Vayigash: when our relationships with land and with each other are damaged, we have to look at our own role before we can heal the breach.

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There was no bread in all the land;  the famine was very sore so Egypt and Canaan languished… Joseph gathered all the money found in Egypt and Canaan for the corn they bought; and brought the money into Pharaoh’s house. .all the Egyptians came to Joseph, saying: ‘Give us bread; why should we die because our money fails?’ And Joseph said: ‘Give your cattle, and I will give you [bread] for your cattle’. And they brought their cattle.. Joseph gave them bread in exchange for the horses, the flocks, the herds, and the asses; and  fed them with bread in exchange for all their cattle for that year.  When that year ended, they came to him the second year, and said to him: ‘We will not hide .. that our money is all spent; and the herds of cattle are yours, there is nothing left.. but our bodies, and our lands. Why should we die…both we and our land? buy us and our land for bread, and we and our land will be bondmen to Pharaoh; and give us seed, that we may live, and not die, and that the land be not desolate.’  So Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh; every Egyptian sold his field, because the famine was sore; and the land became Pharaoh’s.  And as for the people, he removed them city by city, from one end of the border of Egypt to the other. Only the land of the priests he did not buy, for the priests had a portion from Pharaoh… Joseph said to the people: ‘Behold, I have bought you this day and your land for Pharaoh.  Here is seed, sow the land. And at harvest, you shall give a fifth to Pharaoh, and four parts shall be your own, for seed of the field, and for your food, and for your households..’ And they said: ‘you have saved our lives.. we will be Pharaoh’s bondmen.’  (Genesis 47:13-26)

The bible recounts the fruit of Jacob’s having stored away supplies in the seven years of good harvests, to use in the following seven years of famine foretold in Pharaoh’s dream.  Within a few years he is in control of every resource – money, land, animals, even the people belong to the State. And more than that, he has changed the very nature of relationship between people and land. He transfers the people from the land that they had owned and farmed, and moves them to distant cities.

The Hizkuni (Hezekiah ben Manoach  13thC France) teaches that Joseph does this because he was afraid that the sale of the fields would be forgotten in time, and ancestral claims resurface. So  in order to protect Pharaoh’s ownership Joseph moved the people away from the fields they had sold. Yet the Hebrew says rather more – Joseph transfers the people from the land to the cities, undermining the relationship set at the beginning of the book of Genesis, where people are created to serve and to guard the land, and instead of being the stewards of nature, the people become the servants of the ruling power.

Population transfer, where people lose their relationship to their ancestral lands, where whole communities are forced to uproot themselves and their families and throw themselves on the mercy of the political powers, has been used to keep populations quiet and unable to rebel since time immemorial, becoming seen formally as a human rights violation only in the 20th century. We modern readers find it painful in the extreme, albeit it is small comfort that the people themselves ask to sell themselves to Pharaoh (v19), and that Joseph never agrees to buy them as slaves – as opposed to buying their labour.  Nachmanides comments “They said that they wished to be purchased as slaves to the king to be treated as he saw fit. But Joseph wanted to buy ONLY the land and stipulated that they would be perpetual leaseholders or tenants of Pharaoh. When Joseph told them (v.23) ‘I have this day acquired you and your land for Pharaoh’, he means NOT that he has acquired them as slaves but rather that through their farmland they will serve him. In truth the king should take 80% of the income and leave you only with 20%, but, says Joseph, I will be kind. You will take the (80%) share due to the landowner and Pharaoh will take the (20%) due to the tenant farmer”

The rabbinic tradition is deeply uncomfortable with the actions of Joseph, and one can argue that the bible is also uncomfortable with how he behaves in concentrating all resources and power into the hands of Pharaoh, diminishing the resource and particularly the relationship of the farmers with their land.  One can read this – and the apologetics which are a major component of the classical commentaries – as a textbook reading of how NOT to treat people trying to sustain themselves in areas of drought and famine. Sending supplies/ giving them enough to live from day to day – is of course an an important first step, and Joseph does what is necessary to keep the people alive by giving them bread, and later seeds to plant –  but exploiting the vulnerability of these desperate people is unacceptable, even if they themselves offer to put themselves in the position of being bought and sold.  The Egyptians become workers on the land of the Pharaoh, essentially they are slaves to the Pharaoh. And the whole narrative of the early chapters of Genesis – that humans would feed themselves by working the land, hard but dignified labour where the land would produce under the benign stewardship of the owner/farmer – is subverted in Joseph’s actions. The relationship between land and worker is disrupted deliberately as the original landowners are dispersed from their ancestral places.

