parshat vayeshev – genesis 39
Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on December 15th 2022 on Clubhouse at. Joseph is the first and only biblical personality characterized as a success. With a nod to Max Weber who wrote the iconic socioreligious study; The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, we take this opportunity to explore the Biblical and latter Rabbinic definition of financial and other success.
Sefaria Source Sheet: www.sefaria.org/sheets/453456
Welcome to Madlik. My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish Text or Tradition. Along with Rabbi Adam Mintz, we host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday at 8:00pm Eastern and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform. This week’s Torah portion is Vayeshev. Joseph is the first and only biblical personality characterized as a success. With a nod to Max Weber who was one of the first sociologists who looked at religion’s effect on economic behavior, we take this opportunity to explore the Biblical and latter Rabbinic definition of financial and other success. So join us for Joseph and the Spirit of capitalism.
Well, welcome back to Madlik. And we are in an amazing parsha. We were talking about before the number of stories we’re in a real transition; Joseph comes on to the stage. He’s put in a pit he’s parlayed into a slave goes to Egypt. And as they say, the rest is history. It’s a real transition. You don’t know if he’s a model of the Jewish people going down into Egypt or the actual actor who brings them down. That is all fascinating. But I am going to focus today on just two verses, as I said, in the intro, that refer to Joseph in a fascinating way. In Genesis 39; 2-3 It says, God was with Joseph and he was a successful man, וַיְהִ֤י ה’ אֶת־יוֹסֵ֔ף וַיְהִ֖י אִ֣ישׁ מַצְלִ֑יחַ, and he stayed in the house of his Egyptian master. And when his master saw that God was with him, and that God lent success to everything, he undertook וַיַּ֣רְא אֲדֹנָ֔יו כִּ֥י ה’ אִתּ֑וֹ וְכֹל֙ אֲשֶׁר־ה֣וּא עֹשֶׂ֔ה ה’ מַצְלִ֥יחַ בְּיָדֽוֹ. So, for the first time, not only is Joseph considered a winner, a successful person, but it’s apparent through his success that God must be with him and moving forward into later stories. If you recall when Joseph is in jail again, the chief jailer did not supervise anything that was in Joseph’s charge. It says in Genesis 39, because God was with him. And whatever he did, God made successful בַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר ה’ אִתּ֑וֹ וַֽאֲשֶׁר־ה֥וּא עֹשֶׂ֖ה ה’ מַצְלִֽיחַ. Now, it’s not that the word Hatzlacha has success hasn’t been used before. But prior, it’s all with Eliezer by the way, the servant of Abraham, it wasn’t he that was successful. It was his deeds, what he was doing. So in Genesis 24, it says, The man, meanwhile stood looking at her silently wonder whether God had made his errand successful or not הַֽהִצְלִ֧יחַ ה’ דַּרְכּ֖וֹ אִם־לֹֽא, a successful path. A successful action is mentioned five times with Eliezer. But here we have the first time it’s mentioned about a person, Rabbi, do you think it’s significant?
Adam Mintz 03:39
Well, first of all, that’s a great little point that you make. That’s not a small point. That about Joseph, it’s always about the person. It’s always about Joseph. Joseph is bigger than life. Joseph is good looking. Joseph is successful, not his actions. It’s always about Joseph. Eliezer, the servant, you know, when you’re a servant, it’s never about you. It’s about what you do. That’s a very, very, very important point. Now, that’s what gets Joseph in trouble. By the way, you know, it’s all about Joseph. So therefore, the wife of Potiphar, keeps his eye on him, and then he gets sent to prison. So being that it’s always about Joseph is not always so good. But your point that you make is a very, very good point.
Geoffrey Stern 04:23
And it’s not that we haven’t had success, even if the word hasn’t been used before. Abraham was considered greatly successful. And it’s not as though that success has not reflected on God as the source of the success. God promised Abraham that he would bless him with riches and children. And sure enough, he did. But the point is, and I think this is critical, is that with Abraham, he was promised success from God. And you know, he goes down to Egypt with his wife. He says she’s my sister. Turns out she wasn’t. The Pharaoh is embarrassed gives him riches, he benefited by being blessed by God. I think what you’re seeing with Joseph is a slight nuanced, but ultimately critical paradigm shift. Because Joseph was successful. People saw the hand of God, I think that’s different.
Adam Mintz 05:23
Yeah, there’s no question that that is different. So, you’re making a double point. One is the difference between Joseph being successful, and Eliezer’s actions being successful, then what’s the outcome of Josephs being successful? That’s a second point.
