Friday, December 8, 2017

Parashat VaYeshev: Autonomy

A Message for Parashat VaYeshev 2017
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The formative years of Yosef’s life were structured by dreams. Dreams played a significant role in both the difficult and fortunate times of his early years. Whereas his youthful dreams caused his descent to Egypt, his later interpretations of dreams lifted him out of jail and into Pharaoh’s palace. Any attempt to understand the life of Yosef, then, must begin with a careful analysis of his associations with dreams.

Yosef first became involved with dreams when he recounted his own visions to his brothers. He twice told his brothers about his dreams of majesty and grandeur. Yosef’s recollections incensed the brothers, and fueled their hatred and sale of him to Egypt.

Yosef’s next affiliation with dreams came in prison, as an interpreter for two of Pharaoh’s ministers. Predicting the cupbearer’s good fortune, Yosef begged him: “But if you remember I was with you once it goes well for you, do me the kindness, please, to mention me to Pharaoh and bring me out of this house” (40:14). Yosef’s hopes of good fortune from dreams, however, were again dashed: “But the cupbearer did not remember Yosef, no, he forgot him” (40:23). Although Yosef’s association with dreams had twice inspired hope, it seemed that it was instead destined to bring him only sorrow.

And then it all changed. Acting on the advice of his cupbearer, Pharaoh invited Yosef to interpret his two dreams. As I review the story of Yosef every year, I pause at this juncture to imagine what Yosef should have been thinking when he stepped into the inner chambers of Pharaoh’s palace. It would have made sense for him to be frightened stiff. Each of his previous involvements with dreams had ended in disappointment. Why would this time be any different? But somehow it was. In an unexpected twist, Yosef’s third and final involvement with dreams were the key to his success. What changed? Was Yosef’s catapult to the head of Egypt the simple result of God’s “chosen” time, or did Yosef do something at this point to alter the outcome?
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Best-selling author Daniel Pink took notice of how the greatest artists of the last hundred years worked. Analyzing the success of Pablo Picasso, Georgia O’Keefe and Jackson Pollock, Pink realized that nobody had told them with whom to paint, what sort of pictures to paint, when to paint them, or how to paint them. The very idea of a forced art is ludicrous. Pink stretched that conception further, and argued that every career functions best when it is invested with autonomy. He argued that we all crave some sense of autonomy and we therefore produce best in its atmosphere. Presuming that we actually want to be accountable, our control over the task, time, technique and team are the most effective pathway to that destination.[1]
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Yosef stepped into Pharaoh’s room empowered by a bold sense of autonomy. Sensing that Pharaoh had placed hope in his ability to interpret dreams, Yosef determined that he could now voice more than just a prediction. In contrast to his previous two encounters with dreams, when Yosef depended upon the reaction of others – his brothers and the cupbearer, this time he seized control of the situation. Transitioning swiftly from his prediction of seven impending years of famine in Egypt, Yosef handed Pharaoh some unsolicited advice:

And so, let Pharaoh look out for a discerning, wise man and set him over the land of Egypt. Let Pharaoh do this: appoint overseers for the land… (41:33-4)

This time the outcome would be different. No longer dependent upon the whim of others, Yosef grabbed his destiny by the arm and ran with it.
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Perhaps it’s time to toss the very word “management” onto the linguistic ash heap alongside “icebox” and “horseless carriage.” This era doesn’t call for better management. It calls for a renaissance of self-direction. (Daniel Pink)

Much of the success in our lives depends upon a healthy sense of autonomy. Dream big and take control.

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Avi Harari

[1] Daniel H. Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (New York, NY, 2009), pg. 105-6.