“These are the offspring of Yaakov: Yosef, at the age of seventeen years, was a shepherd with his brothers by the flock, and he was a youth with the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Yosef would bring evil reports of them to their father.” — Bereishis 37:2
At the age of seventeen, Yosef was wise in the ways of the Torah and in the ways of the world. He was called a “ben zikunim” because even at such a young age, he showed the brilliance of an elderly scholar. He had already absorbed all of the Torah that Yaakov had learned in the many years that he had spent in the yeshivah of Shem.
For that reason, Yaakov chose him to be the leader of the family. The Seforno explains that the coat that Yaakov made for Yosef was intended as a sign that he was in charge. The brothers were to listen to him in matters of the household. They were to follow his direction in matters of business. His was to be the final word. Clearly, Yosef was brilliant.
Yet, the Seforno points out, that despite his brilliance, Yosef did something quite foolish. Whenever he found his brothers doing something wrong, he would immediately report it to his father, and this caused them to resent him. Because Yosef was young, he didn’t focus on what his brothers’ reaction would be. This, explains the Seforno, is why we don’t seek advice from those who are young.
This Seforno is difficult to understand. If Yosef was so brilliant, how is it possible that he overlooked something as elementary as thinking about what his conduct would lead to? Didn’t he recognize that his actions would cause his brothers to hate him?
The answer to this can be best understood with an observation about maturity.
Understanding the child
In the past hundred years, psychologists have come to understand that children aren’t simply grown-ups with short bodies. A child’s way of thinking, his frame of mind, and his entire emotional operating system are unlike those of an adult’s.
One of the manifestations of an adult’s viewpoint is the ability to see consequences. What will this lead to? How will I feel about this five years from now? How about ten years from now? The more immature the person, the more he lives in the immediate present. To a kid, there is nothing more valuable than that shiny red fire truck with the working siren and whistle.
Ask a five-year-old, “Would you rather have a thousand dollars or the fire truck?”
It’s not even a contest! Many a well-intended grandparent has met with disappointment at his grandchild’s reaction when the child found out that this year’s Chanukah present was an investment in a mutual fund. The child doesn’t care because he isn’t thinking about the future. He lives completely, totally now. Tomorrow is too late, next week will never come, and the summer might as well be a million years away.
As a person matures, he is able to see more into the future. He can see himself in other settings and in different roles. He begins to understand that the very same person who sits here now will one day be responsible for making ends meet. That sense of seeing the future as if it were here now and recognizing emotionally that it really is going to happen is a function of maturity.
Maturity isn’t dependent on intelligence or education. A child prodigy might have a very high IQ and be capable of performing brilliant mental feats, yet still behave like a kid. Maturation is a process, which occurs over time. Like a fine wine that ferments, the human mind acquires a certain ripening with age — a widening of scope. With maturity often comes wisdom.
One of the measures of wisdom is how far into the future a person can see –— not in a clairvoyant, supernatural manner, but as a consequence of insight. If you do this, it will lead to that, which will lead to this, which will lead to that…
The Brisker Rav, R’ Yosef Ber Soloveitchik, was once lamenting the loss of his father, Rav Chaim. “The world doesn’t know what it has lost. My father could see fifty years into the future, and me, I can barely see ten years forward.”
Yosef was a brilliant… young person
This seems to be the answer to the question on the Seforno. At seventeen, Yosef was brilliant. But it was the brilliance of youth. The wisdom that comes with age wasn’t yet there. As a result, he did things that lacked foresight. He acted in a manner that was unwise because he wasn’t focused on “what this will lead to.” On an intellectual level he might have been gifted, but he lacked the vision to see the consequences of his ways.
The concept is illuminating.
A team of advisors
Throughout history, every king had his counselors, and every emperor had his advisors. To a young person this might seem strange. After all, these were brilliant individuals. Men of the world. Men of knowledge. Why would they need other people? Couldn’t they make up their own minds?
The answer is that they certainly could, but they understood that the issues they were dealing with would shape history and affect the lives of many, many others. They didn’t need help to make a decision; they needed help to make the right decision. And so, they sought out those who were older and wiser for counsel and advice.
This concept is very applicable to us as we make decisions every day — decisions that affect ourselves, decisions that affect the people in our lives. And we have to ask ourselves: Am I any less important than those world leaders? Are the people I deal with any less significant than the people they were concerned about?
If I properly value my family, my community, and myself then it is incumbent upon me to do everything that I can to ensure that I make the right choices. But how? Do I have the wisdom of a sage? Do I have the understanding of a learned man? Assuming that I don’t, I need to have people to guide me, people to direct me.
This is an excerpt from the Shmuz on the Parsha book.