Drash on Parashat Miketz 2012

Drash on Parashat Miketz
Rabbi Don Levy
Temple Shalom of the Gold Coast, Queensland

The First Yiddischer Kopf

Stereotypes can be negative and hurtful, or they can be positive and complimentary.  Illogically, a good person objects to the former but not to the latter.  I say ‘illogically’ because if there is likely to be truth in positive stereotypes, then it follows that the negative ones are just as likely to ring true.  But good behaviour among people seldom follows logic!  So being good people we do tend to shun negative stereotypes – in ourselves and others – while celebrating and propagating the positive ones.

One positive stereotype about us Jews, and one about which we’re very unlikely to object, is that we’re well-endowed in the brains department.  Those who wish to ascribe above-average intelligence to Jews as a class, usually point to the incredible number of Nobel Prize winners who are Jews, given our tiny numbers.  Or the number of successful Jewish businessmen and entrepreneurs.  Or the number of leading figures in just about any and every important enterprise on the planet, except perhaps elected public office outside of a handful of countries.  We celebrate – at least amongst ourselves – this statistical Jewish tendency toward superior intellect and achievement.  We even have a name for it – a Yiddischer Kopf – ‘A Jewish Head.’  Some might ascribe this phenomenon to superior genetics, but I don’t.  Rather, I believe Jewish success comes from a complex cocktail of causes, including a traditional reverence for learning and a tendency to think ‘outside the box.’  The latter has been a product of necessity as Jews were systematically excluded from many occupations and professions.  That’s why, for example, Jews were so prominent in Hollywood in its early days; denied other outlets for our creativity, we ‘invented’ an entirely new industry based on an emerging technology.

Joseph, the son of Jacob is perhaps the first person on record to manifest a Yiddischer Kopf.  Reading this week’s Torah portion, about Joseph’s successful interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams and his elevation to Viceroy of Egypt, there are a number of lessons one can draw.  Was Joseph truly endowed with a God-given ability to see the meanings of others’ dreams?  Or was he simply clever enough to listen to what others told him, and use that information to maximum advantage – including his own?

The latter is the first lesson I like to draw from this delightful section of the Torah.  Joseph’s flaw placed him into slavery in Egypt.  The flaw to which I refer, of course, was his taking the favour his father showed him over his brothers and thinking it meant he was superior to them.  No, I’m not blaming the victim here – what his brothers did to him was undeniable evil.  But when you look at woes that befall us, they seldom come without some cause attributable to the ‘victim.’  This is definitely true in the case of Joseph; his tendency to lord it over to his brothers certainly angered them to the point of their assaulting and selling him.  Had his brother Reuben not intervened, the others may well have murdered him in cold blood.

Consigned to servitude in Egypt, Joseph certainly could see that his ticket to a better life would be his usefulness to his master.  So he applied his talents to the running of Potiphar’s household, and that elevated him to a lofty position for a slave.  Any student of the history of the ‘peculiar institution’ that is slavery, knows that slaves are unlikely to have the confidence to show initiative; they are too busy trying to read the moods of their master.  Potiphar’s wife’s denouncing of Joseph, another evil committed against him, must be seen as his miscalculation of the effects of her attraction for him.  Again, not to blame him – but truly this is not just something that happened to him.

Now, having been rotting away in the Pharaoh’s dungeon for years, he is cleaned up and brought before the King of Egypt.  Joseph, wizened through adversity, keeps his wits about him while Pharaoh recounts his dreams.  Then he gives a logical explanation.  This, after going out of his way to ascribe the explanation to God Himself.  Surely he knows that a self-adoring Pharaoh will not respond positively to self-congratulation by an ‘inferior.’   Finally, although the Pharaoh didn’t ask, Joseph offers advice on how to apply the information he’s just provided.  Given the combination of the logical sense of what Joseph is saying, and the appropriate way he presents it given the circumstances, it is predictable that the Pharaoh will not only accept the advice but think immediately of Joseph as the one man to carry it out.

See the logic in my case?  Joseph may well have possessed a God-given ability to see the hidden messages in another’s dreams.  On the other hand, his ability to stand before the Pharaoh and, in short order, explain the dreams and elevate himself to the one to deal with their consequences, may be attributable to something far simpler.  Perhaps the Joseph narrative comes to teach us about the importance of learning to read our surroundings.  Of keeping ourselves on an even keel despite our suffering.  Of keeping our wits about us when put in a position of great opportunity.  And of looking outside the box in creating for ourselves further opportunities.  Joseph clearly possessed all these talents and more; none of them is necessarily supernatural, but put together they enabled him to rise above his misery – not once, but twice.  Put together, Joseph possessed a Yiddischer Kopf, something many Jews over history have displayed.

The Joseph I see emerging from this narrative is a talented man, but the talents he develops are within the realm of what’s possible for most of us.  The lesson is therefore simple; we should all seek wisdom from our experiences, pleasant or otherwise.  Then we should apply that wisdom cleverly, as circumstances avail us.  Joseph was talented and successful, but also entirely ordinary.  From his example, we can learn how to develop a Yiddischer Kopf.  And we can thus achieve great things!

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