D’var Torah: Vayeshev

Our parashah this week begins the story of Joseph, a man destined for greatness by virtue of his extraordinary gifts and good luck. It certainly was not his political acumen that got him into power. Quite to the contrary, he repeatedly proved to be his own worst enemy, getting ahead in the world in spite of himself.

The story opens with Joseph bringing bad reports about his brother to their father Jacob. Jacob for his part, with a long track record of a disastrous insensitivity to family dynamics, rewarded the snitch with lavish gifts. Needless to say, his brothers weren’t crazy about him.

When I first visited KI as a student rabbi for Rosh Hashanah, knowing nobody in Lansing or at this shul, a man came up to me after the services and let me know how much he appreciated my d’var Torah. After that he kept smiling at me, to the point that I was almost getting embarrassed. In any case, he could have taught Joseph a lesson that it’s a lot easier to get ahead in the world if you show your appreciation and friendliness.

Joseph next bungled whatever good will he had left by telling not only his brothers, but his father as well, of a dream in which all of them would be bowing down to him. It’s one thing to brag about one’s power, and quite another to quietly demonstrate it. On my next visit to KI after Yom Kippur, a late afternoon Shabbat walk had been planned through Scott Woods, to be followed by havdalah and cider back in the social hall. The plan was to end up at Hawk Island, where cars were parked to shuttle us back to KI. Unfortunately, since we didn’t make it to Hawk Island until after sundown, the gate leading to the county park had been locked for the night. Don’t worry, said a man in our group – you’ll never guess who. He got on his cellphone and ten minutes later a patrol car came around and an officer opened the gate. “Good evening, Mr. Wiener,” the officer said. David greeted him by name, asked about his family, and we were on our way.

Through Joseph’s naïve boasting and bungling, he nearly got himself killed. While it was only good luck that saved his hide, his extraordinary managerial powers got him a position as caretaker for a prominent Egyptian official. And even though house-slave is usually considered a dead-end job, Joseph managed to rise to a position of increasing responsibility, prestige, and benefits. At this point, our two stories converge for a while. On my next monthly visit to Lansing, I picked up a copy of City Pulse, intrigued by the cover story, “Is this the most powerful man in Lansing?” The article suggested that the quiet man with inside connections had more going for him than I realized. It also depicted man behind the mayor in words reminiscent of the retired volunteer who has given so much to this congregation:

The mild-mannered David Wiener has become a familiar face in Lansing over the last ten years.

Former Mayor David Hollister said. “It was really important for me to leave someone behind who could keep the continuity that we had built in the city, and David was that person. He understands the big picture when it comes to politics and this city.”

He has emerged as more of a public figure. During the Capitol Loop controversy, for example, Wiener was clearly running the show for the city. Such activities smack of political ambition. “The idea of running for office has been brought up from time to time,” Wiener said, “but in order to run for office, I would have to give up what I’m doing, and that’s just not what I’m looking for right now.”

His announcement comes as welcome news to his supporters, especially the leadership of neighborhood groups who say that Wiener has become an integral part of their relationship with the city.

“We know that we can go to Mr. Wiener, and that he’ll make every effort to get things done,” said Anita Beavers, president of the Colonial Village Neighborhood Association.

“He’s always got a handle on everything,” Benavides said. “He knows this city inside and out and he’s incredibly committed.”

Incredibly committed might be putting it mildly. Wiener says that he spends an average of 12 hours per day doing his job.

“It’s not all at the office. I do a lot of reading and writing at home and I also spend a lot of time out with the neighborhood groups and other city organizations,” Wiener said.

In the public arena, any kind of corruption or scandal can ultimately be disastrous to one’s career. Joseph understood this, so he wisely kept his distance from his boss’s gorgeous wife. Unfortunately the usually clever and calculating Joseph did not cover his bases and let Mrs. Potiphar hold on to circumstantial evidence that landed him in prison. Many commentators have pointed out that the florid Torah trope sign on the word meaning “but he refused” her seductions suggests that Joseph hesitated. Also, the side commentary in the Torah text “Now Joseph was well built and handsome” suggests that he may have in some way provoked the woman’s advances.

What a different story when we talk about a man with 150% integrity, as this excerpt from the City Pulse article makes clear:

In the little spare time he has, Wiener says that he and his wife enjoy ballroom dancing and traveling, especially to Lansing’s sister cities.

“And by the way, we all pay our own way when we visit sister cities, unlike a certain other publication reported,” joked Wiener.

Note here that unlike Joseph, when a ludicrous accusation was thrown at David, he could easily make light of it because he was so obviously beyond reproach.

Like our former KI president, Joseph remained as active off the job as he was on the job. Instead of just festering in prison, he made himself available as counselor and dream interpreter. David still shows up at KI nearly every day, whether it’s to replace light fixtures, tutor our b’nai mitzvah candidates, lead great books discussions, roll the Torah scroll, or spread de-icing salt in the parking area. Unlike David, however, Joseph boasted to the point of playing God. As he told the cupbearer before interpreting his dream, “Surely God can interpret! Tell me your dreams.” David’s bearing is more like Gideon in our haftarah. He showed up incognito at the enemy camp, let the others play the role of the brilliant interpreters, and left them to draw their own conclusions when his dream prophesized their defeat. This kind of low key approach, empowering others to excel and giving them room to find their way to a solution, was typical of David’s leadership style as board president.

Finally, our parashah suggests that Joseph was a political opportunist. When he recognized that the cup bearer would soon be returned to power, Joseph used the man’s influence to secure his own release from prison. That much is understandable; we would all do the same thing if we were in his predicament. But what I find striking in contrast is that after he gave the chief baker a terrifying prediction of his future, he broke off contrast with the poor guy. Just imagine what a state the baker must have been in after hearing he would be impaled in three days. After the workshop I just took at the rabbinical convention on dealing with trauma, it’s clear that one can never just walk away from someone who has received such shocking news. Here I picture David taking the time to sit with him, listening patiently and with equilibrium as the baker unleashed waves of distress, rage, and powerlessness, and letting him know that he cares about him and, if there were anything he could do, he at least would try.

So in next week’s episode, Joseph will rise to become the number two man in Egypt, accountable to no one except pharaoh himself, kind of like being executive assistant to the mayor. As we’ll read in two weeks, the way Joseph used his power wasn’t always pretty. In contrast, our congregation, like our city, can be grateful to have been guided by the most humane, compassionate, gentle, and life-affirming of leaders. David is reminiscent of the sun in the Aesop fable about the sun and the wind trying to get a man to remove his cloak. Soft power is a very Jewish thing. It empowers others to be the change they want to see, and creates no collateral damage.

— Rabbi Michael Zimmerman
December 2018