Pursuing What?

In this week’s Torah portion, Joseph is certainly at his most immature.  He does not realize what is in store for him nor how he will see God working behind the scenes in his life.  All he has now are dreams and he will gladly share his ‘wisdom’ with whomever he wants, especially to his brothers.  His brothers, of course, do not take kindly to his dreams and, after hearing his first dream they ask him,

וַיֹּאמְרוּ לוֶֹ אֶחָיו הֲמָלֹךְ תִּמְלֹךְֶ עָלֵינוּ אִם־מָשׁוֹל תִּמְשֹׁל בָּנוּ וַיּוֹסִפוּ עוֹדֶ שְׂנֹא אֹתוֹ עַל־חֲלֹמֹתָיו וְעַל־דְּבָרָֽיו

His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Or are you indeed to rule over us?” So they hated him even more for his dreams and for his words.”

The Hebrew is interesting since it uses two verbs to indicate some kind of rulership.  The first verb is

מלך from which the word ‘king’ derives.  The second is the verb משל from which the word ‘domination’ derives.  Our Sages teach us that, though the verse and the two different verbs may look the same and it merely looks like the brothers are saying the same thing to Joseph in two different ways, the truth is that the use of the two verbs indicate something else.

The first of the two verbs, malach מלך, indicates a rulership over a people with their consent. The verb mashal משל, on the other hand, indicates a type of domination over a people through oppression and fear.  So, when the brothers said, “Will you really malach over us and will you really mashal over us?” they were telling Joseph that he would neither rule over them nor dominate them in any way, ever.  This was the beginning of their hatred toward him.  But it was not just simple jealousy.  They saw their brother as undeserving and arrogant.  He may have been Jacob’s favorite son but, in their eyes, his name ‘Yosef’ – one who adds – only added to their misery when he was around.  The plot to remove him from the family thickens.

The brothers were on to something and it is reflected in their uses of the words ‘mashal’ and ‘malach’.  No good ruler rules without consent and ruling through fear can not last forever.  That is why all dictatorships eventually fall.  When they are replaced by other dictatorships, they eventually fall, as well.  The human spirit can not be repressed indefinitely.

But there is another element, as well.  The brothers knew that Joseph sought glory and when someone seeks glory, it is vanity, not honor.  Vanity comes from self-seeking and self-serving.  It comes from greed and avarice.  But honor comes from those who offer respect and title to someone who deserves it but never sought it out.  When someone reigns over another, they may have mashal but they do not have malachMalach is given by the people, not demanded by the sovereign.

Every day we know people who want to either mashal or malach over us.  Sometimes they ‘pull rank’ or threaten.  Sometimes they invite dialogue and conversation and cooperation.  It may happen at work, it may happen in a marriage, it may happen anywhere two or more people gather.  But the dynamic is the same.  Joseph’s brothers’ words can teach us to look carefully at how we ‘rule’ over people.  Do we get respect and honor or merely demand it?  Your future literally depends on the answer.