By: Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson,
Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
Torah Reading: Genesis 47:28 – 50:26
Haftarah Reading: I Kings 2:1-12
Ours is a society that almost worships titles. When foreign royalty visits America, the newscasters televise the thousands of Americans who wait for hours to fall on their knees for a king, a queen, or a prince. When the talking heads of radio or television want an authoritative fix on a current issue, they interview someone with a Ph.D., trusting the title to give the comments added weight and authority. When we need advice about children, we tend to ask someone with letters after their name, whether or not they have been personally involved in raising children. The idea of asking an actual parent rarely crosses our mind. After all, what could they possibly know?
So stymied are we by the challenges of life, that we are willing to put an almost blind faith in total strangers, so long as some institution of higher learning will attest that they sat in the classrooms, read the right books, and wrote and long and technical piece of research.
Now, far be it from me to seek to belittle the real value of education, and the opportunity to grow in wisdom that added knowledge can provide. But I do want us to question the way we fall like lap dogs around the feet of anyone with a graduate degree, as though technical knowledge or professional skill always implies moral depth, compassion, or wisdom.
There are smart and dumb people with and without degrees; there are wise and benighted people with and without degrees. Erudition doesn’t automatically correlate with common sense.
What is needed, then, is the ability to discern who is truly wise, who is empathic, who is able to help. Those traits are essential today, and they were essential in the past too.
When the Patriarch Jacob was about to die, “he called his son Joseph.” Why Joseph? Joseph wasn’t the eldest, nor was he the one destined to become the head of the Jewish people. So why did Jacob call Joseph to his deathbed?
We are hardly the first to ask that question. In fact, the sages of Midrash Bereshit Rabbah asked the same question around 1500 years ago. “Why did he [Jacob] not call Reuben or Judah? Reuben was the firstborn and Judah was king, yet he disregarded them and called Joseph? Why was this?”
Apparently ours isn’t the only age to equate worth and social status. Reuben was the bekhor, the firstborn. In biblical society, that was a mark of the favorite, entitled to inherit more than his younger brothers, the true heir to his father. Judah, as the ruler of the household also had a claim to Jacob’s attention at the fateful moment that his soul was to leave his body. Yet Jacob turned to Joseph, who was neither the elder, nor the one who was the head of the brothers. Why did the aged Jacob behave in such a strange way?
Answers the Midrash, “Because Joseph had the means of fulfilling [his wishes].” Jacob called Joseph because he was simply the most suited for the purpose Jacob had in mind. Never mind that he lacked title [of bekhor]. Forget that he didn’t have the position of leader of the family. What Joseph did have was precisely the ability to meet Jacob’s needs well at that crucial moment.
Joseph was able to see that Jacob adopted Ephraim and Menasseh, and Joseph was able to arrange for Jacob’s burial in his beloved homeland, the Land of Israel.
More than that, Jacob didn’t need.
Perhaps that can serve as a role model for us as well. When we have a need, find the person with the attributes of soul, wisdom, and concern suitable to help us solve our problem or to achieve our goal. That doesn’t always require a title.
I remember my first day in Rabbinical school. Nervous beginning students, we met with the then Dean, Rabbi Joel Roth. Rabbi Roth told us to look around the room, saying that the people we were studying with were the greatest spiritual resource we would find during our studies and later on in life. I remember how struck I was by his wisdom, how true it has remained to this day. My peers, people who were going through what I was experiencing, were among the most helpful then, and have remained life-long friends afterward. Rather than expecting help only from the professors (many of whom are also wise and compassionate), Rabbi Roth was reminding us, as does the example of Jacob calling Joseph, to look for our help to any available source, not simply to the favored few with title, degree, or status.