The story does not begin at the famine – we see that in the good years that precede it,  food is not saved by those who produced it, but in the storehouses controlled by Joseph, and used to increase the power of the Pharaoh.

This story shows us how slavery becomes normalised, even welcomed as a way to stay fed and alive.  Even if the people themselves suggest selling themselves once they have no more money or other assets, Joseph’s act of population transfer hardens and fixes the reality of the rupture in the relationship between each family and their land. The move away from one’s land and from country to cities loosens the bonds of community, changing relationships further. Everyone becomes a little more vulnerable and a little more alone. The political class concentrates power in its own hands, the population are less able to resist.

So, when the Book of Exodus opens some 450 or so years later, and the memory of Joseph and his part in cementing the ruling powers is forgotten, we find that slavery is an obvious option for the Egyptians to use against the non-Egyptian people living among them.  The powerful are able to manipulate the ordinary citizens, and the stage is set for further misery.

When Joseph interprets the dreams of the Pharaoh and suggests a solution to ensure that the land and people do not perish in the long famine, he never suggests that this should be the lever to remove the agency and power of the grassroots of the people and allow the Pharaoh to become the owner of land and cattle stocks. The agreement was to ensure that people would be fed, that “the land would not perish during the famine”. In going well beyond his brief, in accepting the absolute power given to him by Pharaoh, in naming his children for “forgetting his father’s house” and for “becoming fruitful in Egypt” , Joseph isolates himself from the values of his own tribe and instead allies himself with the values of a society that does not care for the other.

There will be no tribe of Joseph, just the two half tribes of his sons Ephraim and Manasseh. His own dislocation from land is complete – it is the next generations who will begin the healing of both the human and tribal connection to land and the freedom of every person to live in peace upon it. A journey of healing we are all still making.

 

Vayigash: quando i nostri rapporti con la terra e tra di noi sono danneggiati dobbiamo guardare al nostro ruolo prima di poter curare la violazione.

Pubblicato da rav Sylvia Rothschild, il 1 gennaio 2020

 

La  carestia era gravissima, tutto il paese mancava di viveri e l’Egitto così come Canaan ne erano stanchi. Giuseppe raccolse tutto il denaro che si trovava in Egitto e in Canaan per i viveri che compravano e lo fece entrare nelle casse del Faraone. Finito il denaro in Egitto e in Canaan tutti gli egiziani si presentarono da Giuseppe dicendo: ‘Dacci da mangiare; dobbiamo morire qui davanti a te se non abbiamo più denaro?’ E Giuseppe disse: ‘Date il vostro bestiame e io vi darò viveri in cambio di esso’. Portarono il  bestiame a Giuseppe ed egli quell’anno diede loro viveri in cambio di cavalli, bestiame ovino e bovino e asini; e così li sostentò con vettovaglie in cambio di tutto il loro bestiame. Finito quell’anno gli si presentarono l’anno seguente e gli dissero: ‘Non ti nascondiamo … che se il denaro è finito e se il bestiame è presso di te, o signore, non rimangono a tua disposizione che i nostri corpi e le nostre terre. Perché dovremmo perire … e con noi le nostre terre? Acquista noi e la nostra terra in cambio di viveri, e passeremo al servizio del Faraone; e dacci della semente, sì che possiamo vivere, e non morire, e i terreni non rimangano improduttivi’. Così Giuseppe acquistò al Faraone tutti i terreni d’Egitto poiché ognuno vendette il proprio campo, oppressi com’erano dalla fame e la terra divenne proprietà del Faraone. Trasferì la popolazione da una città all’altra, da una all’altra estremità del territorio egiziano. Solo non acquistò la terra dei sacerdoti, poiché essi ricevevano dal Faraone un assegno determinato … Giuseppe disse al popolo: ‘Ecco, io ho acquistato oggi voi e le vostre terre al Faraone. Eccovi la semente, seminate la terra. E al momento del raccolto, ne darete un quinto al Faraone, e quattro parti saranno le vostre, per seminare il campo, per il mantenimento vostro , di chi avete in casa e dei vostri figli…’ E dissero: ‘hai salvato le nostre vite … saremo i servi del faraone’”.  (Genesi 47: 13-26)

La Bibbia racconta gli esiti dell’atto di Giacobbe di immagazzinare scorte nei sette anni di buoni raccolti, da usarsi poi nei successivi sette anni di carestia predetti nel sogno del Faraone. Nel giro di pochi anni egli ha il controllo di ogni risorsa: denaro, terra, animali, anche il popolo appartiene allo Stato. E, oltre a ciò, ha cambiato la natura stessa del rapporto tra persone e terra. Toglie le persone dalla terra che avevano posseduto e coltivato e le trasferisce in città lontane.

