. The text reads: “He left all that he had in Joseph’s hands and, with him there, he paid attention to nothing save the food that he ate.” (Genesis 39:6). Interestingly, by becoming the de facto head of the household, he brings about his own downfall, which explains to him who is really in charge of the show. Once again, for Joseph, this was the reason he remained loyal to his master, the reason he wouldn’t betray him:

But he refused. He said to his master’s wife, “Look, with me here, my master gives no thought to anything in this house, and all that he owns he has placed in my hands. He wields no more authority in this house than I, and he has withheld nothing from me except yourself, since you are his wife. How then could I do this most wicked thing, and sin before God?” (ibid., 8-9).

 Yet since his leadership lacks boundaries, he once again ended up in dire straits. Unlike his first slip-up as a youth, Joseph was now mature enough to channel his leadership skills to a more productive end, and gain the trust and positive impression of those with whom he came into contact. However, he still had quite a bit to learn about setting boundaries between his job and his personal life.

The third and most important stage of his life arrives when he meets Pharaoh. On the one hand, Joseph’s leadership skills and sharp and coherent thinking lead to impressive results. Joseph is able to take advantage of opportunities, and he manages to transition from inmate to royal advisor within minutes. On the other hand, he entered Pharaoh’s court with a great deal of humility. He reiterates that Pharaoh is the one who decides, that he would find the “man of discernment and wisdom” and that he would instruct that man as necessary. Joseph doesn’t even recommend himself for the job – he simply allows Pharaoh to select him. Pharaoh understands this on his own, and he emphasizes, several times, that even though Joseph was, in practice, in charge of Egypt’s state affairs, as Pharaoh, he would keep a close eye on what was happening: “You shall be in charge of my court, and by your command shall all my people be directed; only with respect to the throne shall I be superior to you…” (ibid. 41:40), and “Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘I am Pharaoh; yet without you, no one shall lift up hand or foot in all the land of Egypt…” (ibid., vs. 44).

Apparently, this wasn’t just a rhetorical trick meant to persuade all those present that Joseph didn’t pose any threat to their leadership, but rather that he was acting in their benefit, without any ulterior motives. Joseph truly seems to have undergone an intrinsic transformation. He learns to channel his unique leadership skills so that they produce helpful and positive results, while remaining highly modest and attentive.

This process will grow even more intense during the heated encounter between Joseph and his brothers. In that setting, Joseph wanted to take his brothers through this important process, during which they would need to fight for their little brother and take care of him, however, Joseph would now do so with a level of intrinsic attentiveness and tenderness we haven’t seen in him until now – he weeps privately, behind closed doors, and he releases heart-wrenching wails in full view of the royal court. This is made possible because he now sees his brothers in a new light.

Hanukah is about the import process of maturation that the people of Israel undergo during the middle of the Second Temple period. The leadership abilities displayed by Mattathis, Judah, Jonathan and Simeon, of the Hasmonean clan, combined military and political skills. They managed to lead the Jewish people down a winding path that culminated in the establishment of an independent kingdom – the first since the destruction of the First Temple. Then, too, the process was long and exhausting, and included many mistakes. One of their best qualities was their ability to be attentive to the people’s spirits and strengths, and the Hasmoneans were only able to make their most significant achievements when the masses flocked behind their charismatic leaders.

On a spiritual level, the age of the Hasmoneans is a significant milestone in the development of the Torah and its inculcation within the Jewish people. The shift between the Written Torah and the Oral Torah skips several stages, and essentially, the first use of the traditional exegetical approach toward the Torah that we are, more or less, familiar with today, was rooted in that period.

Let us pray, particularly these days, when “there is no king in Israel”, that our leadership will be able to lead from a position of humility and attentiveness. May it learn the proper way, the way of ebbs and flows, from Joseph and the Hasmoneans.


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