The Making of a Leader

And Yosef said unto his brethren: Come near to me, I pray you. And they came near. And he said: I am Yosef your brother, whom you sold into Egypt. (Sefer Beresheit 45:4)

1. Yosef’s trials
In Parshat VaYigash, Yosef reveals himself to his brothers. His father, Yaakov, his brothers, and their families join him in Egypt. Yosef’s family settles in the area of Goshen and Yosef provides for them for the duration of the famine. The narrative of the parasha describes the realization of the dreams that Yosef dreamt as a young man. In those dreams Yosef envisioned himself as his family’s leader and provider. Yosef had achieved a position of power and authority. His family joined him in Egypt not as equals, but as subjects. Yosef also managed the distribution of the provisions that would sustain his family during the years of famine. He was his family’s provider.

However, it is also clear from the Torah’s narrative that Yosef’s dreams were realized only after he experienced long years of torment, and loneliness. Why was this extended period of isolation from his family necessary? Why was Yosef only allowed to realize his childhood visions after a prolonged period of intense suffering? Apparently, Yosef’s experiences, in some way, transformed him and prepared him for his role as leader. What was the nature of this transformation and how did Yosef’s long lonely years bring about this transformation?

And his brothers said to him: Shall you indeed reign over us or shall you indeed have dominion over us? And they hated him yet the more for his dreams, and for his words. (Sefer Beresheit 37:8)

And now be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that you sold me hither; for G-d did send me before you to preserve life. For these two years has the famine been in the land; and there are yet five years, in which there shall be neither plowing nor harvest. And G-d sent me before you to give you a remnant on the earth, and to save you alive for a great deliverance. (Beresheit 45:5-7)

2. Yosef’s transformation
The first step toward answering these questions is to identify the change that took place in Yosef over the long period of his exile from his family. Yosef is introduced in Parshat VaYeshev. He is Yaakov’s favored son. He is apparently being groomed by his father for a position of leadership within the family. His father provides him with a special garment – a jacket – that confirms his special status.[1] The Torah tells us that he is sent by his father to check upon his brothers and to report back on their welfare. This incident leads to Yosef’s tragic encounter with his brothers and his descent into bondage. However, the incident also indicates that Yaakov relied upon Yosef to monitor his brothers.[2]

Yosef’s brothers resent his favored position within the family. Their attitude toward Yosef does not seem to be unfounded. Yosef shares with his brothers his dreams of grandeur. They sense that he wishes to impose himself over them and to lord over them. They regard him as self- engrossed and deluded. The Torah seems to suggest that the brothers’ assessment of the young Yosef is not completely unfounded.[3]

In Parshat VaYigash a dramatically different image of Yosef emerges. Yosef reveals himself to his brothers. His brothers respond with astonishment and are overwhelmed by confusion. It is not difficult to imagine the thoughts that occupied the brothers. They had sold their brother Yosef into slavery. They could imagine the suffering he had experienced before somehow rising to his current position of power. They presumed that Yosef resented and even hated them. They assumed that he held them responsible for all that he had suffered. They did not know how to respond to Yosef’s revelation of his identity.[4]

Before the brothers can respond Yosef intervenes. He tells his brothers to not fear him. They sold him into bondage. But their actions were a part of a greater providential plan. Hashem has chosen him to be the rescuer of the family from the ravages of the famine. He has been selected by Hashem to assure the survival and development of a great people.

Yosef’s message to his brothers communicates the emergence of a personality unknown to the brothers. This was not the self-absorbed boastful brother whose dreams and fantasies of dominance they had intensely resented. The Yosef who stood before them was an individual who completely set aside his own ego and saw himself as an instrument of Hashem and an actor in a historical drama that would shape the future of humankind. Rather than assessing the actions of his brothers from the perspective of the personal, he only viewed their behaviors as necessary elements within a Divine plan to rescue the family of the covenant.

And Yosef was brought down to Egypt; and Potiphar, an officer of Paroh’s, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him from the hand of the Ishmaelites, that had brought him down there. (Sefer Beresheit 39:1)

And Yosef’s master took him, and put him into the prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were bound; and he was there in the prison. (Sefer Beresheit 39:20)

And Yosef answered Paroh, saying: It is not in me; G-d will give Paroh an answer of peace. (Sefer Beresheit 41:16)

3. Yosef’s path to transformation
How did Yosef’s experiences in Egypt bring about this transformation? This question requires an extensive analysis. This discussion will only deal with this issue briefly.

Yosef entered Egypt as an exile and as a slave. Exile is a humbling experience. Our Sages suggest that exile from the familiar surroundings of one’s home encourages humility.[5] In addition to exile, Yosef was also subjected to servitude and bondage. Apparently, these measures did have some impact in tempering Yosef’s youthful self-absorption. This is indicated by the ascent of Yosef from the status of a common household servant to a position of authority within the household of an important minister. However, it is also apparent that the exile and servitude Yosef endured were not adequate to prepare him for the leadership role for which he was destined.

Yosef was subjected to new afflictions. He was unjustly imprisoned. Imprisonment undoubtedly further tempered any remaining egotism. However, the series of events that led to his unjust imprisonment also communicated to Yosef an important message. The individual – regardless of his genius and ability – is not the master of his own destiny. We are all subject to forces we neither can predict or control. Even the most wise and powerful person can only succeed through the benevolence of Hashem.

With time, Yosef grasped this message and openly expressed it when he was finally summoned by Paroh. Paroh summons Yosef to interpret his disturbing dreams. Yosef carefully explains to Paroh that any interpretation that Paroh receives will not come from him – from Yosef. It will be a message from Hashem delivered through Yosef.

4. The model of leadership embodied by Yosef
This account of Yosef’s emergence as the leader of his family provides a description of the Torah’s model of leadership. It is not a model that most leaders can hope to fully embody. However, the model establishes a standard for which every leader must strive. It also communicates a clear message regarding the basis for the leader’s decisions.

A lay or religious leader cannot use his or her position of authority and influence for the pursuit of a personal agenda or to further the aims of a special interest group for whom the leader has an affinity or bond. The Torah’s leadership ideal requires that the leader focus on his mission and the needs of the community that he serves and not upon the personal. The leader must be self-effacing and assess each experience and decision on the basis of this mission. Personal disappointments and even intentional wrongs cannot deter the leader from striving to fulfill this mission. Personal ambitions or self-interests cannot be the basis for decisions. This is the leadership modeled by Yosef.

1. Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 37:3.
2. Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 37:14.
3. Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 37:5.
4. Rabbaynu Yosef Bechor Shur, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 45:3.
5. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 2:4.