Hizkuni (Hezekiah ben Manoach, Francia del XIII sec.) insegna che Giuseppe lo fa perché teme che col tempo la vendita dei campi sarà dimenticata e le rivendicazioni ancestrali riemergerebbero. Quindi, al fine di proteggere la proprietà del Faraone, Giuseppe allontana le persone dai campi che avevano venduto. Eppure l’ebraico dice qualcosa di più: Giuseppe trasferisce la gente dalla terra alle città, minando la relazione stabilita all’inizio del libro di Genesi, in cui le persone sono create per servire e proteggere la terra, e invece di essere l’amministratore della natura, il popolo diventa il servitore del potere dominante.

Da tempo immemorabile il trasferimento della popolazione, con cui le persone perdono il rapporto con le proprie terre ancestrali e intere comunità sono costrette a sradicare se stesse e le loro famiglie e a gettarsi in balia dei poteri politici, è stato utilizzato per mantenere le popolazioni tranquille e incapaci di ribellarsi e, solo nel XX° secolo, viene considerato formalmente come una violazione dei diritti umani. Noi lettori moderni lo troviamo estremamente doloroso, sebbene sia un po’ di conforto che la gente stessa chieda di vendersi al Faraone (v19) e che Giuseppe non accetti mai di comprarli come schiavi ma, al contrario, di comprare il loro lavoro. Nachmanide commenta: “Dissero che desideravano essere acquistati come schiavi dal re per essere trattati come lui riteneva opportuno. Ma Giuseppe voleva comprare SOLO la terra e stabilì che sarebbero stati perpetui locatari o inquilini del Faraone. Quando Giuseppe disse loro (v.23) ‘Oggi ho acquisito voi e la vostra terra per il Faraone’, significa che NON li ha acquisiti come schiavi, ma piuttosto che attraverso i loro terreni agricoli essi lo serviranno. In verità il re dovrebbe prendere l’80% delle entrate e lasciar loro solo il 20%, ma, dice Giuseppe, sarò gentile. Prenderai la parte dovuta al proprietario terriero (l’80%) e il Faraone prenderà (il 20%) la parte dovuta al contadino locatario“.

La tradizione rabbinica è profondamente a disagio con le azioni di Giuseppe, e si può anche sostenere che la Bibbia sia a disagio proprio con il modo in cui si comporta, cioè concentrando tutte le risorse e il potere nelle mani del Faraone, diminuendo le risorse e in particolare il rapporto degli agricoltori con la loro terra. Si può leggere questo, e le scuse che sono una componente importante dei commenti classici, come una lettura da manuale di come NON trattare le persone che cercano di sostenersi in aree di siccità e carestia. Inviare rifornimenti/dare loro abbastanza per vivere di giorno in giorno è ovviamente un primo passo importante, e Giuseppe fa ciò che è necessario per mantenere in vita le persone dando loro il pane e poi i semi da piantare, ma sfruttare la vulnerabilità di queste persone disperate è inaccettabile, anche se loro stessi si offrono e si mettono nella condizione di essere acquistati e venduti. Gli egiziani diventano lavoratori nella terra del Faraone, essenzialmente sono schiavi del Faraone. E l’intera narrazione dei primi capitoli della Genesi, che gli umani si nutrano lavorando la terra, lavoro duro ma dignitoso in cui la terra produce sotto la benigna gestione del proprietario/agricoltore, è sovvertita dalle azioni di Giuseppe. Il rapporto tra terra e lavoratore viene interrotto deliberatamente quando i proprietari terrieri originali vengono dispersi dai loro luoghi ancestrali.

La storia non inizia dalla carestia: vediamo che nei buoni anni che la precedono il cibo non viene salvato da chi lo ha prodotto, ma nei magazzini controllati da Giuseppe, e utilizzato per aumentare il potere del Faraone.

Questa storia ci mostra come la schiavitù venga normalizzata, persino accolta come modo per rimanere nutriti e in vita. Anche se le persone stesse suggeriscono di vendersi quando non hanno più denaro o altri beni, l’atto di trasferimento della popolazione di Giuseppe indurisce e fissa la realtà della rottura nel rapporto tra ogni famiglia e la loro terra. L’allontanamento dalla propria terra e dal paese alle città allenta i legami della comunità, cambiando ulteriormente le relazioni. Tutti diventano un po’ più vulnerabili e un po’ più soli. La classe politica concentra il potere nelle proprie mani, la popolazione è meno in grado di resistere.