Geoffrey Stern 05:39
Yes. And so I think also, I started by making the comparison to Max Weber’s, who wrote this amazing book called The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. And he was a sociologist, but he believed that religious outlook could be responsible by how you engage in economics. And what I see here is, when we look at Joseph, you can’t but say that what he was successful at was material, mercurial things. He arrives, he’s hired by Potiphar who happens to be the sar of Shechita, the slaughterhouse king, and he arranges his house, and he makes him successful. We’re not talking about spiritual; we’re not talking about artistic success, we are definitely talking about a slave who has nothing by definition, he doesn’t control his own life. And he then shines by whoever he touches, whether it’s his first master, whether it’s his cellmate, whether ultimately, it’s Pharaoh, and the whole of Egypt, he makes material success. And through that they see, or at least the Bible sees God and believes that others see God’s through that. And I think that is, in fact, a profound statement of a religion, is it not?
Adam Mintz 07:18
I think that is a very good, really good point. Through that, to see God, that’s really what we’re looking for always, through people’s actions, that people should be able to see God. Because the problem is, is how do you see God? Right? You can see God directly. So, you go to see God through human action.
Geoffrey Stern 07:38
But it’s a particular type of action. It’s economics.
Adam Mintz 07:41
Isn’t that interesting, right? I mean, but it has to be through human action. It can’t be just seeing God that doesn’t mean it.
Geoffrey Stern 07:49
Yes. And to play devil’s advocate to drive the point home, that this doesn’t need to be the case, and that it should, in fact, surprise us, or at least put us at the edge of our chair. I could be quoting from the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Essenes, but I’ll quote the more popular, famous source for that theology, which is the New Testament. And in the New Testament, it says in Matthew, Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. We know about them that the early Christians were very similar to the Essenes, sell your possessions and give to the poor, they are commanded. They had everything in common. This literally comes out of what we know from the Dead Sea Scrolls, about the Essenes. They sold property and possessions to give to everyone who had need. And finally, that there were no needy persons among them. Their paradigm was ….. you can call it if you have to tag it with a modern term socialism, but their paradigm was that there should be communal ownership, that we should get rid of poverty, and that would not actually see success of God in someone who made it in the economy. Even in the Sermon on the Mount, it says blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. So, it’s not a knee jerk that this is the case. I do think it right. It requires some further evaluation if in fact, I’m reading something into the text, or in fact, this is saying that at least there’s a thread; a strong thread in the Joseph story, that success means right, success means touched by the hand of God.
Adam Mintz 09:55
Well, it does. I mean, let’s just take a second you quoted the New Testament and you suggested correctly that some of the other groups during the Second Temple believed in poverty. You have to remember that the ruling class in Jerusalem, the Jewish ruling class in Jerusalem, they were called the Sadducees. And they were Kohanim. They were priests, but they were also wealthy. You know, in those days, everybody brought their gifts to the priests, because they thought the priests then would pray for them, and then they would be successful. So, the priests amassed a huge amount of wealth. So, if you were a group that was battling with the priests…. I’m talking, battling in terms of socially battling with the priest, you tended to reject well, because that’s what these people stood for, or at least that’s the way they were seen. So, the Essenes or the Dead Sea sect, moved out of Jerusalem, they lived in the Judean mountains. And literally, they lived in poverty, to show that wealth was not the answer. The early Christians, the Sermon on the Mount, the early Christians, they also where big believers in the fact that money was bad, right? Money was problematic, because they were fighting against the establishment. So that was interesting. Now, what’s really interesting is that after the destruction of the temple in 70, CE, the Sadducees, and the priests lost because there’s no temple, the priests have no significance. So even within kind of standard Judaism, traditional Judaism, the Pharisees, who were the rabbis who were not the wealthy class, the regular people, they also were victorious. So therefore, the idea of not being rich of fighting the rich was something that was very much an end of the Second Temple period. That was when that was familiar.
