The class devoted to the study of leadership, using the book of Genesis as a text, was proceeding well. On this, the ninth session, it reached a new depth. It did so by paying careful attention to the subtleties of the Hebrew language.
Hillel, from his usual seat at the back of the room, began the conversation: "It is not like me to start things off," he said self-effacingly. "But this week's Torah portion, Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1-40:23), has such obvious lessons about leadership that even I felt confident enough to express myself."
"Joseph is clearly a model for leadership, and although we learned of his birth in an earlier Torah portion, Vayetze, it is in this week's parsha that he begins to emerge as a leader. I will go so far as to propose," he said with growing assertiveness, "that his kind of leadership is better suited to modern times than the leadership demonstrated by his predecessors."
Practical Priscilla objected. "In some ways I agree with you, Hillel," she said. "But he doesn't really emerge as a leader until next week's Torah portion, Miketz, when he is released from prison and elevated by Pharaoh to become his viceroy."
I found myself hoping that Hillel would stand his ground and not yield to Priscilla's objection. He did not disappoint me.
"You are wrong, Priscilla," he insisted. "We become aware of Joseph's potential leadership powers while he is still in Potiphar's house, and even more so while he is in the dungeon. Let me prove it to you."
He continued to quote chapter and verse: "Genesis 39:2, 'The Lord was with Joseph and he was a successful man, even in the house of his Egyptian master.' And in the very last verses of that same chapter, which occurs after Joseph has already been imprisoned, we read that the chief jailer was disposed favorably towards him and put him in charge of all the other prisoners. Now there is an emerging leader!"
Priscilla was clearly preparing her retort, but before she had time to articulate it, Othniel took the floor: "Hillel is making a good point, for there is a word which recurs no less than three times in the chapter he cited which I wanted to bring to your attention. It is the Hebrew word for 'successful.' The word is 'matzliach.' Hillel quoted verse 2, in which it appears, as it does again in verse 3, and it is the word with which the chapter resoundingly concludes, 'and whatever he did the Lord made successful—matzliach.' "
Othniel continued to remind the class of the events of his own life, which he had shared with them many weeks before. He had gone through much in his life, not even realizing he was Jewish until his late adolescence. And he had to struggle against many obstacles to reclaim his identity.
"When I first reentered the Jewish community, I met an old man—not a Rabbi, just an old man, who welcomed me and told me that I was matzliach. I had to ask a friend what 'matzliach' meant. When he told me that it meant that I was a success, I was somehow not satisfied. I was convinced that the old man meant something deeper than just 'success.' "
Othniel continued to describe how he and his friend consulted a dictionary to discover not only the usual meanings of the word "matzliach," but its origins and deeper roots as well. "We learned that the word basically means to cut through, to pierce, to split open. One example is the verse in II Samuel 19:18 were the verb clearly means to 'cross through' the River Jordan."
Priscilla had remained courteous long enough and interrupted Othniel, but she did not disagree with him. "I see what you're getting at, Othniel. There is not only a linguistic connection between the Hebrew word for 'success' and the word for 'crossing through' or 'splitting'. There is a much deeper connection as well. The successful person is the one who can cross through difficulties, who can split obstacles and make his way past them."
Othniel graciously complimented Priscilla: "Precisely, my dear, precisely."
Hillel, having once had the experience of being the center of the class's attention, was eager to regain that role. Just to be certain, he arose and said that he had carefully studied the verses which described Joseph's experience in the dungeon and had thereby discovered the secret of Joseph's success.
"I think I know just what made Joseph so successful, or using the concept which Othniel and Priscilla just introduced, how he was able to 'cut through' the limitations of his rank as a prison inmate and achieve a much more exalted position.
"In chapter 40, verses 6 and 7, we read that Joseph met Pharaoh's courtiers the morning immediately after their troubled dreams. He saw that they were distraught. The average person in such a situation would pay no attention to another person's distress. Joseph had plenty to be distraught about himself, yet we read that he reached out to them and asked, 'Why do you appear downcast today?' That's amazing to me. He put his own troubles aside and inquired about the troubles of another. That, to me, is the basis of leadership. He was able to 'cut through' his own dark cloud and reach out comfortingly to another. You guys are correct: there is a connection between 'cutting through' and achieving 'success.' "
Nothing can be more gratifying to a teacher than to see his or her students grow. In this class session, I witnessed Hillel's growth—not just in his scholarship, but in his self-confidence and self-possession.
I saw the transition in Priscilla too, as she first challenged Hillel and then acknowledged the merits of his opinion, enabling herself to utilize, and enhance, Othniel's contribution to the discussion.
I was impressed by Othniel's ability to maximize his own rich personal life history and apply it to new learning, and how he could use what was a new tool for the class, analysis of the nuances of Hebrew, and thereby uncover a new dimension of the meaning of success.
Finally, to use contemporary jargon, I was "blown away" by Hillel's astounding insight. The true leader is not the one with the biggest ego. Rather, the true leader can transcend his own ego, notice the distress of another, and "cut through" what we all often imagine is unbridgeable—the distance between human beings.