Quindi, quando il Libro dell’Esodo si apre circa 450 anni dopo e si perde il ricordo di Giuseppe e il suo ruolo nel cementare i poteri al comando, scopriamo che la schiavitù è un’opzione scontata che gli egiziani possono usare contro il popolo non egiziano che vive in mezzo a loro. I potenti sono in grado di manipolare i cittadini comuni e il palcoscenico è pronto per ulteriori sofferenze.

Quando Giuseppe interpreta i sogni del Faraone e suggerisce una soluzione per garantire che la terra e le persone non muoiano nella lunga carestia, non suggerisce mai che questa debba essere la leva per eliminare il potere della gente comune e consentire al Faraone di diventare proprietario delle terre e del bestiame. L’accordo era di assicurare che le persone fossero nutrite, che “la terra non sarebbe perita durante la carestia”. Andando ben oltre le direttive, accettando il potere assoluto conferitogli dal Faraone, dicendo ai propri figli di “aver dimenticato la casa del padre” e di “diventare fecondo in Egitto”, Giuseppe si isola dai valori della sua stessa tribù e si allea invece con i valori di una società a cui non importa del prossimo.

Non ci sarà una tribù di Giuseppe, solo le due mezze tribù dei suoi figli Efraim e Manasse. La sua alienazione dalla terra è completa: sono le generazioni successive che inizieranno la guarigione della connessione umana e tribale con la terra e la libertà di ogni persona di vivere in pace su di essa. Un viaggio di guarigione che stiamo ancora facendo.

Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

 

 

 

 

Mikketz: how knowledge and understanding still requires wisdom if we are to avert environmental disaster

 

Pharaoh dreams of seven fat healthy cows feeding by the river, which are devoured by seven sickly cows; then of seven full and healthy ears of corn devoured by seven thin ears of corn, in each case the devourers looked no fuller or healthier for what they had consumed.  Joseph, the interpreter of dreams, is summoned from prison in order to explain the Pharaoh’s dreams.

They are, he announces, dreams of warning of what God is about to bring to Egypt; seven years of plenty will be followed by seven years of famine. There are two dreams because of the speed in which events will begin.

Joseph then goes further than his brief. He is brought to interpret the dreams, but having done so he adds to the narrative- a chutzpah that could have had terrible consequence

“Now therefore let Pharaoh look out a man discerning and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt. Let Pharaoh do this, and let him appoint overseers over the land, and take up the fifth part of the land of Egypt in the seven years of plenty. And let them gather all the food of these good years that come, and lay up corn under the hand of Pharaoh for food in the cities, and let them keep it. And the food shall be for a store to the land against the seven years of famine, which shall be in the land of Egypt; that the land perish not through the famine.

But luckily Pharaoh is impressed. Having asked (rhetorically) if such a man can be found to fulfil this plan, he turns to Joseph and says:  As God has shown you all this, there is none so discerning and wise as you. You shall be over my house, and according to your word shall all my people be ruled; only in the throne will I be greater than you.’  And Pharaoh said to Joseph: ‘See, I have set you over all the land of Egypt.’

The three qualities –da’at (knowledge), binah (discernment) and chochmah (wisdom) come together in this verse indicating that Joseph doesn’t just know what the dream is saying, but that he can imagine the devastation indicated and can formulate and carry out a plan to mitigate it.

The dreams tell the very worst scenario – not only will extended famine come after the good years, but it will consume every aspect of those good years, they will not be remembered or even be able to be imagined – so say the classical commentators noting that when the sickly cows/corn absorb the healthy ones, there is no increase in well-being, no noticeable change at all. The desolation will be so complete it will be as if there was never anything else.

But the intervention of Joseph, with his combined knowledge, discernment and wisdom, was enough to keep Egypt, and even the surrounding areas, fed in the years of famine. The all-consuming famine was survived by the people – albeit they lost control of their land to Pharaoh as the price they paid for their food.

The Maharal of Prague teaches that the solution to the problem of famine in the dream was itself provided in the dream. The fact that the sickly cows and corn absorbed their healthy counterparts was a key to resolving the oncoming disaster – because it taught that there must be work done in the first seven years that would enable the next seven to be survivable. For him preparation in the face of oncoming devastation would enable the people to survive. His teaching primarily addresses the lacunae in the text – why would Joseph overstep his position and offer a solution? How does Pharaoh know that his interpretation was correct, and recognise both the importance of his plan  and the scale of his abilities? But the teaching gives us hope. We can prepare, we can begin to imagine and to mitigate the oncoming changes in our world. We can ensure that people have the resources to survive and sustain ourselves come what may.

