A Decade in Retrospect
As the curtain closes on the first decade of the 21st Century, it seems appropriate to look back at these ten years, and perhaps identify trends that can help us connect the dots and understand where we are headed and what we can improve to get there.
This human tendency of reviewing a period in time (a week in review, a year in retrospect, a millennium in perspective) has of course nothing to do with something actually happening at the end of the respective time period; nothing cosmic or less will occur as the clock strikes midnight on December 31, 2009. Yet, there is something to be said for contemplating upon and taking stock of a defined past period in time, with the objective being to chart a clearer course and devise a more constructive strategy for the future.
Accountability is a critical component in all growth. Like looking in the rear-view mirror to help us forge ahead, reviewing our past can be a powerful tool to moving forward.
Bookended by 9/11 at the opening of the decade and the current economic meltdown at the end – the major events, milestones, upheavals and overall pessimism of this last decade (Time coined it “Decade from Hell”) have been – and surely will continue to be – well documented in special supplements and programs in the wider media (which in itself has undergone tectonic shifts in this decade; a subject for another time). Newspapers, magazines, TV and websites have comprehensively listed all the key developments of this decade – in science, medicine, technology, politics, religion, business, economy, environment, psychology and global relations. No need therefore to reiterate what has already been thoroughly covered.
Instead this column will focus on some of the larger spiritual issues that have emerged from this decade, with the unique advantage of hindsight – let’s call it the birds’ eye view, the vision that we can achieve when we are able to step back, rise up and discern the forest from the trees.
Now listen to this. As I began researching this article to gain some perspective, I naturally turned, to my own writings at the beginning of the decade (I actually began this weekly column right after 9/11), and I discovered something uncanny. The article written in 2001 based on this week’s Torah portion could have been written today with almost no edits!
At first I thought that I was being lazy. Hey, why the need to exert myself and compose a new column, when I can just reprint an old one? (Great idea, no?). So I attempted to ignore that article in the hope of writing something fresh and relevant to the end of 2009, and not something rehashed from close to ten years ago. After all, much has changed in the last decade. But as much as I tried, something kept tugging me back to the beginning of the decade. For the life of me I could not being myself to write something more relevant than what I wrote back then. I finally realized that it may not be my own indolence, but perhaps when you don the spiritual lens, 10 years – which seems so long to us – is but a small frame in the large scheme.
So yes, my friends, I am honored to present to you the article of Vayigash 2001 – with a few edits (marked “2009 addition”) tailored for the conclusion of the first decade of the 21st century.
JOSEPH AND MARX – WORK AND ALIENATION
How to Ensure that Your Work Does Not Alienate You: The Continuing Story of Today’s Events
And Joseph could control himself no longer (Torah portion this week – 45:1)
Joseph said to his brothers: Don’t worry or feel guilty because you sold me. Look, G-d sent me ahead of you to save lives. There has been a famine in the area… G-d sent me ahead of you to insure that you survive in the land and to sustain you through great deliverance. It is not you who sent me here, but G-d. He has made me Pharaoh’s vizier, director of his entire government and ruler of all Egypt (45:5-8)
Joseph gathered all the money in Egypt and Canaan in payment for the food the people were buying. Joseph brought all the money to Pharaoh’s treasury (47:14)
I am the Omnipotent G-d of your father. Do not be afraid to go to Egypt, for it is there that I will make you into a great nation. I will descend into Egypt with you, and I will also bring you back and ascend with you (46:3-4)
Israel settled in Egypt, in the Goshen district. They acquired property there and were fertile, with their population increasing very rapidly (47:27)
I will take the stick of Joseph…and put it together with the stick of Judah to form one stick, so that they are one in my hand… I will make them one nation in the land…One king will be the king over them all, and they no longer will be two nations… And David My servant will be their prince forever (Haftorah this week – Ezekiel 37:19-22,25)
Finally some good news. In this week’s Torah portion Joseph and his brothers reconcile.
Macrocosm/microcosm: Just as Jacob reconciles with his brother Esau after building his family in Charan, Joseph reconciles with his brothers after building his family in Egypt and establishing himself there. He spearheads the huge business of Egypt, selling grain to the famished nations in return for their money. The great wealth Joseph generates turns Egypt in a superpower, the most powerful empire of its time.
But with one major distinction: Jacob and Esau’s reconciliation was incomplete and they needed to separate ways (See The Big Confrontation). Joseph and his brothers, on the other hand, make peace and stay together for the rest of their lives. Only later, would their rift manifest itself again, in the split between the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah.
Jacob, Joseph and his brothers are now together. They are planting the seeds that would empower the Jews as they begin their exile in Egypt and redemption.
