Archive for the '1.09 VaYeshev' Category

Humble Hutzpah

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. Yosef 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.

This week marked the 30th 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. Hind sight is 20/20, who knew that years later I would spend close to two years living in Minsk working with the Jewish community in the FSU. On the anniversary of this march I ponder what  will be a similar  moment for our children. What will be a moment when they and we as a community move from being passive bakers to being active butlers to shape our future?

And as we prepare for Chanukah 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 find the balance of a humble hutzpah to realize our dreams.

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The Other is My Brother: From Yosef’s Dreams to Freddie Gray

In VaYeshev, this week’s Torah portion, Yosef tells his brothers of his dreams to his brother. There we read:

Now Israel loved Yosef more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a coat of many colors. And when his brethren saw that their father loved him more than all his brethren, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably unto him. And Yosef dreamed a dream, and he told it to his brethren; and they hated him yet the more. And he said unto them: ‘Hear, I pray you, this dream which I have dreamed: for, behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and, lo, my sheaf arose, and also stood upright; and, behold, your sheaves came round about, and bowed down to my sheaf.’ And his brethren said to him: ‘Shall you indeed reign over us? or shalt thou indeed have dominion over us?’ And they hated him yet the more for his dreams, and for his words. And he dreamed yet another dream, and told it to his brethren, and said: ‘Behold, I have dreamed yet a dream: and, behold, the sun and the moon and eleven stars bowed down to me.’ And he told it to his father, and to his brethren; and his father rebuked him, and said to him: ‘What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall I and your mother and your brethren indeed come to bow down to thee to the earth?’ And his brethren envied him; but his father kept the saying in mind. (Gen. 37:3-11).

While they stop short of fratricide, eventually the brothers’ envy and hatred moved them to sell Yosef into slavery. Why do they hate him so much? Is it all over a coat or is there something more in these dreams?

Rabbi Riskin taught in the name of  Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, zt’l that the brothers’ hatred towards Yosef was a denial of the world view he expresses in his dreams. The brothers were shepherds and wanted to preserve their traditional way of life. They maintain the flocks of sheep as they are, utilizing the milk and cheese for food, the wool and skins for garments and shelter. As shepherds they had time to contemplate and to meditate upon God. In Yosef’s dream we see that he is predicting his departure from the flocks and even from the familial and sheltered land of Canaan in favor of the more scientific and sophisticated Egypt. The dreams of sheaves express the cultural revolution of agriculture over shepherding, creativity and change over the preservation of the status quo. The brothers wish to remain in their ancestral home and familial occupation; Yosef senses that the world – even the universe (sun, moon and stars) – is beckoning , and necessity demands a change of venue and profession if Israel is to prevail. They sell him into slavery in hope of preserving the world they know and stymie his dream of progress.

It is interesting to hold this up against Ta-Nehisi Coates‘s inspired book Between the World and Me. Written as a letter to his teenage son about the complexity of growing up as a black man in America, he writes:

Why exactly was I sad? I came out of the studio and walked for a while. It was a calm late-November day. Families, believing themselves white, were out on the streets. Infants, raised to be white, were bundled in strollers. And I was sad for these people, much as I was sad for the host and sad for all the people out there watching and reveling in a specious hope. I realized then why I was sad. When the journalist asked me about my body, it was like she was asking me to awaken her from the most gorgeous dream. I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is tree houses and the Cub Scouts. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option, because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies. And knowing this, knowing that the Dream persists by warring with the known world, I was sad for the host, I was sad for all those families, I was sad for my country, but above all, in that moment, I was sad for you. That was the week you learned that the killers of Michael Brown would go free. The men who had left his body in the street would never be punished.

For Coates America’s status quo is a dream built upon the slavery and even the fratricide of black men. How can we call this a dream if it someone’s nightmare? As the first officer goes on trial in the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore we need to take stock of institutional racism in this country. There is no doubt that change is hard. Like Yosef’s brothers we need to be willing to give up our own dream’s of the status quo in the name of progress. Though it might take time, we need to realize that the other is my brother.

