Published December 6, 2012
Tags: Dreams, Soviet Jewry, Yosef
At the end of Vayeshev, this week’s Torah portion, we see our hero Yosef meeting Pharaoh’s butler and baker in prison. One night, the butler and the baker each had dreams. Finding them sad, Yosef asks them the cause, and they told him that it was because no one could interpret their dreams. Acknowledging that interpretations belong to God, Yosef asks them to tell him their dreams. In the butler’s dream the butler saw a vine with three branches blossom and bring forth grapes, which he took and pressed into Pharaoh’s cup, which he gave to Pharaoh. Yosef interprets that within three days; Pharaoh would lift up the butler’s head and restore him to his office, where he would give Pharaoh his cup just as he used to do. When the baker sees that the interpretation of the butler’s dream was good, he shares his dream. He saw three baskets of white bread on his head, and the birds ate them out of the basket. Joseph interprets that within three days Pharaoh would lift up the baker’s head and hang him on a tree, and the birds would eat his flesh.
What is the meaning of these dreams? Why is one dream good and other so bad? For years I took Yosef’s words at face value to be the answer. “Do not interpretations belong to God?” How could we ever know how to interpret the dreams? But recently I got to thinking, what are the respective roles that the butler and the baker play in their own dreams? The butler is active in pressing the grapes where the baker is passive in having the birds eat the bread.
The reality is that Yosef’s question is the question. “Do not interpretations belong to God?” Well it seems that the real answer is yes and no. Yes – God alone knows the future. And no – despite that is is only for God to do Yosef goes on to interpret the dreams. Yosef models for them what it means to be an active agent in realizing your dreams. We cannot be passive in sculpting our future. We need to partner with God and other people to realize our highest dreams-
Today is the 25th anniversary of the March on Washington for Soviet Jewry. I remember it well as a moment when we all came together to play an active role in shaping the future of our brethren caught behind the Iron Curtain. I often think about what will be that moment when my children make the move from passive bakers to active butlers to shape our future.
And as we prepare for Chanukah, which starts this Saturday night, I take pause. Chanukah was a brutal civil war which the Rabbis masterfully reshaped into a holiday of light and divine miracles. We cannot forget what Yosef said and did. If it was just in our hands, our hands would be rather blood stained. We need to follow what Yosef modeled. We need to remember to have humility. It is all in God’s hands. And at the same time we need to have the hutzpah ( holy hubris) to act in the world. Like Yosef we need to become active partners in realizing our dreams.
In the Torah reading a couple of weeks ago we learned of the two dream of Joseph’s youth. One was a dream of the sheaves of wheat bowing to one. The other was of the stars and the moon bowing to one star. It was clearly experienced by all as the run away ego of spoiled child. How could they the elder brothers bow to this pisher?
Dreams continue to play a central role in Joseph’s life. By interpreting the dreams of the butcher and wine steward correctly he eventually gets the opportunity to interpret Pharaoh’s two dreams. Interpreting these correctly leads to saving the known world from 7 years of famine. It was at this time that Joseph reunites with his brothers who have come to Egypt looking for food. They clearly have no idea that the stand in front of their brother Joseph. It seems that we are forced to sit through a long drama of Joseph wanting to live out his two dreams and have them all bow to him.
In Shmot, this week’s Torah portion, we are introduced to Moses. When is born and before he is named we learn “Ki Tov hu- because he was good” (Exodus 2:2) On this Rashi comments that the goodness referred to when he was born the entire house becoming filled with light. Rashi was referencing Sotah12a which assumes that Moses Hebrew name was something like Tuv or Tuvia. There the Talmud plays with the reference of Moses being tov- good – with the idea expressed in creation “And God saw the light that was tov- good” (Genesis 1:4). Moses potential was depicted as unlimited so he was depicted as a primordial supernova, our rising star.
It seems that Moses and Joseph are very similar. Both saved their people from physical peril. Joseph from the famine and Moses from slavery. But unlike Joseph, Moses went on to give the people the Torah at Sinai and bring them to ( if not into) the Land of Israel. It is clear that Joseph and his brothers did act out the dream of the wheat, they came to him to get food and be saved from the famine. But is it not possible that Joseph misinterpreted his second dream? This second dream might have been referring to all of the tribes bowing to Moses, the light of both a physical and metaphysical redemption.
The New Testament depicts Jesus saying “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ (Matthew 4:4) It seems that Rabbi Eliezer the son of Azariah is in conversation with this idea when he said, “If there is no flour, there is no Torah; if there is no Torah, there is no flour” (Avot 3:21). Neither just the physical or just the spiritual redemption are sufficient, both are critical and necessary. While Joseph provided the flour ( dream of the wheat), Moses provided the flour( matzoh) and the Torah ( revelation). And in this sense Moses was truly tov- good. Or maybe we are all just still struggling to live out the dream of living with the physical and spiritual redemption in the Land. That is a wonderful dream. As my four-year-old son Yishama says, “Wouldn’t that be gooder?”
In the beginning of parshat Miketz we read about Pharaoh’s dreams (Exodus 41:1-32). In his dreams he is standing by the river deep in thought. And out of the river come seven skinny cows that eat the seven fat cows that preceded them. Thoroughly disturbed, Pharaoh is rattled from his sleep. When he falls asleep again he has a second dream. In this dream there are seven thin ears of corn which consume the seven healthy ears of corn that preceded them. And sure enough there is no one in Egypt besides Joseph who can correctly interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. The brilliance of Joseph is that he realizes that these two dreams were really just one dream foretelling the seven years of plenty which would be followed by seven years of famine.
But this week’s Torah portion is Ki Tisa. In this week’s parsha we learn about the receiving of the Tablets, the Sabbath, the Golden Calf, the breaking of Tablets, and then the revelation of God’s self to Moses. With so many interesting things to talk about this week, why would I waste your time on parshat Miketz? To answer this question I will have to answer another two questions. How could the Israelites, who were so close to God in this week’s Torah portion, betray God by making the Golden Calf? And if they were going to reject God, why did they choose the media of a Golden Calf?
The Golden Calf is a chimerical representation of Pharoah’s dreams. It is a hybrid of the form of the cows of the first dream and the color of the stalks of the second dream. When they were in Egypt the Israelites had acculturated to the point that they saw themselves as Egyptians. Their lot was to manifest the dreams of Pharaoh. Not only do they combine the dreams of Pharaoh into one dream, they appropriate them as their own. So even in a time of achievement they still want to be accomplished by Pharaoh’s standards. Unfortunately it is someone else’s dream and not their own.
Living vicariously is a nightmare that leaves us without drive or integrity. If we want to be satisfied and self actualized we need to strive to fulfill our own dreams. But to do that we need to identify who we are and what our dreams are. Our current economic crisis was born out of people taking out credit beyond their means in pursuit of living out other people’s dreams. We are currently living in lean times. Having less money during this depression has allowed/forced many of us to refocus on what is truly important to us.