D’var Torah: Learning Empathy – The Lessons of Joseph and John Wooden

John Wooden, legendary UCLA basketball coach, used to say, “Consider the rights of others before your own feelings and the feelings of others before your own rights.” In this week’s parsha, Vayeshev, Joseph does not heed this advice and it leads to hatred between his brothers.

Joseph is a dreamer, and his dreams are about his own superiority over his brothers. It certainly is his right to share his dreams, but in doing so he hurts the feelings of his brothers. Unconcerned by their dismay, he repeats the process again. He says to them, “Here this dream which I have dreamed.” It is his dream, and he acts like he has deserved his superiority.

Joseph is sent by Jacob to check up on his brothers. He runs into a mysterious messenger. The stranger asks him: “what are you looking for?” Joseph answers: “I am looking for my brothers.”  The messenger informs him that they have gone away to Dothan. Symbolically, Joseph is looking for his brothers. Yet, he will not find brothers, he will find people willing to kill him.

The brothers cast him into the pit. What despair and betrayal Joseph must’ve felt! The Torah does not tell us what he felt. Joseph could have despaired and quit, but he did not. He learned another John Wooden lesson: “Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be.”

All alone and sold into slavery, Joseph faces a very difficult reality that must have called into question all his dreams. John Wooden teaches, “Adversity is the state in which man most easily becomes acquainted with himself, being especially free of admirers then.” Joseph must now figure out how to earn his way out of the mess he finds himself in.

Joseph is sold to Potiphar in Egypt. Instead of just going through the motions and giving up, Joseph becomes indispensable to Potiphar, who reaps great financial reward. Joseph is following one of my favorite Woodenisms: “Things turn out best for the people who make the best of the way things turn out.”

Joseph grows. When Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce Joseph, Joseph refuses. Then, once more in jail, Joseph encounters more dreams. This time they are the dreams of the baker and butler of Pharoah. Joseph, seeing them distraught because no one can interpret for them, says: “surely God can interpret, tell me.” What a change! He is crediting God with the power of interpretation and showing care for others.

Ultimately, Joseph gets a second chance and parlays dream interpretation for Pharoah into leading Egypt through famine. When his brothers come to Egypt in search of food, Joseph’s maturity and wisdom lead to reconciliation. They have finally found their brotherhood.

Both John Wooden and the Torah understand that whether it is about rights or feelings, the key thing is to consider the other person. Joseph cannot reach his own potential without feeling empathy for others. We can avoid a lot of pain and celebrate much joy by taking this key lesson to heart.

Enjoy Thanksgiving!

Categories: Director, Dvar Torah