Table of Brotherhood: Joseph, MLK, and Race in America Today

In VaYeshev, this week’s Torah portion,  Joseph tells his brothers of his dreams that their sheaves will bow down to his sheaf and that their stars will bow to him(Gen. 37:7-9). Jacob makes it clear to everyone that Joseph is pompous, but still his chosen son. These dreams and their father’s open display of favoritism moves Joseph’s brothers to the brink of fratricide. Once they get him alone they throw their little brother into a pit and cruelly sit around and eat lunch (Gen. 37: 24-25). Eventually Joseph gets sold into slavery in Egypt. There, Joseph lived through the nightmares of slavery and imprisonment. Through an interesting turn of events Joseph finds himself in a position of security and power. During a famine, his brothers, seeking food, come to bow before him. Sure enough in the passing of time Joseph’s dream becomes a reality. What is the meaning of this through-line of the brother’s eating?

With all of events in Ferguson and New York in mind and in light of Joseph’s dreams I pause to reread Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s  “I have a Dream” speech from August 28, 1963. Where Joseph’s dreams spoke of his hubris and ends with him in a pit, King’s dream describes the situation of Blacks in this country being in a pit and King’s aspirations for us all to live as equals. There he said:

I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.

King delivered this iconic speech on the steps at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.  In his speech he referenced it being 100 years since Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. With all of the recent events, it is crazy to realize that it has been 51 years since King’s speech. Unfortunately the question of how someone could kill or enslave a brother is both timeless and  still so timely. The fraternal order of police along with the rest of us need to look into the mirror and determine how we allow this plague of fratricide to continue.  As king says:

When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

When none of us are in a pit we can see each other as equals. At that point we can break bread together and sit with each other at the table of brotherhood. Just because this problem has existed since the time of  Joseph and his brothers, does not  mean it is not urgent. We all have a lot of work to do.  How many more brothers need to die before King’s dream becomes a reality?

Revealer of Spiral

In Veyeshev, this week’s Torah portion, we learn about all family politics of Yakov’s family. It is bad enough Yakov has a favorite wife, but why would he ever community communicate this to his children? Reading this seems to be perfect preparation for everyone spending a lot of time with family on Thanksgiving. Here we read about the brothers capturing Yosef, Rubin saving him from being killed, and their selling him into slavery. There we read:

Come, and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him; for he is our brother, our flesh.’ And his brethren hearkened unto him. And there passed by Midianites, merchantmen; and they drew and lifted up Yosef out of the pit, and sold Yosef to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. And they brought Yosef into Egypt. (Genesis 37: 27-28)

The brothers tell their father he was killed by a beasts and Yakov is lost in mourning. And then at the end before the whole Yehudah and Tamar interlude we read:

And the Midianites sold him into Egypt unto Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh’s, the captain of the guard. (Genesis 37: 36)

There is some confusion. Did the brothers sell him to Ishmaelites or to Midianites? On one level this confusion is communicating that Yosef was passing through many hands indicating that he was a commodity. Maybe on a deeper level the Torah communicates this so that we know that even if the brothers showed remorse and wanted to recover their brother they could not do it. But is there any significance to the fact that Yosef passed through the hands of the Midianites?

Who was Midianites? They were the descendants of Midian, who was a son of Avraham through his wife Keturah. As we read:

And Abraham took another wife, and her name was Keturah. And she bore him Zimran, and Jokshan, and Medan, and Midian, and Ishbak, and Shuah. (Genesis 25:1-2)

According to the Midrash, Rashi,Gur Aryeh, Keli Yakar, and Obadiah of Bertinoro Keturah was actually Hagar (Bereshit Rabbah 61:4). Hagar remarried Avraham after the death of Sarah. Why did she change her name to Keturah? Keturah is a reference to the  incense used in worship. Hagar’s new name was symbolic of the pleasantness of her return from exile and repentance. Yosef  the privileged child of the loved wife was captured by his brothers who in turn sell him to the children of Yishmael who in turn sell him to the children of Keturah, both children of the original scorned wife. Hagar’s exile is marked by her blindness to the source of water to sustain her child in the wilderness. There we read:

And she went, and sat her down over against him a good way off, as it were a bow-shot; for she said: ‘Let me not look upon the death of the child.’ And she sat over against him, and lifted up her voice, and wept. And God heard the voice of the lad; and the angel of God called to Hagar out of heaven, and said unto her: ‘What ails you, Hagar? fear not; for God has heard the voice of the lad where he is. Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him fast with your hand; for I will make him a great nation.’ And God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water; and she went, and filled the bottle with water, and gave the lad drink. ( Genesis 21: 16-19)

Similarly Yosef’s power came from his ability to predict the seven years of plenty and seven years of famine. He was able to lift his head and see the water. Like Hagar having her name change to Keturah Yosef’s name was changed by Pharaoh to Zaphnath-Paaneah – צָפְנַת פַּעְנֵחַ‎ – revealer of mysteries or secrets (Genesis, 41:45). Hagar’s exile, renaming, and reconciliation with Avraham is similar to the story of Yosef’s exile, renaming, and reconciliation with his brothers. Living in the Diaspora, it is easy to relate to Yosef’s narrative as a uniquely Jewish tale. It is good to be remind ourselves that our story of surviving and even thriving at the margins while important is not unique to the Jewish people, and in fact it never was.

