When in Rome.
Vayeshev (Genesis 37-40 )
The introduction of the character of Joseph is multi-layered, comprising three different descriptions within two verses. In relation to his brothers he is described as a ‘shepherd’ in relation to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah he is described as a ‘youth’ (which Rashi sees as a sign of immaturity) and in relation to his father he is described as the ‘son of his old age’ (which Onkolos translates as relating to wisdom). It is perplexing that Joseph is described as both wise and immature simultaneously. Surely wisdom suggests maturity? If the different descriptions are due to the fact that Joseph behaved differently depending on the setting, this seems to reflect a fickle persona at best, and a schizophrenic or two-faced personality at worst. In light of this strange combination of descriptions, we are forced to delve deeper in order to understand the introduction of Joseph’s character and what it indicates about this celebrated leader’s qualities.
It is possible to suggest that these multiple and seemingly contradictory characteristics of Joseph are not a sign of capricious weakness but rather reflect tremendous strength of character – a unique and insightful ability to tap into the nuance of a specific situation (Sefer Baruch Taam, Vol. I, p. 43). Joseph is not simply influenced by his surroundings to act differently, rather he is conscious that he needs to speak to and read each person on their own level. Joseph is a shepherd amongst his brothers because that is their primary vocation. He displays youthfulness around Bilhah and Zilpah’s sons because they themselves are youths, and thus he embodies the concept that one should ‘educate youth, each according to their way’ (Prov. 22:6). And he exercises wisdom around his father because of his father’s wise disposition. This trait of flexibility holds him in good stead later, with respect to his interpersonal relations with individuals from the entire spectrum of society. In relation to the notable Potiphar, ‘Joseph found favour in his eyes’ (Gen. 39:4) and subsequently the same occurs with the prison warden in a ‘lower-class’ setting (39:21). Within his approach of adaptability, Joseph is nonetheless able to preserve his own personal core values, most notably when Potiphar’s wife attempts to seduce him and despite the personal temptation and potential social advance, ‘he nonetheless refused’ explaining that this act was morally wrong (39:8).
There is a rabbinic teaching that states:
Do not stand amongst those that sit, nor sit amongst those that stand, do not despair amidst happy people, nor express joy amongst those that despair – rather live within your context (Derech Eretz Rabba, Chapter 7).
Within the context of the firmly defined boundaries of Jewish law and a strongly grounded value system, it is important to absorb the range of approaches that pervade our various environments and react accordingly. It is inevitable that over the course of our lives we will play many different roles, often simultaneously. It is common to be a parent, child, leader, follower, colleague, spouse and friend, with each of these roles pertaining to different and unique behavioural dynamics. It was in part Joseph’s ability to simultaneously tap into different elements of his personality, speaking at the same time to the immature youth and to the wisest of men, that warranted his rise from the lowest level of jail, to the top of society as viceroy of Egypt. Ultimately his multi-faceted personality helped shape his journey and foster his transition to becoming a true leader who could appropriately read and adapt to his surroundings while at the same time preserving who he was, with steadfast ideals, beliefs and values.