Geoffrey Stern 11:59
There’s a philosophy behind it. You know, I mentioned a second ago, that one of the aims of the New Testament and we might say by that the aim of the communal societies built in the Dead Sea, was to eradicate poverty. And we have in the Torah itself, when it talks about the rules of lending on interest when it talks about the issue of supporting those who don’t have it, it. It says in a very powerful verse in Deuteronomy 15: 11 there will never cease to be needy ones in your land. And this actually was the source of a confrontation, of a discussion that is captured in the Talmud, in Baba Batra 10a it has this amazing dialogue between Rabbi Akiva and Turnus Rufus of famous Roman. And he asked him the following question. And he says, if God loves the poor, for what reason? Does he not support them? And Akiva said to him, so that through them we will be saved from the judgment of Gehena, in truly Jewish facts, fashion, tikkun olam fashion, Akiva says what God gave us the poor so that we could get the mitzvah of taking care of the poor. But Rufus is not finished yet. He says, No, let me tell you a parable; almost in like New Testament style. He says, let’s say that the King put away someone who he was angry at, he made him a slave, and he put them in prison. And he ordered that he should not be fed or given drink. And one person went ahead and fed him and gave him to drink. If the king heard about this, would he not be angry with that person? In other words, what he’s asking is, and this will pick up in Weber and the Protestants, where if you are poor, ….. the flip side of being blessed when you are rich, is that you must have done something wrong and you must be cursed if you are poor, and therefore you are travelling with God’s order, if you engage in that wonderful Jewish biblical dynamic of Tzedaka, of interest-free loans. That is literally the question that he’s posing to Akiva. If God wanted people to have money, he would have given it to them. You are playing God you are playing in this field. And that’s the question that he asks. And of course, Akiva gives him a wonderful answer, and says, first of all, the Jewish was people are not slaves were children. And if it was a child who the king had put in prison…… I won’t get into the answer you can figure it out. But what I loved is that the Talmud captures this schism, this dialogue, this dialectic between two totally opposite approaches to the power of the economy, to raise up those who don’t have the power of the economy, to favor those who have it. It really is fascinating, isn’t it?
Adam Mintz 15:36
Absolutely fascinating. The idea of power, the idea of being connected to people with power, see, there are actually two things, you know, they always say it’s good to be, it’s good to have wealth, or it’s good to have power. And if you can’t have power, you should be connected to someone who has power or wealth. Right? So that’s really what that story’s about, you know, do you have the power yourself or you’re connected to somebody with power? So that’s interesting when you get back to the Joseph story, is that Joseph himself is all of these things. But actually, he’s not any of these things. Because he’s a nobody, he’s a slave. The reason he’s successful is because he somehow, by chance, gets purchased by Potiphar, then he goes to jail, and he’s a nobody, but somehow the Sar Ha mashkin remembers him. And then he goes in front of Pharaoh, that’s crazy. This slave, you know, this slave goes in front of Pharaoh, how can I possibly be I think it comes viceroy over Egypt. So sometimes it’s not who you are, but how you’re connected to that person.
Geoffrey Stern 16:41
Well, I mean, you could easily make the case that he is the personification of the entrepreneur who pulls himself up from his own bootstraps. Again, I’m using economic terms. But here’s somebody who is not part of the right caste. He’s not part of the white guild, he literally is, is designed to be someone who’s pulled from the pit. And he is a prototype, he is a paradigm of being blessed by God. And he is a role model because of it. Like I said, there doesn’t appear again, in the whole Torah, the word Ish Matzliach. A successful man, it’s kind of fascinating.
Adam Mintz 17:29
That is a fascinating point. And the fact that the word matzliach is used elsewhere, but it’s used in a different context that makes your point even stronger.
Geoffrey Stern 17:40
So we’ve talked a little bit about this challenge to economic theory of how do you deal with the have-nots? Are they cursed? Or are they a responsibility of enlightened capitalism to bring up but this other thing about? Are they responsible? Because they’re cursed by God? Or are they our responsibility as part of the organic and the, the invisible hand of the economy. So in Proverbs 13, which, by the way, is Wisdom literature, so it could appear, it’s not Torah in the sense that it really contains the real Jewish covenant and all that. But it says, Poverty and humiliation are for him who spurns discipline, but he who takes reproof to heart gets on honor. So there is this sense of the Benjamin Franklin adage .. early to be, early to rise makes a man healthy and wise. Weber quotes Franklin all the time as the prototype of the Protestant capitalist, and for good reason. It comes right out of the common sense approach Wisdom Literature which we have also. it’s this doubled edge sword. . On the one hand, having wealth, making wealth is blessed… and on the hand it’s the responsibility of the haves to support the have nots… so i think that one of the lessons of today’s episode is that it’s not black and white. It’s a mixed bag. And in that sense, I think that it’s not pure capitalism, but maybe one could call it enlightened or modified capitalism.
Adam Mintz 19:50
Okay, I think that’s fair. I mean, you’re putting nuance into it. And I think that’s only the right thing to do because the Torah doesn’t know about capitalism. The way we talk about capitalism in the 21st century, and I think that’s an important point to make. It means we talk about Ish Matzliach, but the jump from Ish Matliach to Weber is not a direct jump. I think that’s an important point to make.
