As a newlywed, I used to say, “The hardest part of marriage is having in-laws.” Life in my own odd family had shaped me. I understood my family’s norms. I recognized the emotions expressed in my relatives’ actions; I knew how to respond to them.
When I married, I was thrust into a new family, with new norms, different subtexts, and unfamiliar histories. In many situations, I had no idea what was going on socially or emotionally. All my initial interpretations were wrong.
Most years, as I read about Joseph and his brothers, I’m quick to judge. “Young Joseph is so arrogant! His older brothers are so violent!” But actually, the family’s nuances are beyond me. This year, I’ve noticed new complexities.
Joseph was seventeen years old. He shepherded his brothers among the sheep. He was Junior Assistant to the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, the wives of his father. Joseph brought their bad reports to their father (Gen. 37:2).*
“Junior assistant” seems an age-appropriate role for seventeen-year-old Joseph. But what, exactly, is his job description? Why is he shepherding his brothers instead of the sheep?
And why, in that role, is he assistant to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah? Why are maidservants Bilhah and Zilpah described here as legal wives? Have their sons specially earned their father Jacob’s trust?
Are the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah assigned to supervise the sons of Leah? Why do Leah’s sons need supervision? Is that revealed in the “bad reports” prepared by Bilhah and Zilpah’s sons, delivered by Joseph son of Rachel?
Torah hints at family dynamics too complex for an outsider to discern. In response, I recognize my own habitual arrogance. More often than not, I know too little to judge others.
Dream Interpretation, Talmudic Style (5774/2013)
Through stories of Yosef the dreamer, Torah offers some basic guidelines for dream interpretation. Our Talmudic sages develop these in more detail (Berachot 55-57): Dreams carry symbolic messages from other realms. To discern a dream’s message, one must go beyond its literal meaning. Finding a correct interpretation, however, can be a delicate art. Here are four Talmudic guidelines, summarized in our sages’ own words.
(1) Interpret your dream: A dream that is not interpreted is like a letter that is not read. Whoever has a dream that makes them sad should go and have it interpreted in the presence of three.
(2) Look for meaning in the symbols: Three kings are important for dreams. Whoever sees David in a dream, may hope for piety; if Solomon, they may hope for wisdom; if Ahab, they should fear for punishment. If one sees an elephant in a dream, a miracle will be wrought.
(3) Separate meaningful symbols from literal nonsense: Just as wheat cannot be without straw, so there cannot be a dream without some nonsense. Even if part of a dream is fulfilled, the whole of it never is. From where do we know this? From the imagery in Yosef’s dream, as it is written, “And behold the sun and the moon bowed down to me” (Gen. 37:9), and at that time his mother [represented by the moon] was not living.
(4) Re-interpret, for multiple meanings are in any dream: R. Bana’ah said, “Once I dreamt a dream and went round to 24 interpreters. They all gave different interpretations, and all were fulfilled. The meaning of a dream follows the interpretation.”
Have you a recent dream that haunts your consciousness? Speak of it with your friends; learn what it means to them; discern the message you were meant to receive.
Let Your Spirit Shine (5773/2012)
Midrash Bereisheet Rabbah teaches that Ya’akov has a secret spiritual name: Shemesh, sun.
The story of Ya’akov’s rupture and reconciliation with his brother is framed with allusions to the sun. As Ya’akov travels west, away from his brother, the sun sets – or, in Biblical Hebrew, “arrives” in the west. Twenty years later, after Ya’akov wrestles with the stranger and is ready to meet his brother, the sun rises – or, in Torah’s language, “the sun itself shines.”
Ya’akov, continues the midrash, believes that no other human being knows his secret name. Imagine Ya’akov’s surprise when his son Yosef dreams of the day the family will bow down to Yosef – a dream where Yosef’s father is represented as sun, his mother as moon, and his brothers as stars. Ya’akov rebukes his son for dreaming of mastery over his father; but inside himself, Torah says, “he guards the matter.” Some say he guards his own inner secrets more carefully.
Should Ya’akov be surprised that his beloved son has an intuition about his father’s psycho-spiritual growth? Should Ya’akov respond to the surprise by guarding himself more carefully? Or should he be pleased to be seen through the eyes of love? Should he allow his hard-won wisdom to shine – even if recalling its development is painful? A glimpse of his polished soul just might be helpful to his son!
Do you have hard-won wisdom that shines forth in the way you behave? Or is it hidden by memories of the struggles that helped you learn it? At Chanukah, we celebrate light bursting into the world. Accept that those who love you have seen your hidden light and learned from you. Shine on!
Surprised by Empathy (5772/2011)
How does a person step outside herself or himself to see from a new perspective?
Early in Parshat Vayeshev, Yehuda masterminds a plan to sell his annoying younger brother Yosef into slavery. To cover up the crime, all the brothers decide together to dip Yosef’s distinctive tunic in the blood of a goat. They bring the bloody tunic to their father Ya’akov and say, “Please identify this” (haker-na). Ya’akov falls apart with grief.
