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.

 

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.