In today’s world we once again face droughts and famines, as the global climate changes and watercourses dry up or rain washes away fertile soil. This is something we know, and we are beginning to understand the longer term consequences of much of our activity of the last century. We have both da’at and binah – knowledge and understanding. But is seems to me we have not yet taken on board the need for wisdom.  Joseph had a plan that did not stop the famine, but did mean that no one went hungry – he was proactive rather than reactive. He could imagine the worst case and worked to avert it. It is a lesson – an a quality – we need to acquire quickly if we are not to be overwhelmed by our own environment.

 

Vayeshev – the transformation from brat to tzadik begins here

The narratives of Joseph occupy a large tranche of the book of Genesis – in the next four weeks we will focus almost entirely on the life and the experiences of this eleventh son of Jacob and first son on Rachel.  By the end of the book of Genesis we’ll know more about Joseph than about anyone else in his family before or since. We’ll know about his dreams, his relationships, his skills, his political exploits, his love affairs, his character flaws and strengths, his successes and his failures; his problems.

The narratives about him are long and somehow ponderous, telling the stories repeatedly, hammering the same points – the sibling rivalry, the parental favoritism, the tricks of hiding precious articles and retrieving them later;   It is hard to understand just why we are told every last detail about the life of this particular man, what we are supposed to make of this weight of information.

Tradition tells us that the stories of Joseph foreshadow the future experiences of Israel.  Reading the text we see that they also reconcile many of the themes that have come before. Joseph acts as a linchpin in the Genesis narratives – reliving and reworking the lives of his ancestors, and finally dealing with some of the issues which had held them back, finishing the business so to speak, and so allowing the people of Israel to move on in their religious journey.

The narratives of Joseph end one chapter of identity and open another.  No longer will individuals know God in the way that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob personally experienced and encountered the Divinity.  With Joseph comes the exile into Egypt which will culminate in Sinai and peoplehood.  A different sort of belonging to God is introduced here – one can not really say people are ‘relating to God,’ because in all of these narratives God is at one remove, a spectator in the story, hardly present except in the shadows at the edge of perception.

The metamorphosis which occurs with the life of Joseph is almost entirely a human one rather than one that speaks of divine interest – though it does have a flavour of fairy tale to it Political rather than theological, the transformation is very much of this world:-  A family changes radically when the favourite child falls victim to his own beliefs.  A poor immigrant succeeds beyond his wildest expectations in his adopted country.  A servant becomes a political master, changing the way the country structures itself and its socio-economic policy.  A slave becomes a prince.  A penniless Jewish refugee with no family or friends builds himself a life amongst a people not his own.

With Joseph we have a new construct with which to view our lives.  He is a Diaspora Jew, maybe even a secular Jew, certainly a political rather than a theological Jew.  Elie Wiesel describes him as “the first person to bridge two nations and two histories, the first to link Israel to the world…. In the context of the biblical narrative he was a new kind of hero heralding a new era…”  (in ‘Joseph, or the Education of a Tzaddik’ – Messengers of God p144/5

So not a patriarch, but certainly a recognizable human being and role model, giving us a different way of being.  Our problem in many ways is that we are far more like Joseph than like anyone else in the narratives – building our world on a political rather than theological basis, allowing God to be a spectator in our lives, at the margins of our identity.  Joseph is a role model with outstanding flaws for us to deal with, focusing so entirely on the present world that he seems to ignore the next one, becoming not so much integrated between two cultures as appearing to be assimilated into one almost without trace of his origins visible.

Yet Joseph is described in tradition as a Tzaddik – a Just and Righteous person.  The weight of the narrative must be trying to tell us something more – Joseph’s position as the mid point between the clearing up of past rivalries and the foreshadowing of future exile and oppression must yield more for us.  Again it is Elie Wiesel who identifies the critical point – “One recognizes the value of a text by the weight of its silence. Here the silence exists, and it weighs heavy…. “ First there is Joseph’s astounding silence during the brutal scene at Shechem, in which all his brothers except Benjamin participated.  When his brothers faced him with their hate – Joseph was mute.  More striking yet is Jacob’s silence – from the day that Joseph was taken we are told, he did not speak for 20 years.  He didn’t even speak to God.  He didn’t search for his son, didn’t go to the place where his son was last seen – he lived instead in a solitary, silent place, only resuming his conversation with and prayers to God after the family reunion, when God encouraged him to go to Egypt.

