(Avot 6:6) There are 48 ways to acquire Torah, including...shimush chachamim, attending to sages...
(Genesis 26:24) ...ein navon v'chacham kamokha... (When Pharaoh expresses his admiration for and appointment of Joseph, he observes) ...there is no one as wise and skilled as you...
Among the tidal wave of "reality TV" programs is a show called "The Apprentice." It stars real estate magnate Donald Trump and two of his executives who ride herd and evaluate a diminishing number of eager (and ethically challenged) aspirants to the title of "The Apprentice." Each week, one more of the group hears the dread words, "You're fired." The last person standing at the end of the series is rewarded with a lucrative executive position in a Trump company, along with national notoriety.
It is easy to imagine young Joseph as one of the contestants on "The Apprentice." Before he was mugged and sold by his brothers, and before he was tossed into the hoosegow due to Mrs. Potiphar's accusations, Joseph seemed to be an ambitious and arrogant young man. His dreams of personal grandeur, combined with his tale-bearing about the other contestants, er, brothers, are the qualities that seem to help an unscrupulous person shimmy up the pole of success.
Ironically, it is not Joseph's ambition that advances him in Pharaoh's household. Instead, Joseph shows an exceptional deference and modesty before Pharaoh that allow his talents to shine and speak for themselves. Indeed, even if Joseph has in mind to manipulate himself into Pharaoh's good graces through a bold outspokenness and well-placed suggestion, he manages to do so without the bravado that typified his younger days.
Joseph was not an old man when he appeared before Pharaoh. He was, however, "wise and skilled." And a person of great power and prestige – Pharaoh himself – recognized in this young man the making of a navon and chacham, a genius and a sage. No dummy himself, Pharaoh knew that by observing and supporting such a man, that is, by attending to a sage, he stood to gain from his wisdom.
Throughout our tradition we have illustrations of how our corps of teachers and leaders is renewed through the elevation of people who have attended to the needs of sages. Joshua was Moses's attendant and, according to the introduction to this very tractate of Talmud, received Torah from his master. Hillel and Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer, Rashi's grandsons, the generations of Hassidic masters all learned their extraordinary skill by attending to their teachers of Torah and their teachers of life. Some of the great scholars of our own Conservative movement, such as Professor Fritz Rothschild, Rabbi Samuel Dresner (of blessed memory) and Rabbi Byron Sherwin were among the extraordinary assistants to the great Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel, (may his saintly memory be a blessing). A job, a series of simple tasks, can turn into a life-course in Torah when the master is someone whose own Torah is integrated into everything he or she does.
Rabbi Arthur Lavinsky is the rabbi of Beth El in Phoenix. More than twenty-five years ago, when we were students at the University of Judaism, he learned this lesson of shimush chachamim:
"It was right before Pesach in 1978 that Chancellor Emeritus Louis Finkelstein of JTS was coming to visit the University of Jerusalem, and I was asked if I could show him around and get him settled at his hotel. As a first year rabbinical student, I jumped at the opportunity. He requested that we pick up a few provisions for Pesach (essentially some Matzah and a couple of other items), so we traveled to the Fairfax area of Los Angeles."
"Once we found parking, we got out of the store and walked to a few shops. Rabbi Finkelstein shuffled slowly from one place to the next, but I patiently led him wherever he wanted to go."
"But along the way he saw an old man in front of us walking quite slowly with a cane, and Rabbi Finkelstein insisted that we cross the street immediately, so that we could avoid this older gentleman. I inquired, "Rabbi Finkelstein, why do we need to cross the street several times to get to the store right ahead of us? The route will be much further for us this way!""
"He answered, 'Arthur, this old man has great difficulty walking, and I do not wish to flaunt my agility by passing him. It would be "lo'eg larash"-- akin to mocking someone who was less fortunate than yourself.'"
"I thought to myself, 'Finkelstein is no sprinter himself.' Yet I realized that he was most sincere, and that he considered himself blessed to be able to walk without assistance at his advanced age (then well into his eighties). To this day, I'm not sure whether he really thought he was so spry, or whether he simply wanted to make sure that he could teach a little Torah to a young rabbinical student. Either way, I will cherish my hours with the Chancellor Emeritus, and because of what he taught me, I still try my best not to pass older people who are walking slowly in front of me."
Devotees of "The Apprentice" are hard-pressed to find a lesson of Torah from those who serve their "wise and skilled" master. In fact, his personal conduct is virtually invisible to the young sycophants who are after his approbation and cash.
But the post-Pharaoh history of Joseph purposely includes many of the details of his personal behavior to illustrate the real values to which his brothers and the Egyptians aspire: compassion, self-restraint in the face of abundance, and loyalty, to name a few. We can debate without resolution Joseph's motives in testing his brothers – was he seeking some sort of revenge or did he simply want to make sure that he could teach a little Torah? It doesn't matter. Like Rabbi Lavinsky, those who were willing to attend to a sage were certain to come away with acquired Torah.
How can you experience shimush chachamim? Spend a day with someone you admire helping him or her run errands or otherwise go about daily business. Especially if you are used to being the one in charge, return to a subservient role so that you can observe and learn. Also, spend some time in a nursing home, where many of our sages are spending their later years. It will take very little to encourage many of them to share their stories; you can learn volumes be assisting them with the tasks they once considered second-nature. Or, take a lesson from the Scouts: help an old person across the street, literally or figuratively. And try very hard not to zip past them after you do!