For this round of middot, I intend to stay in the vicinity of the weekly parasha. We’re currently at the beginning of the story of Joseph, so let’s see what it might have to teach us regarding the middah of humility.
Joseph’s story turns on three pairs of dreams. In the first pair, Joseph sees himself symbolically as dominant over his brothers, and he foolishly tells them about it. Commentator Nahum Sarna says, “The predictive aspect of dreams was universally assumed in the ancient world, and this was reason enough for the brothers to take Joseph seriously.” Dreams are potent, but Joseph handles them carelessly, fueling his brothers’ resentment and earning a rebuke from Jacob his father, who generally appears to favor Joseph and not rebuke him for anything. The brothers decide to get rid of their obnoxious brother and sell him into slavery in Egypt. Joseph ends up in an Egyptian prison where, after years of bondage, he accurately interprets the dreams of two fellow inmates. One, the royal cupbearer, will be released, and the other, the royal baker, will be executed. Again, Joseph talks about dreams with little thought to the impact of his words. He tells the baker he’s about to die, without so much as a “Sorry to have to tell you this.” Joseph even employs a play on words, telling the cupbearer that Pharaoh will “lift his head” to restore him and the baker that Pharaoh will “lift his head” off to execute him. Oh well . . .
Finally, Pharaoh has a pair of dreams that no one can interpret until the cupbearer remembers Joseph. He tells Pharaoh about him and Joseph is summoned to interpret the dreams, which he does convincingly, wrapping it up with, “The doubling of Pharaoh's dream means that the thing is fixed by God, and God will shortly bring it about” (Gen. 41:32). Then he adds some words of his own: “Now therefore let Pharaoh select a discerning and wise man, and set him over the land of Egypt. Let Pharaoh proceed to appoint overseers over the land and take one-fifth of the produce of the land . . . so that the land may not perish through the famine” (Gen. 41:33–36). As a result, Joseph is put in charge of the whole vast operation to save Egypt from the predicted famine.
In the foreground of the story, its big theme begins to move ahead, the restoration of the twelve sons of Israel. But in the background we can discern a lesson about humility.
Joseph doesn’t just interpret Pharaoh’s dream, but now he takes responsibility for his interpretation and suggests a response. One could say that Joseph is just trying to get out of prison, and maybe even get himself a paying job (which you can hardly blame him for), but perhaps there’s more to it. In the past, Joseph didn’t even seem to be aware of the impact his words might have, as he talked about the various dreams. But now he’s learned to pause and consider the impact of his words, which is an integral part of humility. Sarna points out that “Joseph is extremely tactful and cautious. . . . [His] repeated emphasis on ‘Pharaoh’ . . . accords with the ancient Egyptian concept of government, which stressed the ubiquitous, omniscient, and omnipotent nature of the king.” When Joseph advises the king to “proceed to appoint overseers,” he “deliberately uses the same verbal stem [asah] he used three times before in connection with the impending divine action (vv. 25, 28, 32), as though to imply that Pharaoh is the human counterpart of God.”
Now, you might think this sort of language is basic protocol when you’re talking with Pharaoh, but Joseph has shown himself to be oblivious to basic protocol in the past, both with his older, and higher ranking, brothers and with his two high-ranking fellow prisoners. Now, I believe, he’s learned something about humility that might be helpful to us as well. Humility is the ability to step back and see the impact of your potential words, to consider them, not just from your perspective, but from the other person’s perspective. Humility is willing to modify, to be careful, to hand-carry our words for the sake of the other. Humility overcomes the belief that my perspective, and my way of expressing it, is always just fine, and others will have to learn to like it. Humility replaces such self-delusion with sensitivity, and makes the effort to meet the needs of the other, instead of just meeting the need to express myself.