And what do we make of God’s actions – God too is silent.  Jacob didn’t address God in his interminable inconsolable grief, but neither did God address Jacob.

And Joseph in Egypt, as wealthy political potentate – where were his words, the one’s he could have sent back to Canaan to tell of his life’s story and put his father’s mind at rest?

All the words that began this story, the terrible words that Joseph spoke about his brothers, the words of peace they could barely bring themselves to utter, the words of his dreams, the words he was to bring back to his father – all those words at the beginning of Joseph’s stories descended into silence when Joseph descended into the pit, and the silence became heavier and heavier until the moment of the family reunion in Egypt, until Joseph could no longer suppress the words, no longer restrain himself.  But this time his words were changed, they became the words of a man who had transformed himself, not just from the arrogant sibling who considered that the universe should worship him, into  caring and beneficent brother;    not just from immigrant slave to ruling prince.  The transformation was from spoiled and self-centered brat into Tzaddik, a man able to forgive the wrongs done to him, a man able to transcend his history and reflect not only his humanity, but the reflection of God that is at the core of all humanity.   The heavy silence was not a time of nothingness but a time of real change, change that ultimately allows us to move on from the preoccupations of this world – the rivalries and jealousies, the acquisitiveness and the defence of the self – and move into the book of Exodus, into the beginning of the redemption.

Tradition tells us that Joseph was a Tzaddik.  A Tzaddik not because God had made him one, not because he was brought up to be one, not even because his life inevitably trained him to be one.  Joseph was surely a Tzaddik because in the face of the pain of his conception and the difficulties of his upbringing, in the face of his own weaknesses and drives,  he still managed to overcome his experiences and actually transform himself, actually allow his humanity to develop, to become something he didn’t have to be, without any supernatural help.  Everyone else changed as a result of their encounters with God. Joseph changed despite not encountering God in any observable way.  As a role model, this is the Joseph we should be reflecting – not the assimilated but the searching Jew, who found God in the unlikeliest places because God is there to be found.

 

From Bar Hedya to Charlie Hebdo: the power to shape the world is in our hands

In the Talmud in tractate Berachot (56a) we learn of Bar Hedya, the interpreter of dreams, who would give a favourable interpretation to the one who paid him, and an unfavourable interpretation to the one who did not pay. The third century amoraim Abaye and Rava went to see him, each claiming to have had the same dream, and Abaye paid him whereas Rava did not. The Talmud records a collection of his interpretations to each man, where Abaye is told of all the wonderful things that his dreams portend, and Raba is told only terrible outcomes. Subsequently Rava revisited him with new dreams, and still was given terrible news of his future, some of which the Talmud records as happening. Then finally Rava went to him and gave him money for the interpretation and suddenly his future looked rosy – he would be miraculously saved from danger, he would take over Abaye’s role as teacher par excellence (which again we know happened). One day Bar Hedya was travelling with Rava in a boat, when he said to himself “why should I accompany a man whose dream I have interpreted to mean he will be miraculously saved from danger [and therefore I will drown] and so he quickly got off the boat, letting his book fall as he did so. Rava found the book and looked into it to find the words “All dreams follow the mouth”. Rava exclaimed “you wretch – it all depended on you, and you gave me all this pain”….

The narrative reads with almost comedic intent, although real tragedy ensues. It seems to be an empirical experiment by two scholars as the power of dreams and their interpretation – are they really prophetic foretellers of the future or do they have no power over us in the waking world? And is the dream itself the power or the interpretation and understanding of the dream?

I was reminded of this passage as I read article after blog post, social media comment after theological discourse in the last days, trying to make sense of the terrible murders at Charlie Hebdo.

I believe in religion. I believe in the power of religion to do good in the world. I believe it is one of our most important tools to visualise and to create a better world. I understand religion to be designed to take some of the most frightening and frightful options away from human choices. When Moses quotes God as saying “Li nakam ve’shilem” (Vengeance is Mine, and recompense) (Deut 32:35) this is not describing a hateful angry and punitive God, but is taking away the obligation of vengeance against one’s tormentor from the person and ascribing it to God. Religion transforms our mortal powerlessness and allows us to let go of our frustrations with what we cannot change, in order to address ourselves to our lives with the power and abilities we have. We leave to God the things we cannot face or cannot deal with, and we move on.

All religions do this essential thing, albeit in differing ways. They function to give us the head and heart space in order that we are able to forward the aspirations expressed in every religion – the treating of all others with respect, the working for a better world, for peaceful living together, for growing our own souls….

