If it weren’t for Purim, I wouldn’t know anything about popular music. My popular musical tastes are frozen in time several decades ago. But, once a year, on Purim, I have to learn something about what’s current musically. And, that’s how several years ago, I came to feel a connection to Lady Gaga.
One Purim, I dressed up as Lady Gaga, or Lady Graga, with red groggers velcroed onto a gold lame dress. And, since then I have felt a certain kinship with her. I perk up and listen every time she is in the news or when a song of hers comes on the radio.
And, so when a few weeks ago, I came across a new documentary about Lady Gaga, I had to watch it. There I learned that Lady Gaga is not her real name. Did you know that? Her real name is Stefanie Joanne Angelina Germanotta. She comes from a large, warm, outgoing Italian family.
And, Lady Gaga is every close to her family. She is especially close to her grandmother. She is named after her aunt, her father’s sister, who died tragically at the age of 19. And, she wrote a song about her, and you see her playing the song for her grandmother who, of course, says she loves the song.
And, so the film draws this dramatic contrast between the stage Lady Gaga with her outlandish costumes and this ordinary Italian girl, Stefani Germanotti, parading around with her family, often without makeup, looking like the girl next door.
And, it struck me that Lady Gaga’s dual persona is emblematic of an inner conflict that is universal. Namely: all human beings want to stand out. And, all human beings want to belong. These are complementary and often warring needs within us. We all have a part of us that wants to be the star. And, we all have a part of us that wants to be connected to others.
This conflict is at the heart of the Joseph story. In Joseph’s dreams, he always stands alone at the top of the pyramid. He outdoes everyone around him. His brothers’ sheaves bow down to his. In Joseph’s fantasies, even his parents bow down to him.
But, it turns out that Joseph is no idle dreamer. His talents match his overwhelming ambition. Wherever Joseph goes, he finds a way to rise to the top. There is nothing you can do to Joseph to stop him from realizing his dreams of stardom. Sell him into slavery, he shines as a model slave. Throw him into prison, and he emerges as the star prisoner. It seems just a matter of time before Joseph emerges as the superstar he always intended to be, from the moment he donned his amazing technicolor dreamcoat.
And, yet, Joseph cannot seem to keep his coat on. His brothers strip Joseph of his colorful coat and dip it in blood. Joseph is still alive, but it would seem as if his dreams are dead. That was the goal of his brothers anyway. They hated Joseph’s ambition. They wanted to turn him into someone ordinary—Lady Gaga without the makeup. And, it seemed as if they had succeeded.
Potiphar’s wife also strips Joseph of his coat, when she wants to take this glamorous slave down a peg. But, Joseph finds another costume, another persona. And, before you know it, he is dressed by Pharoah in royal robes, and he is a vizier of Egypt.
What are all these costume changes about? Here it’s helpful to return to Lady
Gaga. At one point in the documentary, Lady Gaga explains why she adopted her outrageous disguises. She says that she was insecure. She didn’t think she was pretty enough to make it to stardom on the basis of her talent alone.
And, she may be right. The fact is that beneath all that posturing, Lady Gaga is really a gifted singer, songwriter and performer. But, would we have ever paid attention to Stefanie Germanotti long enough to figure that out?
What’s even more telling is the constant change of costume. Lady Gaga has an intuitive grasp of the fickleness of fame. In the world of radical ambition, there is no loyalty. If you want to be seen, you are only as good as your last outfit. You may claw your way to the top, and you may deserve to be there. But, soon another ‘it’ girl comes along and you are yesterday’s news.
And, so in our Age of Personality, there is a constant pressure to re-invent ourselves if we want to stay on top, to be noticed, if we want to be worthy of being seen and loved. And, this is true not only of the Entertainment Industry. It’s true of every field of endeavor. Every industry has become The Entertainment Industry, including religion. We are all Lady Gaga. We all have our Facebook and Instagram self-marketing divisions which amount to a daily costume change to keep the world interested in us.
This is what Joseph’s continual costume changes are all about. Joseph grasps the fleeting nature of success and fame. He has been at the top of his family and fallen hard. He has been in prison and met the once successful wine butler and baker of Pharoah.
And, so, even when Joseph has reached the top, he is uneasy there. He knows that years of plenty can be followed by years of famine. Perhaps, Joseph even has a foreboding of the future when a new Pharoah will arise over Egypt who has no connection with Joseph, and all of the success he now enjoys will be but a distant memory.
The climactic moment of the Joseph story is when he has the courage to take off his brilliant costume and to be seen without makeup. In next week’s parasha, Joseph tires of the constant pressure to shine. He drops his disguise and he becomes just Stefanie Germanotti, ordinary Italian girl who loves her grandmother!
Ani Yosef achichem! Joseph says. I am Joseph your brother. Not the number two guy in Egypt. Not the guy with the fancy coat. It’s just me, a brother among brothers, with no more shine than any one of you.
However, there is a catch. To the great credit of our Biblical story, the Torah does not reject ambition. It does not put down stardom. It does not utter the cliché: “No one ever put down on their gravestone—‘I wish I had spent more time at the office.’
It doesn’t do that because the Torah doesn’t want us to have to choose between starring and belonging. It wants us to figure out a way to balance those two very important sides of ourselves. So, let’s pay attention to the way in which the Torah gets this across. In the climactic moment of the Joseph story, the Torah says that Joseph clears the room,
V’lo amad eesh ito b’hitvada Yosef el echav
Not a single person was with Joseph when he revealed himself to his brothers
The simple meaning is that there were no Egyptians in the room. It was only Joseph and his family. He was alone with them.
But, the words ‘v’lo amad eesh ito’ can also mean ‘no one could stand with Joseph’ at this beautiful moment. He had no peer. So, this becomes the moment when the desire to shine and the desire to belong are integrated beautifully. When did Joseph have no peer? When did he stand out the most? At the moment he abandoned his need to shine and was content to be just an ordinary brother in a big family.
The word for brother ‘ach’, aleph chet, is at the root of the word echad, which means ‘one’ or ‘whole’. The Torah is teaching us that emotional wholeness comes to us when we integrate the warring forces within our personality. When our desire to stand out and our desire to belong can live in harmony, we are whole, we are one.
This was Joseph’s great insight. Chalom echad hu. Pharoah’s multiple dreams are part of one life. Joseph’s multiple experiences, his ups and downs, were meant to be seen as part of one story. And, it was this realization that led Joseph to a feeling of connection with the One God.
And, so it is with us. We can project the part of our soul we don’t like onto another group. And, then we get culture wars, which is America’s return to paganism. Multiple experiences, multiple emotional states, multiple values, means multiple gods.
Or, we can follow the lead of Joseph and Lady Gaga, and see our conflicting values as something we need to harmonize within ourselves. When we do, we will be a religious country again, one nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.