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Joseph: The Secret Genius©

Parashat Vayigash 2022/5783

As we come to the close of 2022, I think it’s important to take a step back at how we have all changed, not just as individuals, but as a society.

I thought about lessons we have learned in the last year, and how we look at people completely differently today than we did even a year ago.

For example, if I told you last year that Elon Musk was swooping in to fund Congregation Shaarei Kodesh and take over running our day-to-day operations, and Sam Bankman Fried would be in charge of our portfolio, you would likely all have cheered. Today, not so much.

It begs the question: What is the line between genius and fraud?

I recently read an article by Dr. Brian Klaas titled, “The Myth of the Secret Genius.” Dr. Klaas is a professor and writer who is an expert on the subjects of democracy, authoritarianism, US foreign policy, American politics more generally, political violence, and elections.

His article did not focus on politicians, people elected to lead, rather, it focused on the non-elected leaders we tend to revere, or used to revere: Elon Musk of Tesla, SpaceX and Twitter, Sam Bankman Fried of FTX, Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos, Adam Neumann of WeWork, and Mark Zuckerberg of Meta.

The thought that drives our view of these people is the following: If he or she is super rich, he or she must be a super genius.

Klaas writes that their real genius is not in what they do, but in how they manipulate the world into thinking that they are Secret Geniuses.

Elon Musk is part of a small class of extremely rich people who are rich partly because they’re effective at making others think they’re Secret Geniuses. But what happens when you dare challenge the so called genius moves of this special group of elite people? Klaas writes:

“But those who doubt The Secret Geniuses, or express skepticism about their methods or their madness, must simply not be smart enough to see the bigger picture. If you question the Secret Geniuses, then all you’re doing is exposing yourself as one of the stupid proles, someone unable or unwilling to Think Big.

If you can’t understand why it was secretly smart for Elon Musk to pick a fight with the advertisers who used to give Twitter billions of dollars of annual revenue, well then you’ll just have to live with the fact that you’re too conventional and too conformist. We pity you for not seeing the bigger picture, they say.

Why are so many people seduced by these rich hucksters?”

As I think about the secret genius, I think about a version of Joseph that we have been accustomed to knowing up until this point in the Torah in parashat Vayigash.

Ora Horn Prouser, a Biblical scholar and author, suggests that Joseph is actually an intellectually gifted child. It is clear that Joseph is able to see things that no one else can. His dreams are an example of special gifts, but if we look at the concept of dreams metaphorically, Joseph is able to see a vision of the future that no one else can, and, he’s able to realize that future through his actions and skills. As we look back at Joseph’s life, we can see how his high intelligence lead to his struggles. He has a high IQ, but a very low EQ, or emotional intelligence.

Prouser writes in her book, Esau's Blessing: “Joseph’s method of sharing his insights is characteristic of the second behavior often attributed to gifted individuals, a gap between intellectual and emotional maturity. Joseph, in conversation with his brothers, seems insensitive at best, and perhaps even malicious. A good example is when he recounts not one, but two, separate dreams that illustrate his superiority to his brothers. Many gifted children exhibit a marked inconsistency between their intellectual maturity and their social, emotional, and physical development. Joseph possesses the intellect to comprehend the import of his dreams, but lacks the maturity either to keep the information private, or to share it with a greater degree of sensitivity.”

In parashat Vayigash, Joseph is fully transformed into the ‘Secret Genius’. He saves the Egyptian people, he makes Pharaoh richer and more powerful than he ever has been through the feudal system he sets up. He is revered as a god like figure, and given power that only one other person can match.

But Judah sees through the mirage and teaches Joseph a lesson in leadership.

Judah is himself a complicated character who has his own rich story arc. Judah famously sells his brother Joseph into slavery while his older brother Reuben makes an attempt to save Joseph. The Torah states, “26 Then Judah said to his brothers, “What do we gain by killing our brother and covering up his blood? 27 Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, but let us not do away with him ourselves. After all, he is our brother, our own flesh.” His brothers agreed.” (37:26-27).

Judah does the thing that perhaps comes most natural to humans by bowing to the pressures of jealousy and his brothers see this and follow him. They let someone else take care of their mess, they wash their hands of it.

After Judah sells his brother Joseph into slavery, we find the story of Judah and Tamar where Judah's sons who were married to Tamar both die and leave Tamar a childless widow. Judah's third son had to marry Tamar but Judah feared his death, so he withholds him from her leaving her unable to remarry and have children. In her desperate situation, Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute, and Judah unknowingly sleeps with his daughter-in-law. When she becomes pregnant, Judah accuses her of a forbidden relationship and orders her death, but she proves that Judah is the father of the baby.

Midrash Tanchuma writes about why this story occurs immediately after Judah tells his father that his beloved son Joseph was dead.

Midrash Tanchuma states, "You have no children now, and you do not know the pain of children. You have troubled your father, and caused him to mistakenly believe that his son Joseph is torn, all torn up. By your life, you will marry a woman and then bury your son, and [then you will] know the pain of children."

Judah here experiences what his father experienced, and so we come to the climax of the story of the brothers. When faced with the possibility of losing Rachel's second son, Benjamin, Judah becomes the leader of his brothers again, but this time, in a positive way. Judah states: “Therefore, please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy, and let the boy go back with his brothers. 34 For how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me? Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father!” (Genesis 44:33)

Judah controls his actions, he doesn't make the same mistake with Benjamin that he made with Joseph. He shows that he can learn from his or her mistakes and recognizes this is a moment of redemption not just for him, but for his entire family.

In the face of adversity, he goes against power and pressure and offers himself.

The ‘secret genius’ is revered as a hero, but in Judaism, heroism is not defined by their ruthlessness and cunning, or by their go it alone attitude, an almost god-like belief that only they could fix the messes of society, that they can bend any rule they want because only they have the vision for the future. Instead, Judah shows a different type of heroism. In the rabbinic work, Pirkei Avot/the Ethics of Our Fathers, we read:

איזהו גבור הכובש את יצרו

Who is a hero? One who can conquer his impulses, his Yetzer.

Sometimes the word Yetzer is translated as passions, but I do not think that it means being even-keeled and calm. Yetzer here, according to many commentators, means negative inclination as in the Yetzer HaRah.

The Yetzer HaRah the impulse to conquer, to acquire things and people. Our tradition teaches use that we need the Yetzer HaRah, because without it, we wouldn’t build homes, take jobs, or have children. But the Yetzer HaRah can consume us, and isolate us.

To conquer your Yetzer means to excel in morality and empathy, to use our Yetzer HaTov, the good inclination, and literally every person has the potential to do this.

One of the lessons that Judah teaches Joseph is to remind him of his humanity. When Judah places himself in front of his brother Benjamin, something he should have done years ago for his brother Joseph, Judah essentially tells Joseph: “I’m done playing games with people; we aren’t chess pieces on a board.” I believe it is the humility and empathy that leads to a breakthrough in Joseph.

Who knows what would have happened to Joseph if not for Judah’s speech. He might have gone further down the spiral of the secret genius, sacrificing people for the greater good of his own vision. Rather, Judah reminds Joseph of his past, of how the God of Israel was his true power, not his own genius, and he reminds him of the importance of having partners, not just followers. Judah reminds Joseph that a solitary life of absolute power will not bring redemption, rather, it is mercy/rahamim, and love/hesed that is the true secret to genius.

And it is a message to us; who we revere today because of their god like abilities may be the fools of next year. It is up to us to choose our leaders, both elected and appointed, with different standards, to see that true power is found in the most human of people, and what makes us human is how we control our impulses, and how we honor our fellow human.

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