Sunday, December 31, 2017

VaYechi (2017)

Parashat Vayechi
Dec. 30, 2017

[Sorry this is late.]

This week we read about the blessings Yaakov gave to his children and grandchildren. Yaakov lived in the land of Egypt for 17 years. He became ill with a debilitating disease and knew that he would die soon.  No other Biblical character died from a long-term disease.   Unlike his father, Yitzhak, and grandfather, Abraham, Yaakov was close to many children and grandchildren.  He saw that he would have a legacy. Yaakov became the nation builder and person who saw that the covenant that God made with Abraham would have a chance to succeed.  Yaakov made Yosef and his brothers promise to bury him in the ancestral burial cave that Abraham, his grandfather bought.  The mission of the descendants was to continue as a people, teaching their children and grandchildren the ways of their people.
The book of Beresheit starts with creation and introduces some of the great challenges facing all families – earning a living, family relations, external societal relations, and continuation of a legacy.  In the journey from lifeless nothingness to humanity, we learn of sibling rivalry, greed, lack of clear communications, need for respect, great love, mistakes, recovery, and struggles of all kinds of human frailty. We end the book with, faith in humanity, seeds of a nation, and a great hope for the future the Divine spark will ignite and succeed in the mission to find the ultimate peace and harmony in the world.

The business lesson is any great business must have business continuity.  The founder creates the concept and the model and then builds the business.  The organization has many struggles with personnel, customers, rival businesses, outside forces, mistakes, successes, and lack of resources.  Eventually the founders need to create a legacy.  They know they will not live forever, but they want their vision and organization to outlive them. Steve Jobs knew he was dying and sought to insure his legacy would life in new leadership. His ideas still live on with Apple and in much of the tech world. Steve Jobs made some big mistakes – we would like to forget such as the Apple Lisa and Apple III.  The legacy he leaves is not to do it “his way” but to strive for the best.

The organization needs to overcome mistakes so that they do not restrict the future growth.   The lesson of Bersheit is that we must overcome our limitations, mistakes, and frailty.  We must learn to become human and a nation based in law (halakhah), customs (minhag), respect (kavod) for the past,  the greater good, and for the Divine (kadosh baruch hu).

Picture credit: Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph is a 1656 oil painting by Rembrandt van Rijn.  Housed in the Schloss Wilhelmshöhe, Kassel, Hesse, Germany.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Parashat Mikeitz (2017)

December 24, 2017
Parashat Mikeitz

After I published my comments on Mikeitz on December 15,  I received some feed-back that caused me to rethink what I wrote.  First, the nature of my comments on this or any Torah portion are not meant to be final answers.  My intention is to give you a few ideas to think about or seek more information.  Sometimes I ask more questions than I give answers in order to reinforce the idea that learning is a never-ending process.

In Mikeitz, Joseph is called by Pharaoh to interpret a dream. In the dream seven stalks of healthy grain are swallowed by seven stalks of thin, withered grain.  In the second dream seven thin cows eat the seven healthy cows. Joseph interprets the dreams and is made an important person in Pharaoh’s court. Usually the English word “viceroy” is used for his position. Joseph is put in charge of the preparation for the seven years of famine.  Later Joseph’s brothers go to Egypt to purchase food leading to the family taking up residence in Egypt and father Ya’akov reuniting with his son.

How did Joseph learn to be such a great manager? How did he learn Egyptian customs? How did he learn the people skills needed to impress the Pharaoh?  The Torah does not concern
itself with the exact answers. We really don’t know what Joseph was doing with his time in prison. Joseph was a manager of Potiphar’s home. One needs a good base of knowledge and experience to be a good manager.  He may have learned   the people and organizational skills that he needed later in Pharaoh’s court.  I have read of two very bright managers[i] who learned on the job without ever taking business classes in college. Both were avid readers and learned much from reading books on management.  Joseph did not have those books. The business lesson is not to be patient and you will get what you deserve, because that is not the way most people succeed.  The lesson is to use one’s intellectual gift to learn, access, and plan. One needs to promote one’s ideas and plans by telling others what can be done. The Biblical story does not tell us how to succeed or even how to prepare for success. It points to way if can be done. [ii]

Thanks to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ article on Mekeitz (5778)   ( my original contentions, that the business lessons from the parasha are obscure, is shown to be incorrect.  Dreams may be the way the brain interprets the past and works on plans for the future.  Perhaps when Joseph heard that Pharaoh had a dream about grain and cows  being an economist Joseph surmised the reason for the dreams was that Pharaoh was concerned about the Egyptian agricultural cycles?  Pharaoh knew Egypt had good years and bad years, but did not know what to do about protecting the people from years of drought or famine.  Rabbi Sacks says this was an example of macroeconomics, that is how the employment, inflation, prices, production, consumption etc. interact on the big economic picture of the nation.  In his role of economist, Joseph made life-saving decisions and plans.

The business lesson is first, one must observe, investigate, and get the data to be able to diagnose the problem.  Second, work on the strategic plans to ride out the predictions of down turns in the economy or business.  Predictions of doom do not mean the business or nation will die. Suffering is not a fate to be borne in silence.  God does not want us to accept pain or poverty, but to work toward solutions to cure them. 

[i] The first is Bill Gates.  Gates dropped out of Harvard University before graduating.  Gates has written two books, The Road Ahead (1995) and Business @ the Speed of Thought written with Collins Hemingway (1999.) 
The second is Rabbi Aaron Kotler, CEO of Beth Medrash Govoha.  See the article “Beyond Management 101: Professionalizing the Jewish Nonprofit World” by Rachel Wizenfeld in
Jewish Action  (Winter 2017)  for the full story of how Rabbi Kotler, who never took a business course, managed to learn both on a macro level (strategic planning) and a micro level (everyday transactions) what was needed run a yeshiva with 7000 students and a $48 million yearly budget.

[ii] Picture credit: Joseph, Overseer of Pharaoh's Granaries (1874) by Sir Laurence Alma Tadema, 1836-1912.  © Dahesh Museum of Art, 2002.38. New York City.