Vayigash: Careerism and #metoo

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    • Tzvi Chulsky 1 year ago

      Nassim Taleb, a Lebanese-American essayist, once wrote that unsuccessful people define themselves by their achievements—“what they do.” In America, with its Puritain roots, this self-identification is hardly limited to the unsuccessful: to the Puritains, the way to tell whether one was “blessed” or “damned” was to see if he had a “calling” in life—which remains very much the approach in America, except that the word has been changed to “career.”[1]

      This means that it would feel very natural to Americans, to the point where we may not notice it, that the Pharaoh’s first question when he meets new people is מה מעשיכם[2]—“What do you do?” In fact, to us, this question is so anticipated that what may seem jarring is that Yosef, who knows the society and the Pharaoh well, specifically prepares his brothers for this question[3]. To Rav S.R. Hirsch, however, this did not go unnoticed:

      “In a state such as Mitzrayim,” he writes, “the individual was completely identified with his occupation. Indeed, it could be said that in ancient Egypt, children were not born as human beings but as artisans, peasants, soldiers, etc. Accordingly, Pharaoh’s first question to Joseph’s brothers would naturally concern their occupation.”

      It is no coincidence that the Torah associates such a social norm with Egypt, the land of slavery, and the #metoo movement, a significant fixture of the second half of the last decade, is emblematic of this as well. How one’s career will progress, particularly in Hollywood and journalism, but also in many other fields, often hinges, if temporarily, on a single person; if one’s career is the purpose of one’s life, one is likely, at such times, to tolerate treatment from such a person that he would never tolerate elsewhere in his life.

      Politicians and the media came up with all sorts of proposals in response to #metoo, ranging from abrogating the presumption of innocence (if the accuser is a woman) to mandating sexual harassment training in the workplace. What nobody seemed to mention was that perhaps we should raise our children in an environment where there are higher values than careers, and where those values would override one’s career aims. People raised that way are not afraid of being fired, and do not tolerate bad behavior from those above them. Society with such people is less hierarchical.

      The Egyptian establishment would not have liked such a solution, and neither would ours.

      Tomorrow morning, when we say שלא עשני עבד, it would be worthwhile to think about what role our jobs play in our lives, and what purpose they serve.

      [1] Note, for example, that in German, with its significant Puritain-related Calvinist tradition, the word for a job is Beruf—literally a “calling.”
      [2] Breishit 47:3
      [3] ibid. 46:33

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