Archive for the '1.1 Miketz' Category

One Dream: Einstein and Yosef

Recently we celebrated the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein‘s Theory of Relativity. Einstein stated that the theory of relativity belongs to a class of “principle-theories”. As such it employs an analytic method. This means that the elements which comprise this theory are not based on hypothesis but on empirical discovery. The empirical discovery leads to understanding the general characteristics of natural processes. Mathematical models are then developed to describe accurately the observed natural processes. Therefore, by analytical means the necessary conditions that have to be satisfied are deduced. Separate events must satisfy these conditions. Experience should then match the conclusions. There is no disputing Einstein’s unique genius and contribution to life in the past 100 years. I like to think there is part of his thinking that can be rooted in a Jewish sensibility of curiosity.

I was thinking about this when reading Miketz, this week’s Torah portion. There we learn that Pharaoh is being vexed by two strange dreams. His cup-bearer recalls his experience of Yosef who correctly interpreted dreams in prison.  On the merit of Yosef ability to interpret Pharaoh will through the veil of the dreams of the cup-bearer and the baker, Pharaoh brings Yosef to interpret his dreams. After  Pharaoh recounts his two dreams we read:

And Yosef said to Pharaoh: ‘The dream of Pharaoh is one; what God is about to do God has declared to Pharaoh. The seven good cows are seven years; and the seven good ears are seven years: the dream is one. And the seven lean and ill-favored cows that came up after them are seven years, and also the seven empty ears blasted with the east wind; they shall be seven years of famine. That is the thing which I spoke to Pharaoh: what God is about to do God has shown to Pharaoh. ( Genesis 41: 25- 28)

Yosef, like Einstein, had a gift to interpret subtle facts and a desire to share that vision even if it did not make sense to others.  Like Einstein Yosef’s theory would  be tested to ensure that the experience matched the conclusions ( or minimally he bought himself 7 years to live). The most interesting part for me is his claim that is all “one dream”. As we see in the rest of the Torah the drive for the descendants of Israel is to forge a relationship to the unified God. Both Yosef and Einstein felt drawn to come up with a plausible and unified theory for how the world works. Even if you do not believe that God created the universe in which this Theory of Relativity might be true, you could image how the story of the Yosef  and the Israelites pursuit of the One might have inspired this Theory.

A Better Yehudah

What is the story of Hanukah? Simply put by the Gemara,  the Greeks oppressed the Jews who revolted. The Hasmoneans were successful and reclaimed their Temple. When cleaning the defiled Temple they discovered one cruse of oil with the seal of the High Priest. This was sufficient for one day’s light. A miracle occurred and it lasted for 8 days.

It is interesting to reflect on the simple plot of Miketz, this week’s Torah portion. As the second in command to Pharaoh during the drought, Yosef is living out his dream ( see Vayeshev)of having his brothers bow down to him seeking food. Yosef has Benyamin framed for stealing Yosef’s cup. Benyamin is the only full brother of Yosef, sharing both mother and father. Yosef wants to see if his brothers ever learned a lesson from almost killing him and selling him into slavery. When the hidden cup is revealed Yehudah steps forward to take responsibility for his brother. In the case of Yosef, Yehudah missed the chance to lead his brothers and almost lost his identity during the story of Tamar (with his staff and ring). But, here with Benyamin the “pure” brother, Yehudah overcomes his deep sense of guilt and steps forward, returns to his position of leadership, and unifies his family.

In this light, we see an interesting critique of the simple story of the  Hasmoneans. Seeing Hanukah as simply a story of Greeks versus the Jews and the discovery of a pure vessel of oil overlooks the civil war. Hanukah was also the story of the Jews versus the Hellenized Jews. The Hashmoaneans led by another Yehudah tried to unify the Jewish people, but that came with making Jews conform to their standards of Jewish life.The Hasmoneans  unlike Yosef’s brothers were actually guilty of fratricide. How might finding a cruse of oil clean their brother’s blood off of their hands?