Every religion has its foundational myths and texts, and every foundational text shares and restates the basic premise that every human being is of absolute value, and how we get on with each other is of absolute importance, and that there is a bigger arena than we can see or even imagine from within our own contexts.

Every religion has within its foundational texts and myths texts of horror which seem to sacralise violence against individuals or nations; every religion also has within its foundational texts and myths texts of hope and assurance, which mandate loving care of the other, and the search for peaceful living together, valuing each other’s humanity.

And so to the blogs and articles and social media comments which everywhere protest that murderous things done in the name of religion or people of faith or in defence of God are distortions of that true religion, the result of false teaching, and the reassuring quotations from Hebrew Bible or Quran or New Testament are applied to the arguments. Because, as Bar Hedya knew, everything is open to interpretation, and it is the interpretation which gives the power to the text/dream rather than the text/dream simply standing on its own. Every religion can defend itself with its texts of hope and love for the other, can gloss its texts of terror as being of a particular period or not meaning what it seems to mean. The Jewish teaching of every word or verse having a ‘pardes’ of possible interpretations and exegisis: (the pshat- plain meaning of the word/s; the remez – allusion or hints of deeper symbolic meaning; the drash – enquiring or comparative meanings; and the sod – the esoteric and mystical meaning) surfaces the importance of understanding a text in as rich and complex a way as we can, for this is what will ultimately create the meaning of that text for us within our own contexts.

So when I read of the apologetics for whatever a particular religion has done now/ someone has done in the name of a particular religion, part of me is so grateful for these urtexts of shared values and aspirations towards love and justice for all, and part of me is furious and wants to scream out to the writers – well that may be in your sacred book, but why are people not interpreting this original intention of religion for the sake of justice and humanity and valuing others above all? Why are people instead interpreting their religious texts for the purpose of murder and hatred and violence and repression of otherness? Why are people oppressing others or murdering them in the name of their God?

We cannot rely on the texts of hope in our sacred literature and ignore what Bar Hedya knew – that how we choose to interpret the basic text matters even more than the text itself because it gives us the power to ignore what our religion is for and to weaponise our traditions to use against others. Everything has to be in the interpretation, and the reality is that the interpretation we allow to prevail at any given time isn’t the most “true”, it is the one most amenable to the power of the time. We choose to allow interpretations that let us hate the other, or ignore their plight, or suppress or even oppress them. We choose to allow the interpretations that mean that people murder others in the name of their religion. We choose the interpretations that give us a sense of power over others. Our urtexts may be screaming out that these interpretations are not what were intended, but until we hear the voices of modern scholars of every religion both admitting to our own texts of terror and neutralising them, until we hear the voices of religious people refusing to accept teachings of hatred of the other, we will be stuck with the teachers of hatred, the radicalisers of those who feel powerless, the focusers of chaotic feelings of aimlessness and anomie where no good future can be envisaged let alone aspired to.

It is time to admit that the interpretation of our texts have a real power, and to give those who interpret them the necessary tools to understand that it is in their hands to bring forth the future into existence.

One Person’s Dream May Be Another Person’s Nightmare: Sidra Vayeshev and the dream narratives of Joseph

Sidra Vayeshev is begins and ends with a story about dreams and how Joseph is affected by them.  

In the book of Genesis we hear about a number of different dreams and dreamers, and each time dreaming is hugely important. The first dreamer is  Abimelech King of Gerar (Gen 20:3-7) who, having taken Sarah into his harem on the belief that she is Abraham’s sister, is warned by God in a dream to return Abraham’s wife to him. The next dreamer is Jacob, who dreams twice – the first time when leaving the land as a young boy afraid for his future when his dream of a ladder with angels ascending and descending comforts him with the presence of God. The second dream occurs while he is still with Laban but is aware that the tide of hospitality is turning and he must return to the land. (Gen 31:10-13). After this God appears to Laban in a dream (31:24) in order to warn him not to attack Jacob.

Within the Joseph narratives, there are three couplets of dreams. Joseph as a young boy dreaming of both the sheaves of corn and of the stars all bowing down to him; the dreams of the butler and the baker, servants of Pharaoh, and finally the two dreams of Pharaoh himself. Each of these dreams contains a message about the future, and seems to be dependent on interpretation in a way that the earlier dreams do not.

Joseph is confident about his ability to explain dreams – a confidence is quickly validated, as each of his explanations is played out in Pharaoh’s court. The butler is restored to his position and the baker is hanged. (40:21-22)

Where did Joseph get this confidence; indeed, where did he get the ability to interpret dreams? The earlier dream sequence in the beginning of our Parasha has him not as dream interpreter but as the dreamer. His brothers and father are the ones who make inferences from his dreams – he just reports them. When did he learn how to explain dreams?

