As an investor, I’ve met my fair share of brilliant entrepreneurs who presented me with an idea so unique, a new technology so groundbreaking, that it left no doubt in my mind that this could be a zero to one idea (to borrow the Peter Thiel’s term we used in parashat Bereshit), the unicorn I had hoped for with the potential to create a whole new industry category. There was only one problem - they were intolerable. They were so absorbed in their effort to prove to everyone how superior, smart or successful they were that they made everyone in the room dislike them intensely.
As a rule of thumb, I steer clear of such entrepreneurs. Mostly because I believe that their quality of being intolerable would lead them to failure; startups are founded on interpersonal relationships, a skill that this kind of people obviously lack.
I have one exception to this rule. And that is if, through the cracks of their condescension, I catch a glimpse of a longing to change, wanting to be different, a hint of the potential for personality transformation - like the one that took place within Joseph.
Joseph was undoubtedly one of the most talented biblical protagonists. But I remember how, even as a kid reading the parasha, I was floored by how intolerable he was, just like all those entrepreneurs. A patronizing boy who never missed a chance to let everyone know how smart and beloved he was and that he was destined for greatness.
In the beginning of the parasha Joseph brings “evil tales” of his brothers to his father, Jacob. He also insists on telling everyone about his megalomaniac dreams where his parents and all his siblings bow down before him:
Behold, I have dreamed another dream, and behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were prostrating themselves to me.
So extreme is his self-involvement that he brings his entire board of brothers, all 11 of them, to such levels of hatred and jealousy that they seek to murder him. Eventually they settle for throwing him into a pit and selling him off to slavery.
Years later, as a slave in Egypt in the house of Potiphar, Joseph makes the same mistake of seeking validation and uses the wife of Potiphar to get it. Joseph was handsome, so the parasha tells us, and we can easily assume that he was teasing Potiphar’s wife or at least flirting with her. Then when she wanted to bed him he refused. In her attempt to save face she accuses him of raping her and soon after he finds himself in locked up, alone and degraded, with the scarlet letter of a rapist.
One day, the chief cupbearer and the chief baker, Joseph’s cellmates, turn to him for advice, hoping he can help interpret their dreams. Joseph replies:
Don't interpretations belong to God? Tell them to me now.
As a kid, this verse was a jaw-dropper. After spending the entire parasha thinking of Joseph as a condescending, selfish boy, he suddenly comes out with this saying: Interpretations belong to God. How come he attributes his special powers to God and not to himself? My surprise grew stronger when I read the next parasha, where he gives Pharaoh a similar answer, humbled in the face of greater powers:
And Joseph replied to Pharaoh, saying, "Not I; God will give an answer [that will bring] peace to Pharaoh."
intuitively I sensed that a great and deep change had taken place in Joseph’s transition from a young boy to a grown man. From prancing around in his coat of many colors and having demeaning dreams of others, Joseph turns into someone who helps others and more importantly does not attribute his powers to himself. From hubris to humility. With time, as I matured myself and had to face my own challenges in life, and after spending some time studying kabbalah and theories of spiritual and self development, I was able to put this experience into words.
In kabbalistic terms, Joseph goes through a journey that begins in his desire to receive for himself and ends in his desire to receive in order to give back. From a vessel (from Hebrew: Kli) he is transformed into a conduit (from Hebrew: Tsinor). If in his youth he used his God-given gifts for his own self-glorification, now he uses them to benefit the world around him.
Joseph’s transformation owes thanks to all the difficult and humiliating experiences he has been through in life. Hard as they were, these experiences were the real gifts God has given him, for they provided Joseph with the opportunity to better himself.
Also impressive is the fact that throughout his hardships, Joseph never once complains, whines or thinks of himself as a victim. Not when his brothers express intense jealousy toward him, throw him in a pit or sell him off to slavery, nor when he is wrongly accused of rape and thrown in jail. His refusal to blame others is a testament to his inner strength, his ability to withstand pain. Rather than manifest his pain, he chooses to engage in self-reflection, to better himself, build himself up as a conduit, as one who knows how to make the wisdom of God accessible for the good of all Mankind.
And the causal link to his later success is unequivocal. The more Joseph cleanses himself of his selfishness, the higher he rises and succeeds. As we learn in the next parasha when Pharaoh appoints him over the land of Egypt, and years later when he gets to save his entire family from starvation.
Joseph’s story is the story of all of us; not just the chosen few, and especially so in the case of entrepreneurs, most of whom dream of building a unicorn. Entrepreneurship necessarily lies on the axis of ambition - a welcome quality, and megalomania - which is destructive. That is why every so often we encounter resentment, jealousy and dislike. And it is precisely in those moments that we will be wise to ask: What is it about us that triggers these negative emotions? Is there something that we can learn about ourselves from every such occasion?
The answer is always yes. From the experience of humiliation, pain and distress comes growth. Joseph grows to become a tzadik, an intermediary between men and God; he represents an ideal the rest of us can only hope to achieve. And still I believe that any one of us, each to the best of his or her abilities, can do as Joseph and grow as human beings. Set aside our vanity for the sake of personal growth, that is the choice that is always in front of us. And choosing growth is what will increase our chances of success the most. Here’s to making the right choice.
Shabbat shalom and sweet dreams
Drawing: Joseph dreaming, Shai Azoulay