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The Look of True Piety

When reading about our great Torah personalities in the Tanakh, we often read with rose-colored glasses. We project an idealized image on to its leading characters. We create a picture of piety in our mind from our earliest youth that stems from how society portrays piety to us. Some of those features include a black hat and coat, a velvet kippah instead of a knitted one, a bearded rather than a clean-shaven man, a person swaying in prayer, and someone who seizes on every rabbinic stringency.

Having this view of our great matriarchs and patriarchs, our foundational leaders, in fact, does us great harm. If we are to learn from our great personalities, we must look at them as the natural human beings they were. They experienced life, the good, the bad and the ugly. They endured the struggles of life and even made mistakes along the way. Only by looking closely at how they slipped up and then overcame both internal and external challenges can we see and learn where true piety resides.

Joseph is one personality the Torah spends a lot of ink on. Last week’s reading told us in great detail about Joseph’s failings on his way to becoming the great leader he eventually became. He was a precocious young boy, the brightest by far of all his siblings. He possessed a certain self-confidence yet he was very immature. This combination of traits caused him to belittle his brothers and even tattletale on them to his father. Eventually, he was so despised by his brothers that they plotted to kill him. Rather than commit murder, they finally settled on disposing of Joseph by selling him as a slave to nomads traveling south out of Canaan. The brothers hoped to be rid of him forever.

Purchased by an official in the Egyptian government to do menial house chores, Joseph rises in that position. As a reward for his excellent management skills and loyalty, Joseph is soon placed in charge of his entire estate. His master’s wife becomes attracted to him. She tries at first to seduce him. Spurned in all her advances toward Joseph, she finally accuses him of rape. Without recourse to a trial, Joseph is thrown into a dungeon for years. There again he eventually gains the respect of the chief warden and is given authority while yet remaining a convict.

He gained his release from prison only after no one else in the Egyptian kingdom could interpret two disturbing dreams of Pharaoh. It is after this event that we see the final emergence of Joseph as the great Jewish leader. Although Joseph rightly attributes the dream and its dire interpretation as a message from God, once Joseph accepted the appointment of Viceroy of Egypt by Pharaoh, it is left up to him to devise a plan to save all those affected by the pending prophetic catastrophe. On this point, God is silent and does not tell Joseph what to do.

History presents us with many outstanding figures but often they are one-dimensional. Albert Einstein was a great intellect but lacked political and military savvy. General George Patton was a great military strategist but lacked political diplomacy. Golda Meir was a great political figure but she blundered militarily almost fatally.

As depicted by the Torah outlined above, in the common view, Joseph was hardly a tzadik or righteous person. He was a leader and brave not falsely modest, shy, or the type to back away. He was an innovator and visionary, with creative and imaginative intellect. His insights were revolutionary. Yet he was also a pragmatist and used all of his talents to implement a plan to save the entire Egyptian empire. For his plan to be successfully implemented, it would demand tremendous self-discipline on the part of all citizens throughout Egyptian society.  As viceroy, Joseph would have to make tough decisions. While being fair he would also have to be stern and at times uncompromising.

Unbeknown to Joseph, however, was what was about to transpire in his life as a result of the pending famine. The hidden purpose of the famine was to put Jacob’s family in a situation that would bring about God’s will to create the nation of Israel. That goal at that moment was the furthest thing from Joseph’s mind. The Torah specifically and not by accident tells us the reason Joseph chose the name Menashe as the name for his first son. “God has caused me to forget all my toil and all my father’s house.” What pious person would go ahead and choose such a name for a child and at the same instant invoke God as the cause?

True piety comes from absolute honesty. Joseph realized for his development and perfection he had to undo all of his earlier attitudes and relationships with his family and reshape them.  He realized his growth as a human being was at stake. In bestowing this name on his son, Joseph is expressing his gratitude to God for placing him in difficult situations where he could overcome unruly parts of his personality. While at first Joseph failed in these situations, he emerged from these trials and tribulations a very different person than when he entered. Only now could he take the appropriate steps, if presented, to play a role in God’s divine plan to create the nation of Israel.

This process called for a total overhaul of the way he viewed himself and his family. Now should the situation ever arise, he would be able to deal with his brothers completely differently. They were as necessary as he was to the one goal and objective of creating and building the nation of Israel. I don’t think Joseph ever wore a black hat and coat, velvet kippah, and the rest.  He certainly made mistakes. Yet he is known as “Yoseph ha’tzadik, Joseph the pious.” Joseph is our role model for true piety.

May Hashem give all of us the insight, courage, and strength of personality to view our failings and shortcomings as opportunities for introspection and then change for the better. In this merit may Hashem continue His protecting care over Israel, Jews, and God-fearing people the world over.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan