Vayigash: Ask "How (not what) do you do?"!

After Joseph dramatically revealed his identity to his brothers, he told them: “When Pharaoh summons you and asks, “‘What is your occupation?’ You shall answer, ‘Your servants have been breeders of livestock from the start until now, both we and our fathers’ – so that you may stay in the region of Goshen. For all shepherds are abhorrent to Egyptians.”  (Genesis 46:32-34).

Joseph was concerned that Pharaoh would judge his brothers by the kind of work they did, rather than by who they were.  In this respect, little has changed in 3,500 years.  When we meet or are introduced to someone outside the workplace, the conversation often commences with: “What do you do?”  It seems an innocuous, open-ended question, and the questioner’s interest, whether theirs or ours, is sincere.  But whether or not they or we realize it, the question is fraught with hazards and consequences on both sides.   The questioned party may find it awkward or embarrassing to answer.  If so, he/she/we may find it prudent to evade or embellish, just as Joseph counseled his brothers to do. 

Risks are also present for the questioner because the answer usually prompts immediate assumptions – often unwarranted -- about the answerer’s education, social status, intelligence, wealth, power, and perhaps even character and values.  Based on their/our stated occupation, we/they may decide that it’s not worthwhile to invest much effort to know them/us better. 

As if it might not be worth attempting an earnest conversation with someone without a graduate degree, or who never attended college, or high school; works at manual labor; has long been unemployed, etc.!  Our tradition proves otherwise.  Many Jewish sages, respected for their wisdom, insight, and judgment, were very poor.[1]

More pragmatically, if we have just a few minutes to speak with a new acquaintance, is their occupation really the most important and useful information we wish to know about, or from, them? Is our occupation the most important thing we want them to know about, or from, us?   

I suggest not.  There are more important questions that we might ask new acquaintances.  Here are a few possibilities to consider as more worthy conversation starters:

  • Nice to meet you.  I love meeting new people, and I try to learn from everyone, even if we can only chat briefly.  Is there something you’ve learned that you would be willing to share with me?  (Among Jews, the request might be phrased: “Please teach me something from your personal Torah.”  Imagine the wonderful possibilities for a thoughtful response, once they’re over the surprise!)
  • Glad to meet you.  I find that what people do for a living is very interesting, but not as important in learning about them as what they consider most important in their life.  Would you be willing to tell me that about yourself (and if you’re interested, I’ll reciprocate?)
  • Pleased to meet you.  I know that new acquaintances usually start by telling each other what they do, but I find it more interesting (important) (valuable) to learn from people what legacy they hope to leave.  I hope that [G-d willing] you will live a long, healthy, and happy life, but in meeting you, I’m curious; for what would you like to be remembered?

If these inquiries seem too heavy or brash to ask of people whom you’ve just met in a casual social setting, how about:

  • I’m happy to meet you.  Speaking of “happy,” may I ask what makes you happy?  (or simply:) Would you be willing to tell me what’s most important to you?

When someone asks us the usual opening: “what do you do?” we can answer (or not!) and then redirect the discussion to something potentially more meaningful by saying “what I’d also like you to know about me (or, what I feel is more important for you to know about me than my occupation) is that [the priorities in my life are] …

Of course, these questions will be somewhat (very?) startling, since “what kind of work do you do?” is the expected, accepted opening.  But in addition to minimizing the risks noted above (possible embarrassment, unfair and inaccurate resulting assumptions, etc.), I suggest that “personal value” inquiries of the type above offer additional important advantages. 

  • They emphasize the significance and dignity of each individual we meet, whatever that person’s occupation, if any. 
  • They will likely prompt others and us (so that we will be prepared to reciprocate answers) to think about what’s most important in life.  When they and we repeatedly reconsidered and refine this, and verbalize it frequently, it’s likely to help them and us rededicate to discovered/affirmed priorities. 
  • They’ll provide instant, numerous opportunities to learn from (and to teach) others, even passing acquaintances, about their/our life’s lessons.
  • They may lead to more and deeper friendships and acquaintances than result from the typical exchange of occupational information. 
  • It will be much more fun and interesting than “I’m an x” or “You do Y.”

How did Joseph’s brothers answer Pharaoh when he asked them the typical question, “what is your occupation?” Amazingly, given that they didn’t know Pharaoh’s character and owed their very lives to Joseph (who might still be resentful of the past and testing them), they did not follow their brother’s instructions to embellish the facts!  They didn’t tell Pharaoh that they were “breeders of livestock,” but rather the simple truth: they were shepherds in search of pasture.  Nevertheless, Pharaoh welcomed them.  (Genesis 47:3-6).

Perhaps Pharaoh was just grateful to Joseph for Egypt’s prosperity and wanted to treat his family well.  But I think that Pharaoh, as a wise judge of character, also looked past their “abhorrent occupation” and saw in them the special character that would warrant their founding, along with Joseph’s sons, the twelve tribes of Israel – our ancestors.   

The name of this week’s Torah portion, Yayigash, means “he approached.”  When we approach others, may we first and foremost seek to experience them as unique souls of innate value with life experiences and wisdom -- not as wage earners.    

Shabbat shalom u’m’vorach from Jerusalem!

(I’d like to acknowledge and thank my friend Michael Krampner for his insight into the Parashah on this topic.)

[1] Hillel was a woodchopper before he became the Nasi (President of the Sanhedrin) and Shammai the Elder was a builder. Abba Chilkiyah was a field laborer; Abba Shaul was a gravedigger; Abba Oshiya was a launderer; Rabbi Yosi b. Chalafta was a tanner; Rabbi Yochanan Hasandlar was a shoemaker; Rabbi Yehoshua b. Chananiah was a blacksmith.


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He who guards his mouth preserves his life
Proverbs 13:3