In spiritual terms: Jacob concludes the work of Abraham and Isaac in constructing the ‘building blocks’ of existence – the structure of Atzilus, the world of unity. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are the sefirot of chesed (love), gevurah (discipline) and tiferet (beauty and compassion) – the three primary pillars that define the vision of life; the vision of transforming existence into a ‘home’ for G-dliness, of integrating matter and spirit as it was in the Garden before the Tree of Knowledge. The twelve tribes – with Joseph at their head – actually carry this vision into the material world of Mitzrayim (which refers to all the constraints and boundaries of material existence), the spiritual worlds of biy”a, acronym for briyah, yetzirah, asiyah.
However, the real work of refining Egypt begins in the next generation, with the Egyptian bondage. The children of Jacob and the tribes would spend 210 years under very harsh conditions to refine and elevate the 202 Divine sparks embedded in the first great empire. And this work would in turn imbue in the people and ultimately in the entire human race the personality of true freedom and transcendence, the ability to face any material challenge or adversary. It instilled in future generations the power to face all the challenges posed by the empires to come, all of which are rooted in the Egyptian archetype.
The strength and ability to achieve all this work begins with Joseph and his brothers – permeated with the strength of their forefathers — paving the way during the first years following their arrival in Egypt. As G-d tells Jacob: “I am the Omnipotent G-d of your father. Do not be afraid to go to Egypt, for it is there that I will make you into a great nation. I will descend into Egypt with you, and I will also bring you back and ascend with you.”
There are therefore many lessons in these weekly Torah sections that give us both guidance and strength in dealing with different aspects of our particular crisis today, as the children of Abraham – Ishmael, Esau and Jacob – are pitted against each other.
Let us touch upon one of the lessons we can glean from Joseph as he began the process of uniting his family – both scions of Judah and Joseph – which empowers us with the ability to unite Esau and Jacob, matter and spirit.
One of the most compelling forces haunting us today is: Uncertainty. Today’s prevailing fear and uncertainty is having a particularly devastating effect on our economy. The security of this country’s basic business structure, even with its inevitable ups and downs, is now under question. We would like to believe that we are undergoing just another economic downturn – albeit a very different type, but still one that has precedent. But this premise is built on our old paradigm. And that is a big but: perhaps we are entering a new paradigm in which old rules don’t apply. Perhaps this will not just be another repeat of old market patterns. Is anyone willing to bet that this will just pass with no real change?
These and many other plaguing uncertainties cloud the business climate. And like bad weather, everyone is taking cover. People everywhere are withdrawing. As we enter this year’s holiday season, there is conspicuous lack of enthusiasm, actually lack of anything optimistic coming from any given sector of this country.
Allow me to submit the following theory: A study of Joseph in Egypt will give us a powerful forecast for the future of business in America and the world. I will allow myself to make a bold prediction: Understanding Joseph will help us create certainty in these uncertain times.
In his scathing critique of capitalism, Marx brilliantly describes how the Capitalist system devalues the worker, reducing him to no more than a commodity, thus leading to mans’ inevitable alienation and estrangement from his essential self. “Labor is external to the worker, i.e. does not belong to his essential being; that he, therefore, does not confirm himself in his work, but denies himself, feels miserable and not happy, does not develop free mental and physical energy, but mortifies his flesh and ruins his mind. Hence, the worker feels himself only when he is not working; when he is working, he does not feel himself. He is at home when he is not working, and not at home when he is working. His labor is, therefore, not voluntary but forced, it is forced labor. It is, therefore, not the satisfaction of a need but a mere means to satisfy needs outside itself” (Paris Manuscripts, 1844).
Marx asked all the right questions; he just didn’t have the answers, as we retrospectively know today after the failure of the Socialist and Communist experiments. He highlighted the flaws of capitalism without ever really providing a viable alternative.
Reading this week’s Torah portion I was thinking how Joseph, the first “Capitalist,” would respond to Marx. Joseph was faced with this very dilemma. His fathers chose to be shepherds, thus avoiding confrontation with a corrupt marketplace, allowing them to discover their true essence while meditating among nature as the docile sheep grazed in the fields. Joseph, however, was thrust into Egypt, first becoming an accountant (yes, there you have the first Jewish accountant) in the house of Potiphar, and then becoming the viceroy of Egypt, running the entire grain business of the land.
When Joseph’s brothers and then Jacob reunited with Joseph the first thing they recognized was that despite the formidable challenges he faced for 22 years, he had not in any way compromised his profound spiritual connection. The first words Joseph utters to his brothers, as he is no longer able to control his emotions: “I am Joseph! Is my father still alive? I am Joseph your brother!” Joseph sends a sign to his father that he is intact by telling him the topic in Torah (the laws of the eglah arufah) they were discussing 22 years ago when they were separated!
How did Joseph maintain his spiritual integrity – his connection with his essence – even while hard at work, in a corrupt Egypt at that?
Over all that transpired during these years Joseph never lost his connection to G-d. As harsh as it was to accept that his brothers sold him into slavery, Joseph never became bitter and was never broken. He always knew that his arrival in Egypt and the work he did there was G-d’s plan. As he tells his brothers: G-d sent me ahead of you to insure that you survive in the land and to sustain you through great deliverance. It is not you who sent me here, but G-d. He has made me Pharaoh’s vizier, director of his entire government and ruler of all Egypt.
