Parshat Vayeshev

Torah Reading for Week of November 17-23, 2013


“Success is the G-d of America”
By Ronnie Serr, AJRCA Professor of Jewish Thought

Joseph is “Ish matzlia’ach,” a successful man, because HaShem is with him — and everyone can see it. Parasht Vayeshev mentions this fact three times. Joseph’s dreams about Egypt’s feast and famine become true, and he becomes the master of their manifestation. As viceroy to the Pharaoh, he enjoys wealth, notoriety, and tremendous power in the Egyptian empire.

Each of our ancestors had incredible achievements. Yet, with few exceptions (e.g. Eliezer, Abraham’s servant), none of our ancestors have the quality of being successful. Abraham, for example, is blessed with blessings. Moses is the most humble of men. King David’s is the sweet singer of Israel. All incredibly successful, but none, other than Joseph, are literally credited with success.

Joesph represents the tzaddik, the righteous person. In Kabbala, Joseph stands for the Sephira of Yesod, Foundation, the tip of the “Small Face,” signifying the sexual organ. The tradition assigns the quality of righteousness to him because of his ability to control his sexual desire when confronted with the wife of Potifar. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach suggested a novel interpretation: Joseph is the epitome of righteousness because he fully forgave his brothers who had wished and planned to kill him.

What is success? What is the source of success? Is success a sign of G-d’s approval, acceptance, love, satisfaction? Is failure, inverse, a sign of G-d’s disapproval?

Joseph’s success, from his own perspective, is neither a sign of G-d’s approval or disapproval. He understands it as a means in HaShem’s plan. In as much as everyone else does, Joseph the tzaddik plays a part in the divine plan whose final objective is goodness. His brothers’ attempt to kill him is also part of the divine plan, hence he can forgive them.

In mass societies, especially America, individual success has become the most desired goal for many. Virtually everyone desires to have success and be as close to it as possible. Achieving success is the objective of the large part of individual and collective efforts. Do we worship the success of fame, notoriety, celebrity, wealth and power as a sign of G-d’s approval, acceptance, love and satisfaction — or as a G-d of its own?

In the 1960s, Andy Warhol’s offered a democratic and egalitarian vision of success in America: “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” In this statement, success, manifested as fame, is the goal (and perhaps right) of everyone, even if it’s temporary.

During the Medieval period, the Christians would ask the Jews in many occasions (e.g. during Disputations): If your G-d is the only G-d, and the most powerful of all, how come we, the gentiles are sovereign (i.e. successful) over you? The Jews responded: we sinned against our G-d. As a result, He exiled us. The purpose of our exile is to give us an opportunity to repent. HaShem’s love to us is eternal. The day will come when it will be manifest to all. From this perspective, our success as a people is not notoriety, fame and power. Our success has been survival, our ability to represent G-d’s will for millennia.

Please HaShem, please grant all of us success, in material and spiritual matters. Please give us, each and all, an internal sense of triumph over the Evil Inclination, and an external sign of Your love to us. And please, may we experience our internal and external success swiftly in our days.


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