Thursday, December 15, 2011

Moving from Ambition to Compassion

This morning, I offered the following words of Torah at HUC. Text is below the video.

I’m thinking about writing a self-help book. You know, the kind that gives you detailed instructions on how to maximize your potential and change your life forever. By following my 5 easy steps, you can boost yourself into the national spotlight, influence top politicians, call the shots on Wall Street, and get your name in all the newspapers, while picking up a cool and easy million bucks along the way. I’m thinking of calling the book: How to be the Best at Everything… Ever.

I get the sense that there are more and more people like this in our world: people who don’t care what they have to do or how they have to do it, so long as they can get ahead; people who live to compete, and for whom losing is not an option; people with endless ambition and little compassion.

We see in Joseph exactly this type of ambition. Joseph dreams of being a great leader, and nothing will stop him. Everywhere he goes, he is successful. In whatever he does, “the Lord is with him.” He’s his father’s favorite. He’s made head of Potiphar’s household. Even in prison, the warden puts him in charge of his fellow inmates. And in all his responsibility, he looks great doing it!

But despite his skill and cleverness, Joseph exhibits no consideration for others. Although he is his father’s favorite, we have no evidence that he reciprocates his father’s love. He shamelessly reveals to his brothers his deep-seated superiority complex. And after his first dream enrages them, he goes ahead and reveals another one where the imagery is even more inflammatory—that that the sun, the moon, and stars bow down to him. As we read this morning, “Vayoseefu od s'no oto, al ha-chalomotav v'al d'varav / and his brothers continued to hate him more, on account of his dreams and on account of his words.” Throughout his journey in Egypt, we never once see him form a true friendship. His relationships are purely professional; even in prison, he befriends not common inmates, but high-ranking royal officials. And though he accurately interprets their dreams, he does so with a request: that when the cupbearer is free, he’ll remember Joseph and help free him too. He seems to operate under the code of “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.”

Elie Wiesel, in his book Messengers of God, describes Joseph thus: “His was a political awareness, not a poetic one. Shrewd rather than wise, he was a manipulator rather than a witness. ... While still a child, he behaved like a king. When he became king, he often behaved like a child.”

I get the sense that many of today’s leaders also aspire to be kings while behaving like children. They’re so obsessed with success that they’d do seemingly anything to get ahead. From Bernie Madoff to Rod Blagojevich, from the exploitative parenting on TV’s Toddlers in Tiaras to football coaches who hit their own players when they lose, somehow our culture has come to value success over all else.

As religious and spiritual leaders, we have a responsibility to help our communities see that ambition must be tempered by compassion, that the process is just as important as the goal, that winning isn’t the only thing that counts.

Joseph succeeds in all he does and certainly hurts a few people along the way. But his greatest success—the redemption of the children of Israel—comes only after he is able to make peace with his brothers. He discovers that all his ambition leads to nowhere but loneliness, that all his achievement can’t win him a friend. We see in him a real transformation, from Mr. Ambition to Mr. Compassion, from an arrogant brat who can’t hold back his ego to a loving brother who can’t hold back his tears. When he finally turns to compassion, only then does he truly earn the name “Yosef HaTzaddik / Joseph the Righteous”—not for his skill and cunning, not because he was the first of our people to “make it” in the gentile world, but because he learned that relationships are more important than being the best.

So maybe I’m writing the wrong self-help book. Maybe it’s not about being the best after all. Maybe the title should be How to Get Beyond Winning and Start Loving. Or better still, How to be Human.


  1. I'm very impressed. Great job.

  2. Excellent talk buddy, looks like you're really enjoying your work!


  3. Awesome job Daniel- you should share that with Emory's Business School!

  4. Caissie LevyDecember 20, 2011

    beautiful, dan :) loved it. yasher koach!