Yesterday we mentioned that by studying in depth the story of Yosef we can easily identify what were the characteristics that allowed Yosef to succeed, despite the challenging circumstances he lived. Yosef reached the top, coming from the lowest level. He was a former slave, sentenced to life imprisonment for a sexual offense he did not commit. And yet, he reached the highest peak: to be the second most important person in the mighty Egypt.
How did Yosef succeed?
We mentioned that Yosef had to cultivate his patience. And take the time to discover that many “bad” things that happen or “good” things that do not happen to us, may eventually result for our own good.
Another reason for Yosef’s success was Yosef’s self-esteem.
Yesterday we said that one of Pharaoh’s stewards returned to the court. He did not want to remember Yosef. Rather, he erased Yosef from his memory. Until one day Pharaoh had a mysterious dream that left him confused. The Egyptian monarch sought a solution, but no one among his soothsayers and counselors was able (or willing) to decipher Pharaoh’s dream. Now the steward did remember Yosef! And he told Pharaoh about the young Hebrew that had successfully interpreted his dream. Pharaoh sends for Yosef and brings him to his court. In the next scene, Yosef stands before Pharaoh, as equals. He listens to the dream of the monarch. And unhesitatingly interprets it. Next, on his own, he offers Pharaoh an action plan to save the economy of Egypt in the coming years.
Just a few hours ago Yosef was in prison, probably cleaning the floors and bathrooms of the dungeon. Before that, Yosef was sold from one master to another. He was enslaved for many years. Forced to perform any job asked of him. For years Yosef was abused and humiliated… Most individuals, in less challenging situations would probably feel demoralized. With no pride, dignity and, not to mention, self-esteem. I know people who lived humiliating situations which affected their self-esteem tremendously. I have a friend who was out of work for several months. And I remember how much it took for him to find another job. Why? Because every time he went to a job interview he looked defeated, humiliated, and without a minimum dose of self esteem. And nobody wants to hire such a person … My friend had fallen into a self-destructive vicious circle. Those months without work had a very negative impact on his character, and that new “character” prevented him from progressing and moving forward.
What did Yosef do to maintain his self-esteem in the extreme circumstances he lived? What was his secret?
For Yosef, and for a Jew in general, self-esteem does not depend on “success” but on the effort involved. As Rabbi Noah Weinberg says, a Yehudi knows (or should know) that our personal responsibility is to do our best to achieve our goals. But the end results, if we did or did not achieve our goals, does not depend on us. It depends on God’s will. It is this EMUNA, knowing that there is Someone above me and above my endeavors, that determines the ultimate success of what I undertake, what sustains my self-esteem, regardless of the success I have or have not achieved. In the case of Yosef, ironically, his success did not facilitate his self-esteem. Rather, his self-esteem facilitated his success.
There are two elements that can destroy our self-esteem. First, when we think as they think in a materialistic and success-oriented society: that my own value depends on the success I have achieved, regardless of the quality of the effort I invested in the process. Only if and when I achieve my ambitious goals, I can feel good about myself. In this scenario, of course, 99% of people would suffer from very low self-esteem.
Secondly, what can destroy my self-esteem is when I know that I did not do enough. I was lazy. I did not act with integrity, etc. This feeling creates a “real” problem (which should be solved by changing course): real “guilt”. And there is probably nothing that destroys our self-esteem as much guilt ….