July 17, 2024
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July 17, 2024
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I have a vivid memory of my first job interview. It was for a position as a counselor in a summer camp. The only preparation that I can now recall took the form of words of encouragement from my mother, of blessed memory. She told me not to be nervous, to be polite, modest, and respectful, and to be sure to be well-groomed and well-spoken.

I recently had the occasion to contrast my mother’s advice with that received by a granddaughter of mine. Like many of her peers, she consulted a “career coach” before interviewing for her first job. My granddaughter was given a long list of rules to follow. She was told to practice thoroughly, and to “dress for success.” She was cautioned to be sure to proudly convey all that she had to offer. Under no circumstances was she to be afraid of boasting about her qualifications for the position.

I had two distinct reactions to my granddaughter’s report to me about her coach’s advice. One was to note the difference between my mother’s advice, which emphasized respect and modesty, and that of her coach, who urged her to assert herself confidently, with even a measure of braggadocio.

My second reaction prompted me to ask myself the following questions: What was the first job interview in Jewish history? Was it successful? What was the secret of its success?

Those questions brought to mind an episode in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Miketz (Genesis 41:1-44:17). It is in this parsha that we read of Joseph’s appearance before Pharaoh for what I maintain is the first job interview in the entire Torah.

The job in question was a fascinating one. Pharaoh had a dream which disturbed him greatly. “All the magicians of Egypt and all its wise men” sought to calm his agitated spirit. But none were successful. In contemporary terms, the royal house of Pharaoh was forced to advertise for applicants to fill the position of interpreter of dreams, a role not likely to appear on any of today’s lists of employment openings.

Joseph was recommended for the position by the cup bearer of whom we read in last week’s Torah portion. The cup bearer volunteered that he knew of a possible candidate for the position and that he himself had experienced that candidate’s prowess at the task of dream interpretation.

But his recommendation was not entirely positive. The cup bearer didn’t even mention Joseph’s name. Indeed, he made it a point to list several factors in Joseph’s resume that would disqualify him for such a distinguished position in the royal household. For one thing, Joseph was a Jew, who presumably could not even speak Pharaoh’s language. Secondly, he was a youth; intellectually immature and by no means fit for such an exalted position. Finally, Joseph was a slave, and the far-from-democratic Egyptian constitution explicitly forbade former slaves from ascending to positions of power, even denying them the right to wear royal garments.

Joseph’s letter of recommendation was far from favorable. It did attest to his skills in the field of dream interpretation, but it also contained three formidable strikes against his candidacy for the position.

Nevertheless, “Pharaoh sent for Joseph, and he was rushed from the dungeon.” Joseph clearly had very little time, if any at all, to prepare for this crucial interview. Pharaoh did allow him time, however, to have his hair cut and to change his clothing. After all, Pharaoh could not allow an unkempt accused criminal to sully the royal palace with his ragged prison uniform. Thus, at least one of my mother’s recommendations was fulfilled. Joseph was well groomed.

Pharaoh then relates his dream to Joseph and gives him an opening that would delight today’s job applicant: “I have heard it said that for you to hear a dream is to tell its meaning.” Not only does Joseph not use that opening to his own advantage, but the first words out of Joseph’s mouth would seem to ruin every chance of his success. He violates the advice of my granddaughter’s well-meaning coach to exude self-confidence. Instead, Joseph disclaims his worthiness and exclaims, “Not I! God will see to Pharaoh’s welfare.”

The coach would have expressed her disappointment. I can just hear her saying, “Joseph, you just blew your interview!”

Pharaoh is not fazed by Joseph’s modest disclaimer. Rather, he proceeds to tell Joseph every detail of this puzzling dream. Joseph responds with consistent modesty, repeatedly attributing his ability to interpret the dream to the Almighty. He insists that the dream is a message from God Himself, giving Pharaoh a heads up: “Immediately ahead lie seven years of great abundance in all the land of Egypt. After them will come seven years of famine, and all the abundance in the land of Egypt will be forgotten.”

Wonder of wonders, Pharaoh buys it. He affirms Joseph’s interpretation as accurate, although far from soothing. Joseph then violates yet another one of the norms of today’s job interview. He offers advice to Pharaoh! He suggests that Pharaoh advertise for a new open position, this time not of a dream interpreter, but of a capable administrator to deal effectively with the impending famine.

Again, Pharaoh not only buys it, but he selects Joseph to be that administrator and elevates him to a royal rank second only to Pharaoh himself.

What did Joseph do right? What earned him the trust and confidence of this powerful Pharaoh?

We are all familiar with the cruel and hard-hearted Pharaoh of the Book of Exodus, who turned a deaf ear to the inspired pleas of Moses and to the eloquent demands of Aaron. Our Sages are open to the possibility that the Pharaoh who so readily accepted Joseph’s words in this week’s parasha was the very same Pharaoh who obstinately refuses to accept Moses’ plea for freedom for the Israelites. What was it about Joseph’s behavior that convinced this Pharaoh to respect Joseph’s message and to trust him so profoundly?

I think I know the answer. Pharaoh was no dummy. He knew that Joseph had just been imprisoned in a dark dungeon with absolutely no prospects of freedom. He knew that other people in Joseph’s situation would have done everything possible to make an impression upon Pharaoh. After all, this was not just an interview for a job. This was an opportunity to escape lifelong imprisonment and to perhaps gain access to Pharaoh’s inner circle.

Pharaoh was impressed by the fact that Joseph made no such effort. In no way did he attempt to convince Pharaoh that he had any special skills or powers. He emphatically attributed his abilities to the Almighty. Again and again Joseph belittled his own talents, eliminating every chance that his appearance before Pharaoh would grant him the freedom he so desperately willed.

It was Joseph’s admission that he was not personally qualified for the job that won him not only Pharaoh’s acceptance of his dream interpretation, but achieved for him a leadership role in which he ensured survival of the Egyptian nation and rescued the entire world from famine.

Every contemporary job seeker is well advised to learn the lessons of Joseph’s honesty and humility. The pretense of self-confidence does not impress others. Sham appearances do not long delude men of discernment.

The contrary is true. No less than in ancient Egypt, authenticity and sincerity ultimately prevail, even in our own imperfect world.

Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union.

By Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb

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