Vayiggash – Joseph and the Apprentice – and what we can learn from them

I am not a great fan of The Apprentice; the popular show in which budding, entrepreneurs try to become the next new business partner of Lord Alan Sugar; entrepreneur par excellence. Although I do often find Lord Sugar’s brutal assessment of the candidates’ performance and his quick undoing of their somewhat inflated sense of self quite entertaining. Likewise I find the candidates’ toe curling blunders amusing. Nevertheless, I find the over-inflated personalities of some of the candidates – their lack of humility and self-scrutiny, as well as their sole focus on money making, a depressing indictment of our society.

Are these young people truly the exempla of success? Are these the individuals on which we should model our children? Should we foster in them the same ruthlessly ambition we find among the participants in the Apprentice, the same inflated sense of self; the same ability to sing their own praise and vend their abilities (or presumed abilities), like common market stall sellers?

The attitude of the majority of the hopeful apprentices in the eponymous series evoke the same feeling of irritation as young Joseph in the Joseph story – without doubt the singular longest and most brilliantly told narrative in the Torah, generally revered to by modern Bible scholars as ‘the Joseph Novella’.

We first meet him as an insufferable, self-assured, vain young man, strutting around in his famed multi-coloured coat and telling dreams of greatness, not unbefitting the candidates on the Apprentice. The only difference is that in the Torah Joseph’s attitude is not lauded as a model of success, but rather, seen exactly for what it is; unacceptable arrogance. Even though Joseph is his favourite son – a favourtism not based on his personality but, on the fact that he is Jacob’s favourite wife’s eldest son – Jacob tells him off for his lack of humility. “Are we to come, I and your mother and your brothers and bow low to you to the ground?” he asks him reproachingly (Gen 37:10). Of course the great irony of the story is that that is exactly what is going to happen in the story, but not, until Joseph has learned a valuable lesson in humility. The story of Joseph is a tremendously well told tale of overconfidence and humility, arrogance and modesty, narcissism and consideration.

Jewish tradition considered arrogance as one of the worst character traits a person can possibly have: An arrogant person is not accepted even in his own household .. at first members of his family jump to his every word; after a while they find him repulsive says the Talmud Bavli, (Sotah 57b). What is more, our greatest leader Moshe Rabbenu himself is described in the Torah as a leader and prophet without equal, but also a man of unrivalled humility.

Yet that is not the whole story, for both Biblical accounts hold an inherent ironic tension on the subject of humility and arrogance, because, despite his undeniable arrogance, and vanity; Joseph is without doubt, exactly the right person to save his family (and everyone else living in the region) from starvation during the seven years of draught; for he possesses precisely the character traits that let him, time and time again, from the deepest pit unto a position of leadership and responsibility. His self-assurance; his confidence, his charms, his looks, in fact all the things that made him into the insufferable character he was to his family, made him stand out; noticed and trusted whilst in the service of Potiphar, in jail and even in the service of Pharaoh himself.

And even when we scrutinise our humble leader Moses we realise that he was less humble than described in the Torah, for after all, tradition goes that Moses himself wrote the Torah, and which truly humble man would write that there is ‘no humbler man in the world than himself!’

But this inherent irony is not just there to be just observed by us, critical moderns. I believe it is there on purpose, for all to see, to show the Torah’s acute awareness that to be successful in life we must strike a balance between sincere humility and a healthy degree of self-confidence, which can be so easily be mistaken for arrogance. This realization is beautifully worded by the Apocryphal Ben Sira: My son, in all modesty, keep your self-respect and value yourself at your true worth. Who will speak up for a man who is his own enemy? Or respect one who disparages himself? (Wisdom of Ben Sira, Chapt. 10 verses 28-29)

Without his self-confidence and a certain amount of arrogance Joseph would have languished in servitude of Potiphar or in jail. Yet, like the hopeful entrepreneurs on the Apprentice, Joseph possessed enough entrepreneurial spirit, to strike when the iron is hot, and a certain ruthlessness, with which he makes the Egyptians indebted to Pharaoh. And yet, his experiences in jail and in the servitude to Potiphar has reformed him too. The extent of his reform is particularly clear in his self-revelation to his brothers, which we just read this morning; for he no longer regards himself as the center of all the world; the sheaf of grain to whom all other sheaves bow. In fact now that he has reached the high position of his dreams, he realises that he is only a pawn in history, that even though he was able to use the historical events around him to his own advantage; none of it was his own doing, because he is just a small part of a much bigger picture. As such, he is able to forgive his brothers for the hurt they had caused him, because he realised that his personal hurt was nothing in comparison to the greater salvation to which their actions had led.

As such the Joseph story becomes a story of growth and forgiveness. Joseph’s inner change was as profound as his outer assimilation, and therefore it is no surprise that his brothers did not recognise him: first of all they simply didn’t expect to meet their brother, whom they sold into slavery, in such a high position, secondly he doesn’t look or sound like their brother, as he is dressed like an Egyptian official and speaks through an interpreter, but above all, he has learned to thread the fine balance between humility and arrogance.

Joseph was not a likable character when we first met him and when we read how he effectively takes the land of the poorer Egyptians in exchange for grain, we might still not like him very much, and yet he has changed enough to earn our sympathy and respect, for his loyalty for his family who treated him so poorly (he never tells the Egyptians who sold him into Egypt) and we cry with him, when he finally reveals himself to his brothers.

At best, Joseph is an ambivalent character; a character we warm to sometimes, and despise at others, yet even so, we learn that such people too can play a great role in history, and be a vehicle of salvation.

All the characters in the Torah are flawed, and yet the Torah upholds an ideal to which we can only strife. As such it doesn’t glorify the flaws – in fact all characters meet their comeuppance for their faults – for Joseph there was no better metaphor to bring him down from his self-inflated status than to throw him in a pit – twice (once in the well, and the second time in jail, which is als called ‘a pit’). And yet, his sense of self-importance was what was needed to make him noticed to eventually become the saviour of his own family.

Perhaps that is why the Apprentice is so successful, because the sense of satisfaction we derive from seeing the apprentices’ arrogance receive a well-deserved telling-off or to see them blunder off their self-erected pedestal, not out of a sense of Schadenfreude, but because we realise that many of those over-confident people come with a set of talents, which we would be too eager to dismiss, if we would judge them on character traits alone. We realise that isn’t always the nicest person who succeeds, but the one best equipped for the task. It is not always easy to acknowledge that. The Torah, whilst not adverse to teaching our Patriarchs some very valuable character forming lessons, is nevertheless able to appreciate their talents for what they are really worth. May we too always be able look for and appreciate the positive aspects in others, even if at first these are not so easily seen.
Ken yehi ratzon v’nomar: amen