Truthfulness, impartiality and pragmatism

Thoughts on parashat Miketz

Menachem Mirski

One definition of insanity is repeating the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. While there is a lot of truth to this rather amusing statement, I challenge this conclusion. It would be absolutely true if we had full control over the results of our actions and over other factors that influence those results, however, we have no such control. Additionally, we don’t get everything right the first time we try – so repeating it again, might in fact produce a different result. The same is true of risk-taking situations: these situations, by definition, do not guarantee the desired results. Therefore, at the onset, the truth of the statement is limited.

In this week’s Torah portion, we come across a story that seems quite puzzling in light of the ending of the previous Torah portion. As you may remember, in last week’s parashah, Joseph interprets the dream of the chief cupbearer and predicted correctly that he would be released from prison and regain his former position. Joseph asked the cupbearer not to forget about him. And while he had proof that Joseph interpreted the dream correctly the cupbearer did nothing. But in this week’s Torah portion the situation is completely different. Joseph again interpreted a dream, in order to get out of prison, and in fact, had a different result. Here is what follows after Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dream:

The plan pleased Pharaoh and all his courtiers. And Pharaoh said to his courtiers, “Could we find another like him, a man in whom is the spirit of God?” So Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has made all this known to you, there is none so discerning and wise as you. You shall be in charge of my court, and by your command shall all my people be directed; only with respect to the throne shall I be superior to you.” Pharaoh further said to Joseph, “See, I put you in charge of all the land of Egypt.” And removing his signet ring from his hand, Pharaoh put it on Joseph’s hand; and he had him dressed in robes of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck. He had him ride in the chariot of his second-in-command, and they cried before him, “Abrek!” Thus he placed him over all the land of Egypt. (Gen 41:37-43)

How did Pharaoh, unlike the cupbearer, come to believe Joseph when there was no way of proving his interpretation? The dream was about a rather distant future. What was the criteria of truth here? Why did Joseph achieve a different result? Why did Pharaoh listen to this message, from the lowest among the lowest in the social hierarchy, while ignoring his court magicians? Why were the magicians’ explanations not convincing while Josephs were?

We do not know, we can only speculate. We know from my previous sermons that Joseph was seen as truthful and sincere. Perhaps the magicians interpreted the dream in such a way as to please the Pharaoh, but Pharaoh who was quite disturbed by it, didn’t “buy” their “positive” interpretation, while Joseph’s was perceived, in the blink of an eye, as more sincere and truthful and thus more believable. Additionally, Joseph’s interpretation was pragmatic, he immediately gave Pharaoh practical advice on how to deal with the coming famine. Another factor that may have been appealing in Joseph’s response is that he, as a Hebrew, a stranger in the land of Egypt, had at heart, the future of that land. This is also an expression of pragmatism, but what is crucial here is that it is a sign of Joseph’s impartiality.

Let me say it again: truthfulness, impartiality and pragmatism. These are values that we should consistently support and work towards. Not only because untruthfulness, partiality and detachment abound. But because these three values sometimes are in conflict. Pragmatism can mean, and often does mean, being partial. It can also mean silence on topics that need to be addressed openly. I don’t think I need to give any examples here – there are many of them in various areas of our life: in our professional and private life, at work, at home or in our relationships. Similarly being truthful at all costs is also not wise. We know well that not every thought has to be expressed the minute we think it. Not every message or email has to be delivered the minute it is written. We need to be thoughtful about things. What I’m advocating for is to have all these three – truthfulness, impartiality and pragmatism – in our hierarchy of values and strive to always find the right balance among them and their consequences.

Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA

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