As we stand there with our families lighting our Hanukah candles take a moment and realize that all families have their issues and their challenges. I can only hope that in the light of Hanukah and Miketz, we do not miss the simple message that we need to emulate the first Yehudah and not the second. Our immediate  and larger families need us to be selfless in the name of unity and not conformity. We need to look deep within ourselves and challenge the bad feelings we have for people who live different lives then our own. Simple acts of compassion these “estranged family members” can ignite the flame of redemption and reveal a better world.

 

 

Dependable Memory

In the Mishnah Tamid ( 7:4) we learn that the Messianic Era will be a time which is  sheKulu Shabbat- completely Shabbat. What does that mean? First we need to understand some basic ideas about Shabbat and the Messiah. So, Shabbat with all of the rules and regulations actually boils down to just two commandments, LeShmor V LeZchor- to guard and to remember. Most of what we know  is all of the things we cannot do on Shabbat. That would fall under the commandment “to guard” Shabbat. We remember the Shabbat most clearly with the Kiddush. The Shulchan Aruch (OH272) brings down an interesting idea. If we do not have enough money for Challah and wine we should actually make Kiddush over Challah.  But we will come back to this.

Now back to the idea of the Messiah. We often say that one should ignore the idea of the Messiah ben David, but we ignore the idea of the Messiah ben Yosef. Living most of history as a dispossessed people we overlook the physical redemption of the Messiah descended from Yosef in favor of the metaphysical/ spiritual redemption that is supposed to come from a descendent of David. This idea of a physical redeemer in Yosef is very clearly discussed in the past few Torah portions. It all comes to a head in Vayigash, this week’s Torah portion, when the hidden redeemer reveals his true identity to save his brothers.

Regardless of our station in life, on Shabbat we are transformed into kings presiding over our weekly feast. To anyone who keeps Shabbat in our lives, it is hard to imagine a world without Shabbat.  But if we tried to imagine a world without the comfort of family and community we do not need to look further then when Yosef himself was in prison. There he was in the pit without Shabbat, but he was with the head baker and the head butler of the Pharaoh. He interprets their dreams and asks to be remembered. Then we read:

And the butler did not remember Yosef and he forgot him. ( Genesis 41:23)

Yosef asks to be remembered and he is forgotten.  Many commentators suggest that this doubling of language suggests that the butler forgot him in the short-term and the long-term. It is easy to imagine why the butler might forget Yosef. Many of us assume that needing the help of others makes us weaker in some way. So in the short and long-term it was easier for the butler to think he was chosen or special then remembering that he was dependent on Yosef for anything.

What is the significance of this story of Yosef in the prison in the context of our Mishna in Tamid? Yosef was in the pit without Shabbat. Pharoah is the king and he is clearly not. There, Yosef was with the head of Challah and the Head of Kiddush. The head of Challah was going to be killed and the head of Kiddush was asked to remember the redeemer and forgets him. Every Shabbat we try to fix this by remembering Yosef when we make Kiddush. And if we do not have money for both we remember the Challah over the Kiddush.

In the Talmud,  Rav Yochanan said in the name of the Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochi:

If Israel were to keep two Shabbatot according to the laws, they would be redeemed immediately ( Shabbat 118b)

Surely if we remember what the butler forgot we could redeem the world. (Maybe for both the Messiah of Yosef and David) We all get help from people all the time. But, we let our egos get the best of us. If we took the time to reveal their good deeds it would help reveal the capacity of these hidden humble heroes to redeem the world. And, we would also reveal our own vulnerability. This itself might be the core of the Messianic Era. This will not be a time of independence or dependence, but radical interdependence.  Shabbat itself could be a taste of this. Take a moment this Shabbat to share how you were helped this week. This memory might itself bring us closer to that era.

L’Kavod Ben Sales ( who taught me to love Shabbat in new ways) and his wife Rachel

Slump Dog Millionaire

I assume by this point you have seen Slumdog Millionaire. If not, this is a spoiler alert. In short it is a story of a Mumbai teen who grew up in the slums and becomes a contestant on the Indian version of “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” He is arrested under suspicion of cheating, and while being interrogated, events from his life history are shown which explain why he knows the answers.