And why does the butler “finally” remember Joseph and report his successful dream interpretation abilities to Pharaoh. This ability will lead not only to Joseph’s rise to greatness but ultimately to our terrible oppression and slavery in Egypt. (See BT Shabbat 10b)

Dreams can bring about powerful events. Once we can imagine, we can aspire. Or to put it another way in the words of Herzl in Altneuland “If you will it, it will be no dream”

If we dream, then we can make things happen. Through our dreams, we imagine a world we want to live in. We can imagine a better tomorrow that we can help make happen. Dreams offer dress rehearsals for the reality yet to be.

Yet precisely because dreams provide a chance to see ourselves as significant in changing our reality, they can be dangerous. Following our dream might also skew our sight of others. and perspective about what impact we may have. If we aspire too narrowly, letting our ambition be the driver in our leves so that we blot out the reality of others whose world we share, our dreams can become a deadly weapon. Our ambition and self-centredness following our own dreams can mean that we can hurt and demean others, and this is what Joseph did to his older brothers.

Joseph’s dreams may well have been prophecy. They may well also have embodied the sibling rivalry between him and his older brothers. He was, after all, ben zekunim, the child of his father’s old age, and therefore a favoured child. He was certainly the child of the favoured wife. His dreams and the way he presented them to his brothers were offensive to them, and quite rightly so.  The brothers were offended not so much by the dream itself as by the apparent cause for this dream. They clearly thought that Joseph must be thinking about his takeover of the family so much that these thoughts have entered his dreams.  Jewish tradition knew early on that not all dreams are prophecy, but that they may be the expression of what we today would describe as subconscious desires and repressed urges.

So the brothers must have thought at first that the dream was an expression of Joseph’s ambition, and they rightly would have hated him for that. But why did they keep silent at the second dream?  Maybe they already knew the tradition that teaches that a single dream may be caused by internal thoughts and musing, but if that same dream occurs twice then it is truly God’s word. We find this approach explicitly stated by Joseph when he explains Pharaoh’s doubled dream: “The reason the dream was given to Pharaoh in two forms is that the matter has been firmly decided by God, and God will do it soon” (Gen. 41:32)

         We too have our dreams and our visions, and often we see them as being somehow stamped with the approval of the Almighty. But we should take the time to see our dreams from a different perspective, to look at how they look through the eyes of others. For what may appear to us as a deserved reward may seem to other parties involved as conquest, exploitation, or marginalization.

         We need to strive for a God’s eye view, in which how our dreams appear to everybody can be factored into the unfolding of the dream into a more welcoming reality. Because our dreams don’t have to pan out exactly for them to come true, and we certainly have a role to play in bringing them forth.

 

Mikketz

“I have dreamed a dream and there is none that can interpret it”

 How does Pharaoh know that his magicians are not giving him satisfactory answers to his dream, but that Joseph’s interpretation is the correct one?   What tells him to discard the professional responses in favour of the account from a young unknown with his  vision and clarity of purpose?  For Pharaoh recognises Joseph’s analysis as true, his connection with God as unparalleled, and his ability to translate the dreams into achievement invigorating.  Taken hastily from his prison, Joseph is elevated to ruler of Pharaoh’s household because he has the ability to translate insight into action.

Parashat Mikketz is always read on the Shabbat in Chanukah, the festival of rededication of the Temple when we remember the Maccabees who fought for the right to worship in their own way. And while it is called a festival of lights, it is more accurately a festival of rights, as we commemorate the struggle of a people to freely express their religious and cultural identity and openly be themselves in a world with different values and hatred of otherness. 

As we read Pharaoh’s words to Joseph – “Halom Halamti” – I have dreamed a dream – we are reminded of that other formulation – Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream”  that underpinned the American Civil Rights movement in the last century. The turning of a dream into a vision, by using it as a springboard to change the way the world works is a theme of both the festival and the parasha. In both cases the passionate outsider sees clearly what must be done, in both cases the status quo is forced to change.

Pharaoh must have known all along the meaning of his dream, to have rejected the interpretations of his ministers. Dreams are not especially helpful as insight, but only as a guide to action.  He needed the energy of vision to come along to help him transform the dream to reality. We too hug our dreams close, knowing what we should be advocating and enabling but all too often choosing passivity rather than activism.  So when will we begin to turn the dreams we dream into practical visions for the future?