Just how important are credentials? When I was growing up, most people believed that any college degree was a young man’s ticket to success (and in those days it was men they were concerned about). A college diploma meant a secure career and an upper-middle-class life-style.
We live in a much more competitive economy, and even office clerical jobs require a college degree. Today, most believe, getting a good job or getting into a good graduate or professional school demands a degree from one of a handful of top-ranked colleges. Where you come from counts for more than what you know or what you can do.
And so affluent parents spend thousands of dollars on admissions consultants and tutors to make sure their toddlers will be accepted into the right preschool — after all, a child accepted into the right preschool has a better shot at the right elementary and high schools, and straight on to the Ivy League. It’s as if sending your kid to the friendly, well-run neighborhood nursery school means condemning him or her to a life of flipping burgers or tending the cash register at Wal-Mart. Because, as everybody knows, credentials are important.
In our parsha this week, Joseph, moved by Yehuda’s impassioned plea for mercy for Benjamin, breaks down and reveals himself to his brothers. The Torah says, “The news reached Pharaoh’s palace — Joseph’s brothers have come. Pharaoh and his courtiers were pleased.”
Knowing what comes next, the commentators ask why Pharaoh and his courtiers would be pleased. They cannot imagine that the Egyptians who would later enslave the Israelites would be happy for Joseph out of empathy or gratitude.
The 13th-century Spanish commentator Ramban says they were pleased because they now knew Joseph’s yichus, his pedigree. The Egyptians found it shameful that they were being ruled by someone who was a foreigner, a former slave who was also an ex-con. Now that Joseph’s brothers had come, the Egyptians realized Joseph was from a famous and honorable family, the family of Abraham, and was therefore a suitable ruler.
According to Ramban, despite everything Joseph had done for Pharaoh and for Egypt, it wasn’t until he produced his credentials — evidence that he was from a noble family — that they considered him an acceptable leader.
But while credentials can be helpful, it’s also true that relying on them too much has its pitfalls. In the late 1970s, the management consulting firm I worked for began to hire graduates of the top MBA programs. Some were excellent — bright, hard-working, with good skills. Unfortunately, a few seemed to believe that once they had acquired their coveted degree, they were guaranteed success. One Harvard MBA was dating a professional athlete and apparently believed she was entitled to skip work to accompany him on road trips. A Wharton graduate attempted to charge a weekend ski trip to the company because when she arrived at the resort she called a local business to ask if they were interested in buying consulting services. The most chutzpadik was the man who, once he had his job offer in hand, decided to blow off his classes and exams and so never actually earned the degree.
Credentials alone don’t guarantee success or even honesty. So why were the Egyptians so pleased?
The 16th-century Italian commentator Sforno explains it this way: The Egyptians thought that now that Joseph’s family had come to settle in Egypt and he had a personal stake in the country, he devote all his heart to working even harder for Egypt and its people. Look at what Joseph has accomplished as an outsider, they thought. Imagine what he will do now that he is working for his own family too!
According to Sforno, it wasn’t credentials that mattered, but commitment. And that makes sense. The proper credentials — whether a degree from a prestigious school or the right family connections — may be an entry ticket, but like so many other things — talent, beauty, brains, money — what counts is not what you have, but what you do with it.
All the credentials in the world are worth nothing without character and commitment. After all, it wasn’t a nobleman or a court official who saved Egypt. It was the foreign-born former slave, the ex-con, who listened to the voice of God.