When Bridges Collapse (5777/2016)
Last week, the 14-member U.N. Security Council passed, with a vote of 13-0, a resolution condemning Israel’s expansion of settlements in occupied Palestinian lands. Prime Minister Netanyahu responded by recalling Israeli ambassadors, reprimanding foreign ambassadors, and cancelling foreign aid programs.
So, I dreamed: A woman travels to Israel by helicopter to rescue a child fleeing Syrian civil war. As she flies past a tall bridge, it collapses; debris rushes towards her. She gets into a car, driving fast to complete her mission, but the roads are blocked.
Bridges collapse, roads are blocked — these obvious symbols of diplomatic failure need no fancy interpretation. But the symbol of the lone woman does. She is neither celebrity nor leader. How do her personal travels represent a response to collective experience?
Torah says: Pharaoh dreamed: There he was, standing by the Nile, when seven cows came up out of the Nile…(Gen. 41:1).
Through Joseph’s interpretive lens, this dream predicts Egypt’s future. How does Joseph know this dream is about Egypt and not about Pharaoh’s personal life? Is it because Pharaoh, a national leader, naturally dreams about his nation? No, says medieval Spanish commentator Rabbeinu Bachya (1255-1340). Joseph’s interpretation is based on the dream symbols, not the status of the dreamer. The Nile feeds all of Egypt; thus whatever emerges from it affects everyone.
Status and access to power are incidental to Joseph’s interpretation. Anyone can dream of public concerns. And perhaps anyone can take action. So the woman in my dream teaches. She has chosen a mission appropriate to her sphere of influence: to save a single child. She cannot prevent bridge damage or roadblocks. But she can keep going when they occur.
She is symbol that poses a question: What will you, a single individual with only a small sphere of influence, do as the bridges continue to collapse around us?
Paradox of Free Will (5774/2013)
Pharaoh dreams: seven gaunt cows eat seven healthy cows; seven withered sheaves of grain swallow seven robust sheaves. Yosef interprets the dream: seven years of famine will follow seven years of abundant harvest. God has set a process in motion, says Yosef, and shown you a glimpse of what is to come. Now you must find, do, appoint and gather, so that your people will have food.
Here, free will and determinism are comfortably balanced: Human beings cannot control the forces of nature, but we can decide how to respond.
Yosef is appointed minister of food distribution. One day his eleven older brothers travel to Egypt seeking an audience with the minister. They do not realize the powerful minister is Yosef, the brother they sold into slavery years earlier. As they enter, they bow, faces to the ground. Twenty years earlier, when Yosef had dreamed that eleven stars bowed down to him, his brothers, recognizing themselves in the stars, had ridiculed and bullied him.
Here, determinism trumps free will: each human being has a destiny, and every apparently free choice only realizes the destiny.
Parshat Miketz lays out the paradox. On the one hand, natural processes are mostly reliable, and summarized in scientific laws. The consequences of human actions are inevitable. On the other hand, we weigh options, make decisions, and fix mistakes. As Rabbi Akiva says in Pirkei Avot, “Everything is foreseen, yet freedom of choice is given” (3:19).
How can we hold this paradox? Some teachers suggest we understand it as a glimpse into the Divine mind or, in contemporary language, expanded consciousness. We can see our lives from multiple perspectives. A shift in perspective can feel like a gift of Divine grace, opening into freedom, comfort, and greater possibility.
May you receive such gifts this Hanukkah.
Symbolic Cows (5773/2012)
Pharaoh dreams of seven emaciated cows eating seven healthy ones; and then of seven lean ears of corn eating seven plump ones. Two dreams: different symbols, same actions. Yosef says, “The two dreams are one. You dreamed it twice because God wants to emphasize the message.”
Did Yosef, an expert dream interpreter, really fail to analyze the different images? Surely corn and cow each convey a different piece of the puzzle. A closer look at the text suggests that Yosef does actually offer a two-part interpretation. Part one: “Seven years of famine will follow seven years of abundant harvest.” Part two: “You will see a man of intelligence and wisdom; set him over the land of Egypt.” It’s easy to see how Yosef derives the prediction from the dream. But what’s the source of his instruction about wisdom?
Psychologist James Hillman – writing about non-Torah matters — analyzes imagery of the bovine species in ancient Near Eastern mythology. In mythological stories, a wild bull often shows up to threaten those who ignore wisdom. In these stories, the bull represents imagination run wild. Hillman also notes the symbolism of the bull in early Near Eastern writing. The letter aleph evolved from a hieroglyphic pictogram for the bull. At the head of the written alphabet, the bull tames imagination, expressing it in socially acceptable speech.
Perhaps the plump cows represent a wild bull: a dangerous indulgence in unrealistic short-term dreams of national wealth. And perhaps the emaciated cows represent a bull evolved into a sustainable social reality: a wise and rational conservation program that must overcome the fantasy if Egypt is to survive. Perhaps Pharaoh’s dream holds meaning for us, too, about environmental sustainability, social welfare, and balancing imagination with reason.
Dare to Dream (2011/5771)
Paroh wakes terribly agitated from a nightmare in which seven skinny cows eat seven fat cows. “Those were the most awful cows I have ever seen!” he says, “Can’t anyone tell me what it means?”
Rabbi Tzvi Blanchard says: Paroh hovers in the anxiety of the unknown. He does not know if the nightmare hints at challenge or opportunity.
Yosef interprets the dream symbols: Seven years of abundance will be followed by seven years of famine.
Rabbi Blanchard says: Paroh still does not know if the dream is good or bad.
Yosef outlines a plan for collecting grain during the seven abundant years and rationing it during the seven lean years.
Rabbi Blanchard says: Paroh begins to understand that, by his standards, his dream brings opportunity. He will be the most powerful monarch in the region, as Egypt becomes the only source of food in a time of scarcity.
Rabbi Blanchard continues: Allow yourself to dream, to free associate, to more through anxiety, to contemplate possible futures. We may not know where the dreams will lead, but if we fear to follow them, we will miss our opportunities.
Rabbi Blanchard’s words at the RWB meeting paraphrased by Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan
Gates of Tears (2009/5769)From the day that the Temple was destroyed, the heavenly gates of prayer were locked. . . nevertheless, the gates of tears have not been locked. (Talmud Bavli, Bava Metzia 59a).
When Yosef first recognizes his brothers, he runs out of the room, cries, composes himself, and returns. When Yehudah offers to become Yosef’s slave in exchange for Binyamin’s life,Yosef orders everyone except his brothers out of the room and then sobs so loudly everyone in the building hears. He kisses each brother in turn and cries on each brother’s shoulder. When he finally sees his father Ya’akov, he embraces him and cries in his arms. What’s the significance of the tears?
Shuly Rubin Schwartz (2008): Joseph’s tears are a necessary element in his transition to adulthood and to true leadership. Only when he has found a way to reconcile his childhood grief with the possibility of a new relationship with his brothers, his public persona with his private life, and his invincible power with his vulnerability, does he emerge as a biblical hero who fully ignites empathy and admiration.
Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler (c. 1940): The closed gates of prayer are not to be found in the heavens. Rather, the Talmud is describing our hearts that have been cordoned off from spirituality. Even though we cognitively know that we should escape our own entrapment, we cannot simply will to overcome the blockage. Only through intense emotion so earnest that we are brought to tears can we open to God and become our true selves.