There is no doubt that Slumdog Millionaire was interesting in that it tells the story of a far off land and we see people’s character’s develop. But it was the sequence of the movie itself which is so captivating. How is it that he came to learn the answers to the trivia contest?

So you ask, ” Avi, why in the world are you rehashing this 2008 blockbuster today?” Well, since you asked, I have been thinking about our Slumdog Millionaire in the person of Yosef. On the merit of his interpreting the dreams of the butler and the baker correctly he was called to Pharaoh to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. We the reader know of his childhood dreams and assume that he has some innate capacity to interpret dreams.

In last week’s Torah portion, Yosef was sold down into slavery in Egypt. We know that he was sold to Potiphar and the whole interaction with Potiphar’s wife which landed him in jail. But, who was Potiphar? There we read, “And the Midianites sold him into Egypt unto Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh’s, the captain of the tabachim.” ( Genesis 37:36) What are tabachim you ask? Rashi understands that Potiphar was the head of the butchers who slaughter the king’s animals. Before he was thrown into jail, Yosef was the head of that business. Is it any surprise that he answered Pharoah’s dreams correctly about the cows. Like Slumdog Millionaire, Yosef’s life experience led him to the moment where he would know just what to do say. Yosef is not just lucky, he is very fortunate. Everything happens for a reason, a life of meaning is never trivial.

IP Today

It seems that in today’s day and age there is an issue around owning ideas. In an era in which everything can be copied, ripped, duplicated, and mashed up, what is the value of intellectual property (IP)? While there are clear benefits to an open-sourced society, there are real tensions when that world interacts with older conceptions around unique ownership of ideas. While I hope to raise children in an open society, I do not want  to teach them to steal.

I do not just deal with this as a father, I  also deal with this all the time as an educator. How do educational providers make money in the 21st Century? People used to make their money off of their IP, but today we all have to give it away for free. At best IP has become the business card for people to sell other services. I worry about great educators out there who will not survive in the open seas of the open-sourced market.

So while I argue that we need to migrate Jewish education to this new market, I still feel that it is critical that we teach our children ( and our adults) to make sure we give attribution. We need to understand the wisdom of Pirkei Avot:

kol ha’omer davar b’shem omro, mevi geula l’olam – whoever says something in the name of the one who said it [first], brings redemption to the world (or, gains eternal life). (Pirkei Avot 6:6; cf Hullin 104b)

Why is properly attributing source material deserving of redemption? The Gemara Megillah 15 cites Esther 2:22 – “Queen Esther told the King in the name of Mordecai” of the plot against the king. It seems extraneous to mention that she told this over” in the name of Mordecai”, but this itself leads the King to put Mordecai above Haman, leading to the redemption of Shushan’s Jews.

But this is not a new idea from Purim. We first learn of this at the end of VaYeshev, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

20 And it came to pass the third day, which was Pharaoh’s birthday, that he made a feast unto all his servants; and he lifted up the head of the chief butler and the head of the chief baker among his servants.  21 And he restored the chief butler back unto his butlership; and he gave the cup into Pharaoh’s hand. 22 But he hanged the chief baker, as Joseph had interpreted to them. 23 Yet did not the chief butler remember Joseph, but forgot him. ( Genesis 40: 20-23)

And next week after Pharaoh has all of his dreams we read:

8 And it came to pass in the morning that his spirit was troubled; and he sent and called for all the magicians of Egypt, and all the wise men thereof; and Pharaoh told them his dream; but there was none that could interpret them unto Pharaoh.  9 Then spoke the chief butler unto Pharaoh, saying: ‘I make mention of my faults this day: 10 Pharaoh was wroth with his servants, and put me in the ward of the house of the captain of the guard, me and the chief baker.  11 And we dreamed a dream in one night, I and he; we dreamed each man according to the interpretation of his dream.  12 And there was with us there a young man, a Hebrew, servant to the captain of the guard; and we told him, and he interpreted to us our dreams; to each man according to his dream he did interpret.  13 And it came to pass, as he interpreted to us, so it was: I was restored unto mine office, and he was hanged.’  14 Then Pharaoh sent and called Joseph, and they brought him hastily out of the dungeon. And he shaved himself, and changed his raiment, and came in unto Pharaoh. (Genesis 41:8-14)

The butler ould have forgotten him forever. He could might have kept Joseph’s powers of dream interpretation a secret, or worse he could have pretended to have the powers and still used Joseph. But he put forward a model of collaboration. He helped Joseph and helped himself. It is one of those cases that the butler did it. Human nature is to be self serving, but he realized mutual benefit in sharing the information of Joseph skills.