Geoffrey Stern 20:13
So we’re gonna get a little bit more into Weber in a second, but he had a cohort because Weber’s, really, maybe he was a self-hating Jew. But he gave the Protestants all the credit for launching capitalism, a free market economy, a wage economy, what he referred to in terms of the biblical economy. He called it pariah capitalism. And of course, he was using the old adage of the Jew is not a producer. He’s a middleman. He’s a trader. He doesn’t actually contribute to society. And the fascinating thing about our parsha is that we do have this little side story of Judah, Yehuda and Tamar, and in it, it says something kind of fascinating. It says there Yehuda saw the daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua and he took her in as his wife and cohabited with her. Rashi says, Canaanite means a merchant. The Jews, the Israelites, who were the landed gentry in the Promised Land, and had displaced the Canaanites and made them into the pariahs refer to them almost in a derogatory way, as merchants, for those of you who have ever heard the wonderful, beautiful song, a Woman of Valor that we sing every Friday night, in it, we say, סָדִ֣ין עָ֭שְׂתָה וַתִּמְכֹּ֑ר וַ֝חֲג֗וֹר נָתְנָ֥ה לַֽכְּנַעֲנִֽי that the woman of value makes cloth and sells it, and offers a girdle. And now I’m using the English translation to the merchant. So literally, the Canaanite was considered by the landed Jews as the merchant, this is a time honored tradition in putting down the trader as not being productive. And that kind of struck me too. Just a fascinating aside, but maybe not so much an aside side, because clearly, Jewish Finance and Jewish working of markets and arbitrage has added a lot of value, but it has always been an Achilles heel.
Adam Mintz 22:50
I mean, I think that’s right. I mean, your kind of pulling all the different things together. But of course, it’s all true. And I think that, you know, that’s an interesting thing to do that and to understand that this idea of being an issue, I mean, let’s say it like this, let’s say it as a Devar Torah, right, being an Ish Matzliach is a marker that has identified Jews throughout the centuries. And it’s identified Jews in different ways. Sometimes, you know, it’s a compliment. You know, they say Koreans want to learn Hebrew, because they want to be like the Jews, because they see the Jews are so successful, they want to be like the Jewish Matzliach. They want to be an Ish Matzliach but at the same time, many anti Semites use the fact that we’re an Ish Matzliach we do something wrong to be an Ish Matzliach. So it’s so interesting that that way of identifying Jews is something that’s followed us throughout the centuries, both for good and for bad.
Geoffrey Stern 23:55
Yeah, absolutely. I just want to quote this Werner Sombart who would die in 1941. He wrote, he argued that Jewish traders and manufacturers excluded from the guilds developed a distinctive antipathy to the fundamentals of medieval commerce, which they saw as a primitive and unprogressive the desire for just and fixed wages and prices for an equitable system in which shares of the market were agreed upon exchanging. He uses this Canaanite, he uses this merchant class as literally the source of capitalism. But what’s fascinating is, if we just start back at the comment, you just made in terms of Ish Matzliach. If you listen to some of the barbs that are being flowing, being thrown at the Jewish people, you know, call it “they run Hollywood”. They run this …it’s almost as though success is considered a crime. It really takes the argument very much back to this biblical sense that we’re talking about is it something that means that we should be proud of. If you remember Rabbi, when we had a my friend, the Reverend Dumisani Washington on and we were talking about and I said to him, What is the challenge of the successful Jew? And he said, You know, I love it when my Jewish brothers and sisters at the Seder lean to the side, and take happiness with the fact that they were redeemed, they are proud of it. And he says that we African Americans have to be proud of what we’ve achieved. We were robbed of our culture; we were robbed of our gods. We were robbed of our names, and we became literate in one generation. I love that and I really think it’s sensitizing us to Hatzlacha; success clearly, in in Josef’s case, and in the Bible’s case, there is a very strong part of it that is considered something to be proud of, and something touched by God. And I think that’s a timely conversation.
Adam Mintz 26:10
That’s a very timely conversation. By the way, you don’t know how Joseph feels about being successful, it kind of goes to his head, and then he gets in trouble. So that idea that Ish Matzliach does well for Joseph, I think is complicated.
