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I read an amazing story this week (shared by @ankithharathi) about a janitor named Richard Montanez. Born in Cucamonga, California, sharing a one room cinder-block hut with 14 family members. He dropped out of school in 4th grade and took odd jobs at farms and factories. In 1976, he became a janitor at a local Frito-Lay (the chip company) plant. He couldn’t read or write and so his wife filled out the application form. The pay? $4 an hour, which was more than he ever made before.

Richard was no simple janitor. He spent his off-time learning about the company’s products, marketing, and more. He would follow salesmen around to better understand the business. In the mid-1980’s Frito-Lay started to struggle, but Richard had an idea. He called the CEO’s office. And this is how the conversation went:

“Mr. Enrico’s office. Who is this?”

“Richard Montanez, in California.”

“You’re the VP overseeing California?”

“No, I work at the Rancho Cucamonga plant.”

“Oh, so you’re the VP of operations?”

“No, I work inside the plant.”

“You’re the manager?”

“No, I’m the janitor.”

The CEO got on the line. Amused and intrigued by this janitor’s initiative, he gave him an opportunity to present to the board in two weeks time. Two weeks later, he walked into the Frito-Lay boardroom and shared all that he learned on the job. He pointed out that the company wasn’t catering to the Latino market, a market, he suggested, that was about to explode. He then pulled out 100 bags of Frito-Lay chips that he spiced himself, Mexican style.

After a few minutes of silence, punctured by crunching, the CEO turned to Richard and said, “Put away the mop. You’re coming with us.”

Flamin’ Hot Cheetos is one of the most successful launches in Frito-Lay history. Richard became a VP and amassed a twenty-million-dollar fortune. Not bad for a janitor. 

Truly, one of the most amazing rags-to-riches stories I have heard. But not the most. As I read this story, I couldn’t stop thinking about someone else who started out even lower than Richard and ended up even higher. Richard lived in the land of the free, the land of opportunities. Yosef, the protagonist of our parshiyos lived in a land of slavery, a land of a caste system that did not allow for and certainly did not celebrate these types of stories.

And yet, Yosef, very much like Richard, did not accept the position given to him. He, like Richard took initiative. When he was called in to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams, he didn’t just do as he was told. He pulled out the equivalent of a PowerPoint and explained to Pharaoh exactly how the Egyptian economy would survive the years of famine. It was so well-developed and demonstrated such energetic initiative that Pharaoh told Yosef to, “Put away the chains. You’re coming with us.”

Yosef was not only a master strategist, with boundless energy and crystal-clear vision, he was also a paragon of morality. Every time I read the story of Yosef and the wife of Potiphar, I hear Paul Simon playing in the background, “Here’s to you, Mrs. Potiphar…” A young, lonely 18-year-old, seduced by the beautiful wife of Potiphar, and overcomes it. He is called Yosef HaTzadik, Yosef the righteous, for all of time because of his restraint.

And yet, despite all this greatness…

Yosef is a failure. Is he not?

He interprets the dreams of the butler and baker down to the detail, securing his freedom. He interprets Pharaoh’s dreams accurately, attaining the second-to-highest position in the region. But his own dreams, the dreams which were the source of his brother’s hatred and caused him to be sold into slavery, the dreams which, according to the Ramban, were the reason Yosef never reached out to his father for all those years, plotting and planning so that the whole family would come and bow in complete submission to Yosef – something that could only work if they did not know his true identity – those dreams were never fulfilled.

(The first dream, the brothers all bowing to him took place but the second dream, involving Yaakov as the sun and his mother, or someone else, as the moon, that never happened.)

Before the charade was over, Yosef was forced to remove his mask. But it was too late, the damage was done. He went from being the brother who everyone was jealous of to the brother everyone feared. And in the final act, we find Yosef crying, not tears of longing, happiness, or sadness, but tears of loneliness (R. Aharon Lichtenstein, zt’l). The family never reconciled. Yosef had spent his entire life chasing his dreams, they were never fulfilled, and all he had for it was an abundance of external success but an empty and shallow relationship with all the important people in his life. Yosef’s dreams were a nightmare.

What Yosef’s dreams really meant are a matter of debate, but what is clear is that Yosef, the man who had a crystal-clear understanding of other people’s dreams, could not interpret his own.

Our Sages say, ein adam ro’eh nig’ei atzmo, a person cannot see their own flaws. We’re very good at seeing each other’s flaws, at understanding exactly what you are doing wrong and what you need to do. But self-discovery? To know what I need to do? What I am doing wrong? What path I should follow?

Yosef HaTzadik, Yosef the great strategist, Yosef the dream interpreter could not interpret his own dreams!

It’s not only our shortcoming that we cannot see. Quite often we also cannot see our own qualities. I’m always amazed at the people who are so loving of others, genuinely. The people who see good all around them, but then beat themselves up endlessly. They can see the world in brilliant, nuanced color, and forgive all their wrongdoings, but for themselves, they only see in black and white.

There is no greater joy than clarity; who we really are, what we really need to do. But it’s hard to attain and we cannot do so one our own.

Some are blessed with friends who can tell them the truth, even when it hurts, and some are blessed with family members who can compliment genuinely and can criticize without causing defensiveness. Others may need a therapist, someone who they can talk to openly and who is trained to reflect their impressions compassionately. But none of us can do it on our own.

Last week, I mentioned that the true focus of these parshiyos is who will assume the leadership of B’nei Yisrael. Reuven is eliminated, and Yosef, though a great manger, is not the leader the Jewish People need. It is Yehuda who climbs from the bottom to the top. There are many differences between the characters of Yosef, Reuven and Yehuda, some of which we discussed last week. But one feature which is often overlooked is that Yehuda had a friend. He is the only figure in the five books of Moshe who has a friend. Perhaps, just maybe, that is the secret to his success. The feedback, the give and take, the compassionate criticism and the genuine compliments gave Yehuda the wherewithal to grow.

It took Yosef his entire life to realize that his dream was a nightmare. There’s no need to wait that long. We don’t have the tools to interpret our dreams on our own, but there is a friend, a family member, a rabbi, or therapist out there who can help us.