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?