Arts of Losing: Joseph and His Brothers, Religious Nationalism, and Democracy

…the art of losing’s not too hard to master

though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.”

Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art” 

If any figure in the Torah can be said to have mastered what Elizabeth Bishop calls “the art of losing” — accepting loss as a normal part of life — surely it is Joseph, who loses his family and his freedom, and whose saga ends in this week’s parshah.

As many political scientists have noted, the art of losing is the basis of democracy. “What good democracies actually produce best, and what democracy needs most, is good losers,” Michael Bailey wrote after the 2016 presidential election, noting that democracies depend on the willingness of all parties to accept losing elections as a normal part of the political process.

Democracies start to fall apart when parties and their supporters start to see losing as a disaster, and respond by questioning the results of elections that don’t go their way and trying to rig the system in their favor. 

These days, the art of losing is not much practiced by Christian nationalists — a category that includes both conservative evangelicals like Jerry Falwell, Jr., and conservative Catholics such as Sohrab Ahmari and Attorney General William Barr — who see political results as either thwarting or fulfilling divine will, depending on whether their favored candidates and parties win. When electoral losses are seen not as an intrinsic aspect of living in a democracy but as triumphs of evil and steps toward apocalypse, it’s hard to accept them.  

As Bishop’s sardonic tone implies, for most people, the art of losing is quite hard to master, and it takes Joseph most of his life. He starts out at the bottom of the patriarchal pecking order, seeking to dominate his family, winner-take-all. That is how today’s Christian nationalists see their competition for political and cultural power: as a winner-take-all fight with secular and progressive groups who will, if they triumph, destroy the order, values, and way of life conservatives hold dear. As Sohrab Ahmari, a prominent Christian nationalist pundit, put it in a recent much-discussed call to arms, “the present crisis facing religious conservatives” in America requires them “to fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils,” by which he means enforcing conservative Christian values in public policy and discourse. 

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Like Ahmari, Joseph’s brothers decide that the threat he represents is so great that they must take extreme measures to ensure they are not dominated. Their violence, like the no-holds-barred “culture war” Ahmari calls for, is motivated by fear of the future Joseph represents, and a desire to defend the life they know and restore the family to its pre-Joseph state of cooperative patriarchal order.  But as they discover when they tell Jacob that Joseph is dead, this winner-take-all approach poisons the very family they saw themselves as trying to protect, plunging their father into a permanent state of grief. 

Joseph, of course, pays an ever greater price for dreaming of domination, finding himself stripped of home, family, and freedom. He responds to this crash course in the art of losing without protest or lament, laboring in Potiphar’s household. In some ways, Joseph’s behavior resembles that of his brothers before and after their winner-take-all competition with him. Just as his brothers serve the family’s interests regardless of their positions in the patriarchal pecking order, so Joseph serves the interests of Potiphar’s family. But unlike Joseph, the brothers don’t lose themselves in serving the family: The family holds them, sustains them, makes them who they are. 

When he leaves prison as second to the king, Joseph achieves a level of selflessness that represents an extreme form of the art of losing. Joseph loses himself so utterly in Pharaoh’s service that he readily accepts the new name and the wife Pharaoh gives him, and, despite the immense power he wields, apparently never acts in his own interest — not even to find out if his elderly father is alive. Indeed, he names his first child “Manasseh,” “who causes to forget,” to signify that he has forgotten his former life (41:51). 

When Joseph’s brothers come back on the scene, he at first carries out his youthful fantasies of total domination — until Judah implores him to spare their father the loss of Benjamin and take him as a slave instead. This is a different form of the art of losing, one that this family — indeed, the Torah — has not seen before. Judah is choosing to lose, to sacrifice himself for the good of a family he will no longer be part of. When Judah’s soliloquy ends, Joseph breaks down in tears and reveals himself. 

The Torah doesn’t explain Joseph’s motivations. But it is clear that Judah’s evocation of the terrible grief Jacob would feel if he lost Benjamin makes Joseph realize what his brothers realized years before, when they told their father Joseph was dead: that their winner-take-all approach toward one another inflicts terrible losses on their father.

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With that realization, Joseph rejoins the family. He brings Jacob and the entire clan to Egypt. But like his earlier manipulations, Joseph’s largesse demonstrates his absolute power over his brothers. That’s why, even after years of Joseph’s benevolence, his brothers can’t tell whether he has renounced his earlier approach, or if, once Jacob is dead, he will again use his power to harm them. Fearing the worst, they offer themselves as slaves, hoping that their gesture of self-sacrifice and submission will inspire Joseph to be merciful toward their families. 

Joseph responds with more than mercy. He also articulates a new form of the art of losing, one that speaks both to the theology of Christian nationalists, who see political wins and losses as expressions of divine will, and to the power-sharing imperatives of a functioning democracy: “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” (50:19-20)

Like many Christian nationalists, Joseph embraces the idea that human power struggles reflect God’s will. But unlike Christian nationalists, Joseph doesn’t see the losses he has suffered, not even being sold into slavery, as justifying ruthlessness; he see his losses the same way he sees his triumphs, as parts of a divine plan whose purpose was “the saving of many lives” — not just the lives of his family, his clan, his tribe, his co-religionists, his ethnic group, his political party, or his nation, but the lives of everyone in the region. 

Of course, there is nothing democratic about Joseph. But as democracy requires, Joseph here accepts his losses, no matter how bitter or unjust or malignly inflicted, as the price of belonging to a larger world, one in which the stakes are much greater than his own fears and fortunes. In Joseph’s childhood dreams, his domination over his family is all that mattered. Now, Joseph understands that whether the pendulum swings in his favor or away, the point of winning and losing, the point of power itself, is not the good of some but the good of all. 

In his acceptance of his personal losses for the sake of a greater good, Joseph shows that a deeply religious, God-centered worldview can be compatible with commitment to democracy. Joseph’s recognition of God’s role in his ascent to power includes the understanding that he doesn’t have a divine go-ahead for winner-take-all domination. It means he has a responsibility to serve the good of all, even those who have wronged him. He doesn’t see God as being on his side, in the sense of enforcing his personal ideology and values; he sees himself as being on God’s side — that is, on the side of “saving many lives.” 

Joy Ladin, Gottesman Chair in English at Yeshiva University, is the author of The Soul of the Stranger: God and Torah from a Transgender Perspective, a memoir of gender transition; National Jewish Book Award finalist Through the Door of Life; and nine books of poetry.