Joseph: The Birth of Meritocracy

Judaism came to the world in an age in which hereditary privilege was the way of the world. Princes were poised to inherit their fathers’ monarchical status and become kings, and slaves were doomed to remain subjugated and enslaved for perpetuity.

In the Torah, as Nietzsche observes in his book “On the Genealogy of Morals,” we find an all-pervasive sweeping rejection of this hereditary and discriminatory prevailing ethos of “might over right.”

The story of Joseph is the prime example of this Nietzschian transvaluation of values, a story in which an impoverished slave emerges from the darkness of prison, and soars overnight to the highest echelons of political and economic power, by becoming the second most powerful man in the ancient Near East.

His story is reflective of the stories of countless other Jews throughout history, including the Rothschilds and perhaps even some of us, who rose from Middle Eastern prisons and European camps, and toiled hard and against all odds as dispossessed refugees, in order to ultimately achieve and thrive.

In the story of Joseph, we see how Judaism pioneered the distinctly modern value and ethos of merit-ocracy, the idea that it is those who merit success who become successful, even if they are not part of the hegemonic majority, or come from the “right family”, or the “right background.”

When we look at our descendants, who are, like Joseph’s children in Egypt, descendants of refugees, and when we behold their astounding intellectual and professional achievements, it is astonishing to see just how pervasive this meritocratic ethos is for us, and how firmly it is entrenched in Jewish consciousness and Jewish culture.

May we encourage our children to continue this meritocratic ethos of our tradition, and pass it on to future generation, and may we always remember that we are not what we have, but rather – what we have achieved with our own two hands, and that most importantly of all, above and beyond everything else – we are what we give, and we are what we do for others.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Sessler

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