Daniel Coleman
Daniel Coleman
Contrarian and creative investor, inventor, and career coach

Joseph’s fortunes: Rags to riches – and back again?

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;

Rudyard Kipling is among the best-known of the Victorian poets and story-tellers. Awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1907, he’s been variously labelled as colonialist, racist, misogynist, and gifted, but is perhaps best known for writing The Jungle Book. (I hope this never gets cancelled – I loved listening to the record when I was growing up.)  He also penned the poem, “If,” (quoted above and later in this article) which could have been written about Jospeh. Kipling’s own childhood bears some uncanny parallels to Joseph’s.

At age 6, Kipling’s parents sent him from his birthplace in India to begin his schooling in England. “In addition to feelings of bewilderment and abandonment” from being deserted by his parents, writes Mary A. O’Toole (the US’s first female municipal judge),  “Kipling had to suffer bullying by the woman of the house (where he stayed in England) and her son.” 

Previously, Kipling is described as a pampered child, not unlike Joseph who is described by the Torah as the long awaited “ben zekunim” (son of old age) of his parents, and was presumably pampered by them until the age of 6 when his mother died. I can imagine that he too had many feelings of bewilderment and abandonment (about a decade before he was abandoned again by another 10 family members – his brothers). In view of this early loss, it’s easier to “forgive” Yaakov for favoring the son(s) of his favorite wife; while nothing can replace a child’s mother, perhaps Yaakov thought that he could compensate for Rachel’s absence by doubling his affection for Joseph and providing him with a reminder of this affection in the form of a beautiful coat to “protect” him wherever he went. (The coat may have also served as a “transitional object” encouraging Joseph towards greater independence.)

Gelt is a primary theme at this time of year. (I speculate that a modern Chanukkah story would involve a dreidel app and the transferring of bitcoin between players.)  Entering the last month of the year, many of us have been considering our fortunes (or lack thereof) and are planning for the secular year ahead. As we take stock, I’m reminded of the curious phrase to “pay attention,” and that despite how much I “pay” for gifts that are somehow meant to show my love for my kids, what they really need from me is for me to pay attention and spend time with them. Too often I spend an extra hour (or two or five) pursuing material gains, and forget that all the gifts in the world can’t compensate for time spent with loved ones. I won’t go into the studies showing it’s not a matter of choosing quality over quantity: our loved ones really need both. We can learn this without the studies from the miracle of Chanukkah: until the highest quality oil could again be procured, the quantity they found needed to fuel the Menorah for 8 days. Quantity and quality are integral when it comes to Chanukkah – and to our relationships.

Like his father who was fabulously blessed materially, Joseph is also exiled from his home and eventually finds great fortune. His is also not a simple rags to riches story. His career path is rather windy and involves a stint behind bars. 

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;   
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings…
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss…

From riches (favored son) to rags (in the pit), back to riches in Potiphar’s house, then returning to the pit of prison, before finally becoming second in command of Egypt, controlling the entire money supply of Egypt, acquiring all the property, and enslaving all its people. If we judge Joseph in monetary terms, it seems clear that he did quite well for himself. And yet some doubts remain.  After all, we don’t hear about the college or trust funds he set up for his kids, or the philanthropies he supported. True to his name, Joseph appears to “add” to his fortunes. Yet he also appears to pay a big price, losing his entire family of origin at one point or another, and perhaps losing all his material wealth too. Maybe the Torah even hints to this by telling us that only the bare “bones of Joseph” made it out of Egypt. Like the thin cows, Egypt swallowed him and his dreams and his fortunes alive. 

We don’t really know anything about his relationship with his kids or his closest sibling, Binyamin, but whether through choice or circumstance he never got to spend much time with his family. Ironically, the Torah spotlights a significant quantity of time he spends building relationships with others, and it’s not with any of his family. Instead, it’s when he’s enticed into a relationship from which he runs away and he’s forced to serve extended jail time. The career ladder is abruptly pulled from under him and perhaps it’s only now with a big “time out” that he can reevaluate his life and consider his interpersonal relationships. (I’m aware that a less generous read of his prison experience may suggest that he learns nothing about relationships in prison, and merely continues to use the other for his own ends.)

Each night of Chanukkah we are invited to take a time-out after lighting candles. Let’s use this time to rekindle relationships. As we pursue our dreams and fortunes, create a moment to take stock and reflect on who the true lights of our lives are. After a busy and crazy year our oil supply may be running low, so it’s more important than ever to be “mosif v’holech” – to continue adding wherever we can.  As you (re)consider the amount of energy and focus you give to others (and yourself!), I bless each of you with increasing reserves of gelt and light. 

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,   
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch…
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,   
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,   
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

About the Author
A contrarian investor, career coach, and sought after speaker, Daniel Coleman has an MBA, several patents, and a unicycle. He is passionate about guiding students and (aspiring) professionals at each stage in their career, from discerning their career of choice to learning how to pivot and to negotiate their worth.  You can reach him at coleman 4 coaching @ gmail.com