Being Present for a Difficult Topic

Two week’s ago in the Torah portion we saw Yaakov give Yosef a coat of many colors. While this special gift was supposed to be an expression of love between a father and a son, for his brothers it was a sign of Yaakov’s unfairly favoring Yosef. This led them to sell Yosef into slavery. In our Torah portion this week Yosef is finally reunited with Yaakov. It is interesting to note that he is not interested in any more presents, only his father’s presence. Last week we celebrated Chanukah and we very deliberate to get each of our children presents that they would enjoy that spoke of our love for them. Kindles so they could read and play. After this senseless shooting, the gift was out of my mind and all I could think about was wanting to be present for my children.

Like many other parents, Adina and I spent the weekend deliberating what we should tell our children about the horrific shootings this past Friday. The school in Sandy Hook Elementary is about an hour away from our children’s school in Connecticut. We both knew that there was nothing really to talk about with Emunah (3) and Yishama (6), but what could be hope to say to Yadid (8) about the death of so many precious innocents? This past Monday night when  I got home I pulled Yadid into the kitchen to talk with him in private. I asked him what they talked about at school that day. He reported to me what the school had communicated to us the were going to messaged to him verbatim. I was happy. I asked him what he was thinking about, what he was feeling, and if he had any questions. Yadid said that was sad for what happened, but he wanted to talk “when the kids were not around.”While we did get to talk about it later, I am still moved at his sensitivity. Evidently Adina and I are not the only ones who was thinking about what the right way is to talk about such a difficult topic.

There were many ways of communicating our love to our children and many ways of helping  them deal with a crisis. In the end no presents will replace a long hug and being completely present in the moment.

On Two Dreams

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.

Schlepherds and Cities

A friend and colleague of mine shared with me a Dvar Torah she wrote on the occasion of her son’s bar mitzvah this Shabbat. In her remarks she is addressing the fascinating story of Migdal Bavel, the Tower of Babel. In a mere 9 verses this story tries to explain why humanity became multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, and possessing thousands of different languages. She outlines different approaches to this story. The first is that the central sin of these ancient people was in building a tower to reach the heavens.  As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote, the people wished “to demonstrate that, if all join forces and work together, mankind can overpower nature.”  It is their hubris in attempt to reach the godly sphere that causes God to scatter them.

Another approach she shared was from Drs.  Robert Alter and James Kugel. These biblical scholars point out that the text does not necessarily support this interpretation.  In fact, while the tower is certainly there in the story, it is hardly the whole point.  If it were, there would have been no need to mention the building of a city at all.  In fact, Kugel writes, “it is remarkable that, after God’s intervention, the text says, ‘and the building of the city was stopped.’  There is not a word about the tower’s fate; if it were so crucial, should not the text have mentioned its collapse or abandonment?”In this interpretation it was urban materialism itself that the Torah is rejecting.

I find this point of view particularly interesting when you juxtapose it with Yosef’s dreams. There in Parshat Vayeshev we read of Yosef’s dreams when he has dreams of their stars and bundles of wheat bowing to his. While the brothers are clearly angered by the idea of their having to bow to their little brother. But, is that enough to make them what to kill or even enslave their brother. Rabbi Riskin interprets that the dream of the wheat was really  prediction of Yosef or his preaching for the transition from the nomadic shepherd way of life to the settled farmer lifestyle. It was as if Yosef was saying what would be later popularized in the New Testament that his brothers needed to put their childish things away.    In some sense his dream was calling for a radical technological innovation. They went after Yosef because he was calling for  end of life as they knew it.  And sure enough that is exactly what happened. In this light it seems that Yosef was leading us back to the “crime” of Migdal Bavel. 

Some questions to consider:

  • What is the difference between the building project of the Mikdash and Migdal Bavel?
  • What is the role of Jerusalem  (or Tel Aviv for some)  in Jewish thought?
  • What is the relationship between the  ideal contemporary Jewish life and urban living?
  • Will the Jewish people survive being scattered outside of our cities?

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