This open sourced society cannot forget to give attribution because ultimately it is self-serving. We need to teach our children to tell the bigger narrative and have the long view for how helping others will help ourselves. Maybe that itself is redemptive.

 

“Just” Affiliate

In 2004 when I started my years of being a Campus Rabbi I spent a lot of time trying to understand Hillel’s mission. In Hillel’s own memory it seems that at the outset Hillel was the pluralistic synagogue on campus. That eventually turned into the precursor to the “synaplex” on campus still only serving the needs of proto-synagogue Jews. In this Hillel enjoyed a certain movement from the sanctuary to the social hall, but it was caught in the grips of authenticity as defined by synagogue-centered Jewish life. Eventually Hillel tried to be a place in which Jewish students would do Jewish with other Jews. While this benefited from getting beyond the synagogue shadow, it lacked definition, rigor, or a clear drive to follow students’ passions. By the time I got there Hillel’s new mission had evolved into working toward “the significant survival of the Jewish people”.  While this clearly speaks to people’s passions, it does not speak to mine. For me survival is never good enough. The question for me was and still is, “What will be our contribution to the world as Jews”? This question is not limited to Hillel.

Looking at Miketz and VaYigash, last week’s and this week’s Torah portions, we are left with an interesting model for a Jew making a universal contribution in the character of Joseph. Last week Joseph contributed to the larger society by organizing them in preparation for the famine. Millions would have died if it was not for his insight and leadership. Once he meets his brothers who are driven from their homes in search of food, he is faced with a number of choices. Will he help them or not? This seems pretty obvious, they are his family and how else will he fulfil his childhood dream of having them bow down to him? But just because he saves them, it does not necessarily mean that he will disclose his identity. Joseph could have helped them and remained anonymous.  This week the drama is played out. Will Joseph’s contribution be as an individual or will he choose to be identified with his people?

The text reads, “Then Joseph could not refrain himself before all those who stood by him; and he cried, Cause every man to go out from me. And there stood no man with him, while Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he gave his voice in tears; and the Egyptians and the house of Pharaoh heard.”(Genesis 45:1-2) At the outset we assume that Joseph is trying to come out to his brothers while stay closeted with his identity. He is an Ivri, descendent of Avraham, but the Egyptians do not need to know. When he finally opened up to his brothers, his voice knew no limits, and everyone found out about his identity.

If you contribute to the world around you, I would love to talk with you about finding a more articulate voice and to investigate how being Jewish is meaningful to your efforts. I have no hopes that you fit into some prefigured box. On the contrary I would love to imagine a Judaism that would meet your passions. For many of us, we identify with Judaism despite and not because of a prayer-centered synagogue Judaism. Working for social justice need not be marginalizing as a mere affinity; I believe being a Social Justice Jew could be an authentic affiliation.

Community is not something that you have to join; it is something you can choose to build. There is no doubt that this takes a lot of work, but think of the reward of connecting your passions to your personal and communal identities. My assumption is that connecting with other people to form community will make your contribution more sustainable. At first Joseph’s brothers did not recognize him. Similarly I have no doubt that it will take some time and effort for the organized Jewish community to see past the shadow of the synagogue and recognize contributing to the world as a Jew as a legitimate affiliation. At some point connecting this way to the Jewish community will be seen on par with affiliating with a religious or Zionist movement. So roll up your sleeves and make a sustainable gift to the world in the context of our community. Like Joseph, it is as important to identify as to be identified.

Mixed-Up Dream

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.


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