Years later Yehuda promises his youngest son to his widowed daughter-in-law Tamar, but has no intention of following through. When Tamar realizes this, she masterminds a plan to claim the family due to her. Disguised as a prostitute, she makes herself available to the widowed Yehuda. As collateral for delayed payment, she requests Yehuda’s staff, cloak and personal seal. Three months later, Yehuda confronts Tamar about her pregnancy. She sends him his personal effects with a message, “Please identify these” (haker-na).
Yehuda blurts out, “She is a better person than I am.”
Perhaps Yehuda carried emotional memories from the day of Yosef’s disappearance. At a time of high emotion, he recognized not just his belongings but also his own words. Once he said them; now he had to hear them. Suddenly he could imagine how his father must have felt. In a flash, his habit of lying, which he once thought a clever strategy, looked like a terrible weapon.
Yehuda’s story invites us to become sensitive to empathic growth. We too can recognize hints of our own lives when we hear from others. We can recognize both our hurts and our joys in new contexts, and grow our compassion. We can learn how to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Inspired by Midrash Bereisheet Rabbah
Dreams of Light (2010/5771)
Chanukah begins on Wednesday evening and continues for eight eight short dark winter days. At the end of the first day, we light one candle in anticipation of long, bright spring days; second day, two candles for the spring light that is one day closer. After candlelighting, we internalize our wish for light, enjoying latkes and sufganiyot – foods filled with light-generating vegetable oil.
Birthday candles use similar symbolism. We stand candles in the cake, and light them, expressing our hope for a bright future. The birthday honoree articulates a specific wish and blows out the candles. Everyone present eats the cake, making the birthday wish a part of their lives, too.
We prepare for Chanukah by reading Parshat Vayeshev, which begins with Yosef’s dream about light. Yosef dreams that sun, moon, and stars bow down to him. He is a motherless young man hated by his half-brothers, ineffectively protected by his father. The dream expresses his wish for a better position in the family. But Yosef’s father Ya’akov doesn’t grasp Yosef’s cry of anguish, and is only angered by the arrogance of the dream.
Chanukah lights, birthday candles, luminaries in a dream: in each case, light represents hope for renewal. The word “Chanukah” means rededication, and we use the holiday to celebrate national renewal. On an inner level, the Chanukah candles remind us to listen carefully in the dark: to the messages expressed in our nighttime dreams, to our personal lists of what we will do when spring light returns, to the needs hinted at in stories told by friends, family, neighbors, and acquaintances.
Our Name is Gratitude (2008/5769)
When Leah’s fourth son is born, she names him Yehudah: gratitude.
Yehudah’s name honors the miraculous way that things unfold in time. And Torah focuses on the miraculous way that Yehudah himself unfolds in time. We see his early misguidedattempts to be a decent brother in a troubled family and his later misguided attempts to protect his sons by tricking his daughter-in-law. We see how his daughter-in-law holds up a metaphorical mirror in which he can finally see how he’s been bumbling through his relationships. And then we see how, as a mature man, he expresses empathy and love, and risks his life in the name of those values.
We could say that through a series of historical accidents, our name is gratitude. The tribe of Yehudah settled in Southern Canaan. The name of the Southern Israelite kingdom becameYehudah. The name of the self-governing province controlled by Persia and later Rome was Yehud. Twenty-five hundred years later, we still call ourselves Yehudim – Jews.
Or we could say that through deep spiritual insight we choose to call ourselves Yehudim – the grateful ones. Through the spiritual practice of gratitude we remember moments for which we are grateful. If we can remember moments of wonder, peace, love, insight, abundance, moments in which we felt supported by God and by family and friends – then we can know that such moments can come again. Gratitude empowers us with the strength and courage to face difficulties. Gratitude leads to renewal. The story of our life!
Dream On: Three Levels of Interpretation (2007/5768)
Jungian therapist and spiritual director Bonnelle Strickling speaks of three different levels of dream interpretation. The same dream can have something to say about a dreamer’s daily life, inner world, or relationship with the Divine.
Yosef relates two dreams to his family. In one dream, “We were binding sheaves in the field, when my sheaf suddenly stood up erect. Your sheaves formed a circle around my sheaf, and bowed down to it.” In the other, “The sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” Yosef’s brothers know only the mundane level, and interject their own feelings into Yosef’s dream. “Do you want to be our king?” they ask hatefully.
Yosef’s dream might also express his desire for a coherent inner life. As a teenager, he cannot sort through the confusing dynamics in his fractured family. He cannot distinguish feelings projected by his brothers from his own feelings. He hopes for a focused inner center. The dream might also express Yosef’s desire for a relationship with the divine. Perhaps he hopes that, animated with God’s spirit, he will be able to stand straight like the sheaf and shine like the sun, sharing that spirit with his family.
All three meanings eventually come to pass. Yosef learns to express gratitude to God for gifts of insight. Yosef becomes viceroy of Mitzrayim, and his brothers bow down to him. And having worked through his feelings for them, he invites them into a new level of unity, giving God credit for bringing them together.
If a powerful dream stays with you this week, follow Torah’s lead and attend to all three levels of meaning!