Thursday, December 24, 2020

Yoseph vs. Romulus: A Lesson About Jewish Leadership

Romulus and Remus are the foundational figures of Roman mythology. The descendants of Kings and Gods, these twin brothers live legendary lives, fleeing jealous rulers and becoming courageous military leaders as young men. The brothers resolve to build a city together, but they cannot agree on which hill to do so. Romulus begins to build a city on his own, which will eventually become the great city of Rome. But then, as the dispute with his brother intensifies, Romulus murders Remus. The first century Roman historian Livy recounts the tale:

...Remus, in derision of his brother, leaped over the newly-erected walls, and was thereupon slain by Romulus in a fit of passion, who, mocking him, added words to this effect: ‘So perish every one hereafter, who shall leap over my walls.’ Thus Romulus obtained possession of supreme power for himself alone. The city, when built, was called after the name of its founder.

Rome is built on top of Remus’ blood; its origin story gives an account of states and statesmanship which sees true virtue as a political failure and ambition as a political good. Leo Strauss, commenting on Machiavelli’s commentaries to Livy, writes: According to Machiavelli, the founder of the most renowned commonwealth of the world was a fratricide: the foundation of political greatness is necessarily laid in crime. To achieve greatness, one must be a severe and ruthless leader, ready to do whatever necessary in order to maintain power.

Our Torah reading offers a very different origin story, with a very different account of leadership. Yoseph and his brothers have two confrontations that nearly devolve into violence. First, the brothers nearly murder Yoseph for having ambitions of leadership. Then, after becoming the viceroy of Egypt, Yoseph torments his brothers in revenge, framing, imprisoning and enslaving them. In both instances, this story almost ended in fratricide.

Yet this catastrophic end is prevented because of Yoseph’s transformation, and a new vision of what leadership should be.

Yoseph begins his career with a profound sense of ambition. He is his father’s favorite, a primping, preening gossip with regal ambitions. He has grandiose dreams of ruling his brothers that can easily be dismissed as the products of an egocentric mind.

Those dreams cause him a great deal of heartache. But after enduring thirteen years of slavery, Yoseph achieves great power in a great empire. And then, nine years after becoming the viceroy of Egypt, Yoseph confronts his brothers again. As Don Isaac Abravanel explains, Yoseph is in emotional turmoil and uncertain about what he wants to do.  Revenge suggests itself as a possibility; his hostile accusations certainly bring great anguish to his brothers.

The Torah tells us that when he first sees his brothers after a twenty-two year hiatus, Yoseph remembers his childhood dreams. This is the key to his ultimate transformation. Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Binyamin Sofer, the Ketav Sofer, offers a fascinating insight. The words of the verse say chalam lahem, which literally means Yoseph dreamed for them, for his brothers. The Ketav Sofer explains that at this moment Yoseph understood that his dreams of leadership were actually meant to benefit his brothers. Yoseph now recognizes that his dreams are not to fulfill his own ambitions, because the leader's job is to serve everyone else. In hindsight, Yoseph recognizes that his journey was meant to transform him; the years of servitude were meant to break his ego and awaken his humility and compassion.

A Jewish leader must know how to put others first.  Yoseph began training for true leadership the moment he was sold into slavery. And now that he is reunited with his brothers, it gradually dawns upon him that he must step up and serve. After Yoseph reveals his identity, he makes an extraordinary statement to his brothers:

And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you...But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God.

Yoseph now sees his odyssey as part of a Divine mission to help his brothers; his leadership role is one of devotion to his brothers, because a Jewish leader is meant to be a servant leader.

The term "servant leadership” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in a 1970 essay,  "The Servant as Leader." After having served an entire career in management training at AT&T, Greenleaf was left disenchanted by what he saw as the authoritarian model of leadership that most corporations had. In that essay, Greenleaf writes:

The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first….That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types.

Yoseph begins his young life with visions of being the absolute leader, someone whose own parents bow to him. Luckily, he transforms himself into a servant leader just as his family needs it most. Instead of seizing his brothers as slaves or sending them home to starve, he takes it upon himself to support them and to reunite the family. In becoming a servant leader, Yoseph ensures the survival of the Jewish people.

Twenty-first century America is a deeply individualistic society, where the pursuit of leadership is one and the same as the pursuit of personal ambition. Yoseph teaches us a very different model of leadership, and his example inspires many others over the years; and it is these servant leaders who have sustained the Jewish community for generations. As we read this parsha, we must offer our gratitude for those humble leaders who have put their followers first.

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