Geoffrey Stern 26:29
So that’s an amazing segue into Max Weber. Because what Max Weber’s argues is that what really launched Protestantism, Calvinism, in particular, as the source of American – western capitalism, was that when the Roman Catholic Church was involved, it was in charge of salvation, and everybody knew where they stood. But once it was rejected, they looked for other signs that they were saved. And Calvin and his followers taught a doctrine of double predestination, in which from the beginning, God shows some people for salvation, and others for damnation. And they translated that into a belief that one who’s chosen for salvation, is successful. And they really you read it, and you start to see echoes of modern day thought of the argument against welfare, where they literally as Rufus said, that the those who work hard should not give their money to prop up those who don’t have, it’s really kind of fascinating, but to your point of Joseph having trouble with retaining his equanimity and retaining his happiness in life. Weber goes, so far to talk about the humility and the asceticism of the real capitalists, we are kind of in in this sense of reinvesting and compounding interest, where you don’t spend your money on luxury, where you don’t stop working, everything is the opportunity cost. If I’m not working, I’m losing money. And that ultimately, Weber points out how then it became almost an idolatry. So it goes the whole nine yards, so to speak. But it’s a fascinating insight to me. The amount that a theology that a religion can affect something as basic as how we do economics, and how we control and are affected by markets that I thought was absolutely fascinating.
Adam Mintz 28:54
I mean, it is fascinating, but so much of religion depends on economics means how you give a sacrifice, you know, who had animals to give a sacrifice, probably not very many people. The Torah actually has a sliding scale for sacrifices, depending on how wealthy you are. If you gave an animal or you were able to give birds or even, you’re able to give them a meal offering. Isn’t that an interesting thing when you talk about wealth, and you talk about economy is in a sliding scale for sacrifices, something that’s amazing. Now, I never did research on this. I don’t know whether other religions had a sliding scale. But I would imagine that they did. Because if you don’t have a sliding scale for sacrifices, you can never have sacrifices because nobody could afford it.
Geoffrey Stern 29:41
And at the end of the day, you got to be able to pay your bills,
Adam Mintz 29:47
That’s a big part of it.
Geoffrey Stern 29:49
So we’ve quoted from philosophers sociologists from the New Testament, the Old Testament, but I think we have to go to the ultimate golden source and of course there is no more golden source than Fiddler on the Roof. And if I want to be a rich man, and so in that song reading from the lyrics, I really do believe it captures some real essences of the Jewish approach. And it says, you know, I realize, of course, it’s no shame to be poor, but it’s no great honor either. And he goes, if I was a rich man, he said, I would be able to pose problems that would cross a rabbi’s eye, and it won’t make one difference if I answer right or wrong, when you’re rich, they think you really know. if I were rich, I’d have the time that I lack to sit in the synagogue and pray and maybe have a seat by the eastern wall. And I discuss the holy books with the learned men several hours every day. And that would be the sweetest thing of all…… I really think he touches on many big categories, right? Yeah, it’s absolutely amazing. And I think that the key takeaway that I always took from that we can have another discussion on the fact that a wealthy person somehow got to the point where no matter what he says, The Rabbi’s considered right or wrong…. I think that gets back to who’s pays for the sacrifices that you talked about a second ago. But I think what really rings true is this contract that was made between having money and having the time to learn, and that gets back to something very basic this Yisachar and Zebulin contract where one tribe was seafaring and worked and the other studied, but they always had to be someone to pay the bills. And you know, in getting really local to Israel. Now when you have people studying, and they can’t pay the bills, or when you have a society that only focuses on the study. They have to remember אִם אֵין דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ, אֵין תּוֹרָה, and אִם אֵין קֶמַח, אֵין תּוֹרָה (If there’s no worldly occupation there’s no Torah, if there’s no bread , there’s no Torah) these are part of it. It is a full economic system. And I think it really does affect the Jewish success story in a profound way. And someone needs to write the book, Joseph and the Spirit of Capitalism, because it really is a very strong, I think, profound impact that the Jews have made that it’s made on us and that we have made on the world.
Adam Mintz 32:26
Fantastic. I’m looking forward to the book. Shabbat Shalom everybody, this is a great discussion. Enjoy your Shabbos and enjoy your Hanukkah happy Hanukah everybody. We look forward next week to talk about miketz and Hanukkah and a whole bunch of other things. Have a great week everybody Shabbat Shalom,
Geoffrey Stern 32:43
Shabbat shalom. All of you do not have a problem enjoying your Hanukkah Gelt. It’s okay. We Jews know how to handle money. Just turn to Yosef. So Shabbat shalom. Thank you, Rabbi once again. We’ll see you all next week. Have a lichtika Hanukkah, a Hanukkah, full of illumination in light. And look forward to seeing you all next week.
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Listen to las year’s Vayeshev podcast: Genesis as Her-story