Image: Caterpillar, pupa, butterfly: this animal completely transforms over its lifetime. (Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)
This week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev, shows us the transformation of Joseph from a spoiled favorite-child to a leader. Seems to me that’s useful information in light of the world’s troubles right now.
Joseph was the spoiled youngest son of a rich man, doubly spoiled after his father began trying to compensate for the death of his mother Rachel. Often first-time readers feel a sharp sympathy for his brothers, who hated him so much that they debated killing him and then settled for selling him into slavery. I’ve never gone that far – I don’t think anyone deserves to be murdered or enslaved, certainly no young person – but there’s no doubt that the young Joseph was obnoxious.
The older Joseph is wiser, not just because he has suffered but because he as used his time well. Midrash tells us that he spent his years in prison learning: he learned to speak every language spoken in that prison, he learned the life stories of everyone in the prison, he became a student of human nature and indeed, all the humanities.
The boy who was interested only in his own aggrandizement became curious about others.
The boy who wanted everyone to listen to him learned how to listen to others.
The boy who said things thoughtlessly learned to hold his counsel and measure his words.
I think, from now on, this is how I’m going to judge candidates for office. Not: will they be good for me? But: will they be wise in office?
All politicians are human beings. They will have flaws, and sometimes voting seems like an exercise in choosing which flaws I’m willing to live with. But looking at the Joseph story, what I see is the qualities that make for good leadership in unpredictable times: a willingness to listen, curiosity, a need to understand others so pressing that languages became important.
At any rate, it’s a different way to see a candidate, and with all the manipulation from media and outside influences, new paradigms for seeing might be really helpful. I know that the presidents who in my opinion have failed us had the qualities I associate with young Joseph: self-involved, wanting to be important, too quick to speak, too quick to judge, and greedy. The greatest leaders, in my opinion, have been the ones who were willing to listen to everyone, who did so not for an advantage but out of curiosity.
I’m not going to say which were which. I just invite you to join me, as the next election approaches, to try asking these questions:
- Is this person curious?
- Is their education over, or ongoing?
- Have they ever suffered real misfortune? How did they respond?
- Can they be quiet when quiet is called for?
- Do they learn from mistakes?
- Do they seek fame and/or fortune, compared to the other candidates on offer?
- What are their relationships with others like?
No policy there at all – just a question, are they closer to Joseph the Spoiled Kid or Joseph the Tzaddik?
P.S. – If you use the comments to endorse a political candidate, I will delete the post. I’m not going to use this space to advocate for a particular candidate, nor am I going to provide it for that purpose.