“These are the chronicles of Yaakov: Yosef was seventeen years old, and he watched his brothers.” – 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 elder scholar. He had already absorbed all the Torah Yaakov had learned in the many years he had spent in the yeshiva of Shem.
For that reason Yaakov chose him to be the leader of the family. The Sforno explains that the coat Yaakov made for Yosef was to be 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 of business. His was to be the final word. Clearly, Yosef was brilliant.
Yet the Sforno 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. Because he was young, he didn’t focus on what his brother’s reaction to him would be, and this caused them to resent him. This, explains Sforno, is why we don’t seek advice from those who are young.
This Sforno is difficult to understand. If Yosef was so brilliant, how is it possible he overlooked something as elementary as thinking about what his conduct would lead to? Didn’t he recognize 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-intending 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 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, Rav 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.”
This seems to be the answer to the question on the Sforno. 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.