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Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Financial Plan

Some notes on the art of stating the obvious

Liel Leibovitz
December 26, 2008

In these tough economic times, it seems we’d do well to take advice from just about anyone who’s willing to put in their two cents. We’ve failed with Fuld, the fallen emperor of Lehman Brothers. We blew it with Bernanke, the mighty Fed. Even Jim Cramer, the formerly peppy priest of the stock market, is a major disappointment, with several recent studies claiming that average investors would’ve done better simply flipping a coin than following his picks.

So whom should we turn to in our time of need? My money’s on Alfred E. Neuman, the erstwhile mascot of that sagest of publications, Mad magazine.

In particular, two of Neuman’s purported pearls of wisdom should be copied, pasted and mailed to anyone responsible for any considerable amount of money: “In retrospect,” quoth the grinning guru, “it becomes clear that hindsight is definitely overrated.” Not satisfied? Check this one out: “Most people are so lazy, they don’t even exercise good judgment.”

While the above may come off as nothing more than puny puns, the hero of this week’s parasha, the incomparable Joseph, would have surely paid rapt attention: hindsight, laziness, judgment . . . this, for Joe, was the stuff dreams were made of.

Quite literally: As the parasha begins, our man is removed from prison and called before the Pharaoh to interpret two dreams that troubled the monarch’s sleep. In the first, seven lean cows sidle up to seven robust cows, devouring them; the second dream is not much different, with the cows replaced by ears of grain and with the thin once again swallowing up the healthy.

Now, dear reader, allow yourself a spell of indulgence. Place yourself for a moment in Joseph’s shoes, and try your hand at being Pharaoh’s Freud. Even if you haven’t read this week’s parasha in a while, or possess a tortured mind that is irredeemably baffled by anything smacking of the subconscious, or are a reasonably sentient toddler, you’re likely to come up with this solution: the lean cows and the thin ears of grain are an obvious symbol of an upcoming economic hardship for an economy based so heavily on, well, cows and ears of grain. Joseph, you’d be thrilled to hear, came to the very same conclusion.

And yet, a miracle: rather than reply with whatever the Egyptian word might have been for “Duh,” rather than politely ask Joseph to leave or, less politely, make sure he and his head parted ways, the Pharaoh is awestruck, his men dumbfounded, and the entire kingdom bowed down before Joseph’s genius.

Had “Saturday Night Live” been around at the time, Joseph would have surely merited one those segments Seth Meyers and Amy Poehler call “Really!?!,” and which focus solely on a premise being too preposterous to behold: a slave walks in, delivers the most obvious explanation for the most dunderheaded dream, and everyone’s abuzz. Were the Egyptians really that dumb?

Chances are that the answer is yes, yes they were. Just as we, too, are supremely stupid.

Imagine a modern-day Joseph, summoned to the court of Bush to interpret a dream about, say, seven people with little cash and no savings taking out 2-percent-down-payment mortgages on houses they could never afford, then going to a fancy restaurant and devouring seven other people whose credit is just fine and who are fiscally responsible and living within their means. Most likely, Joseph would’ve given the president the same advice he gave the pharaoh, which was start acting responsibly and save up for the tough times that are sure to come. Unlike the Egyptians, however, chances are we wouldn’t have listened; that kind of talk doesn’t get you a popular show on CNBC.

As we reevaluate Joseph’s wisdom, then, let us not lose sight of the enormous emotional and intellectual resources often required just to state the obvious. We may not think his take on the dream was all that original or insightful, but it was pithy and practical and just the thing none of the Egyptian ruler’s necromancers—the talking heads of the pharaohnic age—were willing to say out loud.

If only we had a Joseph in the time of Madoff. If only he could skip Egypt and hop on to Detroit for a little chat. If only he could leave the pharaoh and serve Obama instead. If only. Without him, all we have to comfort us in these tough times is the knowledge that in retrospect, as a wise man once put it so poignantly, it becomes clear that hindsight is definitely overrated.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is Editor at Large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.