As immersed as Joseph was in the massive Egyptian grain industry, he did not experience alienation or estrangement, because his work was not something external outside of himself; he saw it for its true nature: Divine work, as part of his Divine essence and mission in this world: to save lives, to insure the survival of his family and ultimately the entire Jewish nation. Arriving first in Egypt allowed Joseph to prepare the ground so his family could survive the great famine; it allowed the Jewish nation to be born – fulfilling G-d promise and vision to Abraham.
Throughout all his work as head of state and ruler of Egypt, Joseph never let go of the vision; he always held on to the promise; he was eternally connected to the Divine process, always recognizing the deeper spiritual meaning of his work as director of the grain industry – the biggest business of its time.
Joseph had to first be leader before Judah could become leader, because Joseph had the unique power to integrate spirit and matter in an imperfect world where materialism dominates. Joseph begins preparing the ground for a more perfect world when Judah’s faith and bittul could dominate (see The Selling of Joseph).
The message and lesson to us today is clear:
America today is suffering from some of the flaws of Capitalism that Marx describes. September 11 just amplified these weaknesses, as did the subsequent events of this decade, especially those surrounding our economic blunders (2009 addition). Joseph can teach us how to get back on course.
The unprecedented prosperity of this nation has spoiled us. We have built the greatest empire in history, with the highest standard of living, and the most powerful technology. Witness the American firepower in Afghanistan, a new type of war if it can even be called war, fulfilling its goals with virtually no casualties. (Not sure if we would quite see it this way now in 2009).
Everything seemed to be going so well. The unheard of economic boom, the information revolution, the unbelievable advances in medicine and science, promised to deliver a new world order. Consumption – mass consumption, enabled by mass industry – became the dominating driving force in our consumer driven economy.
But this great corporation lost its soul somewhere along the way. American business forgot its true mission statement.
The mission statement of this country was defined by the Founding Fathers 225 years ago when they established this great nation. They engraved it on the currency of this nation: In God We Trust.
By studying different systems and their failures, by personally experiencing the consequences of being denied basic human freedoms, by building this country’s pillars not on their own subjective whims but on eternal values rooted in the Bible – the Founding Fathers understood that the grand American experiment is only possible with a firm foundation that absolutely guarantees individual rights.
And they fought the Revolutionary War to defend this mission stated in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
A nation built on the principle that “All men are created equal” as “One nation under God” created the best business climate to allow this nation to flourish. With its promise of freedom and equal opportunity, the United States has welcomed people from all over the world and encouraged them to contribute to the growth of this country.
And flourish it did. The investment of the Founding Fathers paid off. The synergy of people from all backgrounds coming together as equals under God created the highest developed country of all time.
For 225 years our mission statement – the principles of the revolution – has never been challenged. Indeed, our sustained prosperity has given rise to a profound complacency. Now, 225 years later, on September 11, this nation has been issued the greatest challenge it has ever faced. The attacks put into stark relief the fact that we have taken for granted many of the freedoms and blessings that were contained in the vision of our founding fathers. Our newfound vulnerability and deep feelings of uncertainty expose more than ever the emptiness of financial security. It makes us realize how alienated we become when we our jobs and careers become an end in themselves, divorced from their deeper mission statement: an expression of our souls.
We are locked in a struggle to renew our contract with the soul of our nation. In many ways we now are faced with the formidable task of finishing what our founding fathers began.
One cannot be sure whether the Founding Fathers saw in Joseph the model businessperson and CEO paragon, but their extensive knowledge of the Bible definitely could not ignore Joseph’s critical contribution to balancing business and spirituality, Capitalism and compassion, matter and spirit.
Joseph offers us a new business model, a new paradigm – one that integrates our work with our essence. By recognizing that our careers and businesses are means and vehicles to fulfill G-d’s plan in our lives, we can reclaim the core beliefs that are the secret of the nation’s endurance.
But with all that Joseph accomplished, he was also fully aware of the sad reality to come. When he meets his younger brother Benjamin, he weeps over the destruction of the Holy Temple. Additionally, his descendants would split away from the Kingdom of Judah. Both these fracturing events would have profound implications in the split between matter and spirit and between work and the human essence.
Today we are faced with the challenge to finally and permanently mend the fracture. By reconnecting our material lives, our businesses with their true spiritual mission statement.
Let us learn from Joseph how this can be achieved.
The United States now stands at perhaps the most defining moment of its history. We need to fight a war that goes far beyond the military one. This is not a war against. It is a war for: For the fundamental beliefs that this nation was built upon. Our greatest enemy is not Bin Laden, or any terrorist; it is complacency. Our battle is not just against greed and corruption; it has to be for evolved spiritual standards (2009 addition).
We must balance our economy of consumption with higher values. Let us learn from Joseph how to reclaim our mission statement: What are we? Who are we? What is this company called America?
New paradigms are always difficult. That’s why they are new.