Rabbi Weinreb’s Parsha Column, Miketz

“Sparks in all Directions”

My many years of teaching experience have taught me many lessons. One is that when students are encouraged to express their own ideas, they inevitably do so. Moreover, they do so with great creativity and originality. The class that I had been leading on the subject of leadership, drawing upon the text of the book of Genesis, was no different.

I have also learned that a point occurs where the teacher can simply no longer control the conversation. Each student has something to say, often from very different perspectives, and there is no repressing the energy in the classroom. The teacher has to simply let it happen.

The evening that we focused on this week’s Torah portion, Miketz (Genesis 41:1-44:17), was the evening at which this class reached that point. I entered the room two or three minutes late, and the buzz of conversation was already building.

Alex, whose comments were usually words of criticism of another’s contributions, was initiating the discussion this time. “This parsha is loaded with implications for our topic,” he began. “Everything we read about Joseph is related to the subject of leadership. I don’t always agree with his style, but there can be no doubt that he was destined for leadership, chosen for leadership, and a very effective and practical leader.”

Almost all of the rest of the class immediately responded, so that it was impossible for me to control the dialogue.

Zalman’s voice prevailed: “There is a two-word phrase, early on in the parsha, which appears twice, and which for me is the essence, the nucleus, of what leadership is all about.”

Alex responded, challenging Zalman: “if there’s one thing we have learned so far, it is that leadership is a very complex matter. I can’t imagine that it can be boiled down to a two-word phrase.”

Zalman smiled triumphantly, relishing the challenge. “It is Joseph himself,” he asserted, “who first uses the phrase. In advising Pharaoh as to what he can do about his disturbing dreams, Joseph says that Pharaoh should select a person who is navon v’chacham, understanding and wise, and appoint him over the land of Egypt. Pharaoh accepts Joseph’s advice, and says, ‘There’s no one as understanding and wise as you.’

“Now, what is the exact meaning of those two words, ‘understanding’ versus ‘wisdom?’ How are they different from each other? And why do Joseph and Pharaoh agree that those are the two qualities which will make a person fit to guide Egypt through the approaching years of famine?”

“I really don’t know,” admitted Alex. “But one of the techniques that this class has already taught me is to pay careful attention to the Hebrew original text. Perhaps the answer lies in the contrast between the Hebrew words for ‘understanding’ and ‘wisdom.’ ”

“Precisely,” Zalman responded gleefully, “precisely. In biblical Hebrew, ‘wisdom’ is chochma, and ‘understanding’ is binah. And there is a great difference between the two. As I understand it, chochma is the flash of insight, the creative concept. Having chochma is a great gift in itself, but it is insufficient. Good ideas often go nowhere unless there is an ability to apply them in real life situations. That ability is called binah.”

Sam, as usual, summarized: “I see what you’re saying, Zalman. Joseph was suggesting that the leader suited to Pharaoh’s needs must have inspired ideas but, more importantly, must be able to translate those ideas into plans of action. The leader must have intellectual skills, but he must also have what we today call executive skills.”

Othniel spoke up first, taking the conversation in an entirely different direction. “I think it is a mistake to think of leadership as being a set of skills with which a person is endowed. I think that leadership emerges from the interaction between one person and another. Joseph alone could interpret dreams. But he can only do so because Pharaoh had those dreams and presented them to him, and because Pharaoh responded enthusiastically to Joseph’s interpretations.

“I can’t compete with Zalman in quoting Jewish sages. As you know, I was not brought up as a Jew and have had a very limited Jewish education. But in the Christian seminary that I attended back in Poland, we were required to read the works of Albert Schweitzer. Here is something that he said:

” ‘In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.’

“Joseph’s fire was surely dimmed by his experience in the dungeon. It was his encounter with another human being, in this case Pharaoh, that allowed his fire to burst into flame. Joseph’s leadership emerged out of that encounter, and so too do the qualities of every leader. Leadership is a response to another human being.”

Priscilla, ever practical, took the floor: “There is something that we are missing in our discussion of this week’s Torah portion. It is Hanukkah tonight, and I am told that the parsha of Miketz is invariably read on the Shabbat of Hanukkah. I was pondering the leadership lessons that could be learned from the Hanukkah story and then you, Othniel, introduced the imagery of fire and flame, the symbols of this holiday.

“Let me share with you a beautiful insight which I heard in the name of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. He points out the stark contrast between the Menorah that was lit daily for centuries in the Holy Temple, and the menorah that we light in our homes on Hanukkah.

“In the Temple, the number of lights in the menorah remained constant, in contrast to Hanukkah, when a new light is added each evening. In the Temple, the candles were lit during the day, and they were kindled inside the Temple’s inner chamber, whereas the lights of Hanukkah are lit when darkness falls, and they are placed facing the outdoors.

“The Menorah in the Temple represents the response to times of peace and plenty, when we can be constant in our behavior and need not strive for change and growth. At such times, there is no threatening darkness which needs to be illuminated, and we can remain comfortable, even complacent, in our own homes.

“On the other hand, the story of Hanukkah takes place at a time of great challenge, physical and spiritual. Accordingly, we cannot be satisfied with a status quo, but we must grow and increase our efforts beyond what we are already doing. Hence, we light additional candles each and every night.

“To carry the metaphor even further, during the story of Hanukkah, the Jewish people faced the challenge of darkness, and it is after darkness falls that we light candles tonight. Finally, we can be content to remain private citizens only when times are tranquil. When times are stormy, and I would add that they are stormy today, we are required to reach beyond ourselves and assert our beliefs to the rest of the world. We light the Hanukkah candles for all to see.”

Once again, Sam summarized: “I see what you are saying, Priscilla, and I see the implications of the idea you shared with us for leadership. There are times when dynamic and assertive leadership is not necessary, when we can be satisfied to each ‘sit under our own fig tree and olive tree.’ But such were not the times of Hanukkah, nor are they our times. Then and now, bayamim hahem bazman hazeh, we must all don the mantle of leadership. And leadership calls for the mustering of new additional inner resources for dispelling darkness, and for warm and glowing outreach.”

Simultaneously, Alex, Zalman and Othniel had the last word, in unison and as a chorus, and exclaimed: “That’s exactly what we said, but in different words.”

What came to my mind was the classical Talmudic image that uses the metaphor of the hammer striking the anvil and sending sparks flying in all directions. Indeed, that evening, when our class coincided with the Festival of Lights, sparks were flying. They were sparks of Torah, of wisdom and understanding, and of genuinely heeding the words and thought