Joseph's talents could have been his downfall

Joseph is young, gifted and good-looking – promising in every way. And it almost destroys him.

JOSEPH’S CUP is found in Benjamin’s sack in the biblical story (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
JOSEPH’S CUP is found in Benjamin’s sack in the biblical story
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘Whom the gods would destroy,” wrote Cyril Connolly, “they first call promising.”
That cynical witticism finds its biblical exemplar in Joseph. He is young, gifted and good-looking – promising in every way. And it almost destroys him.
Joseph’s difficulties begin with his father’s favoritism, symbolized by the gift of the coat of many colors. Like his beauty (“Joseph was well built and handsome” – Genesis 37:6), it led to jealousy and enmity, not to peace. The poet Delmore Schwartz, recalling Joseph – and his own poetic gifts and struggles – wrote:
The gift is loved but not the gifted one.
The coat of many colors is much admired
By everyone, but he who wears the coat
Is not made warm.
As the Egyptians call out “I love you,” in Joseph’s triumph, the midrash even imagines Joseph saying, “Do not love me. Love has brought me nothing but pain.” The same attributes in him that evoked love almost brought him to complete ruin.
 What saves Joseph is less his gift than his understanding of its origin. We first witness Joseph’s mature character during the attempted seduction of Potiphar’s wife. Joseph’s responds to her blandishments by insisting that his position is due to Potiphar’s generosity: “He has withheld nothing from me except yourself, since you are his wife” (39:9). The verse continues with a theme that will be Joseph’s throughout the story: “How then could I do this most wicked thing, and sin before God?”
Joseph acknowledges that he is not the source of his own blessings. God has shaped him and Potiphar has trusted him. He is the opposite of entitled – he is grateful.
 In the prison into which he is unjustly cast, Joseph pays attention to those around him with an emotional acuity we would not expect, given his earlier recounting of dreams to jealous siblings. He notices that the cupbearer and baker are distraught and asks, “Why do you appear so downcast today?” When they mention dreams, Joseph does not say, “I can interpret them.” He rather attributes the power to interpret dreams to God (40:8).
 Joseph repeats that theme when brought before Pharaoh. When Pharaoh says he has heard of Joseph’s abilities to interpret dreams, Joseph insists, “Not I – God will see to Pharaoh’s welfare (41:16).”
A self-made man, said Mark Twain, is as likely as a self-laid egg. Joseph was born with extraordinary abilities but recognized that they were gifts from God. He did not proclaim his own greatness as an interpreter or seer but expressed his gratitude as a believer.
When people are proud of their intelligence, beauty or skills, they are taking credit for something they themselves did not earn. You may work hard with what you are given, but had you been born with a brain that did not function well, or into a society where there is no hope for advancement, no level of effort would tip the scales. We live in homes we did not build, powered by electricity and inventions we did not create, in societies whose structures were the product of sacrifices of generations of people who preceded us. And all of this is possible only because of the world we were given and the natural attributes we are lucky enough to receive. Effort is indispensable but gratitude is the foundation of character.
Joseph understood that God had chosen him for a task in this world, but like Moses even more profoundly in a later generation, that convinced him not of his own greatness, but of God’s. In a classic definition of humility, C.S. Lewis wrote that it is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less. Joseph repeatedly turned in thanks to his Creator. Even when confronted by the brothers in later years, he insists that God had intended his descent into Egypt.
Joseph’s recognition of God’s beneficence shapes the tradition’s name for this gifted man – not the handsome one or the visionary one; the rabbis call Joseph Hatzaddik, the righteous one. ■

The writer is Max Webb Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and the author of David the Divided Heart. On Twitter:
@rabbiwolpe.