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Saturday, December 19, 2009
We dream of the past, they dreamt of the future.
In this parsha, Pharaoh has two dreams that puzzle him, and his butler recommends an interpreter that he met in prison two years earlier, Joseph. Joseph appears, interprets the two dreams about upcoming seven years of good harvest years and then seven years of famine and Pharaoh, like everyone else before him, spots Joseph as someone who is deeply capable, appoints him ruler over all but Pharoah, with the power to organize things so that they’ll all have something to eat. After seven years, the famine hits and Joseph handles it well, with the exception of a rather disturbing episode during which he exploits the peasants’ hunger to steal their land but…we won’t talk about that now.
People come from all over to ask Joseph for food, including his family. The brothers don’t recognize Joseph and in this parsha, the dance between Joseph and his past begins, as he tests his brothers to see what manner of men they are, and, I think, examines his own heart and motivations. The story concludes in the next parsha with forgiveness stemming from Joseph’s belief that this was all set in motion by God so that Joseph could save his family and, we can read into it, to eventually get all the Hebrews to the crucible of slavery and the dessert and thus to Sinai so we can receive Torah. Yay.
In the Torah, when there’s a dream, this word appears:
Translated in this context, as Behold. Hinei! Behold! A dream!
If I’m sitting with you and say, hey I had an amazing dream last night you might, to my face, say, oh cool but inside you are more likely to say, please don’t tell me please don’t tell me, because a dream is never as fascinating to the listener as it is to the teller, alas. Which is too bad because a dream is so interesting, biologically, psychologically and spiritually. What is a dream? A neurologist may tell you it’s a series of random images thrown up during sleep that your brain needs to make sense of and so it turns it into a story. A therapist may tell you that the images your brain chooses are windows into past traumas and current anxieties. But to the ancient Hebrews, a dream is prophecy, literally every image is a coded message from God and really important, fully worth of a Hinei! Because God knows the future and has chosen to show it to you.
We dream of the past, they dreamt of the future
Now to the rabbis of the Talmud, a dream without interpretation is a wasted message from God, a letter unopened. Rebbi Hannina ben Yitchak saw a dream as un-ripened fruit, the unripened fruit of prophecy. Only by explaining the dream could it ripen into a fruit worth eating, a prediction of the future. And as it turns out, most of us are not qualified to interpret dreams accurately, nor should they because a dream, properly interpreted, will come true. Sfarno believed that the knowledge to intepret is a function of b’tselem elohim, of people being made in God’s image. We cannot look God’s truth in the face directly, but because we are made in God’s image, we can channel it through our dreams and see it there.
So in Torah and Talmud, if God wants the interpretation known so the dream isn’t wasted, God may choose someone like Joseph to interpret it correctly. The sages say only competent interpretation creates reality but, as someone who lives in a world of Fox News, Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh, I only wish this were so. Incompetent interpretation creates reality all the time. But I digress, back to Joseph.
I think we can look at the entire story of Joseph as a dream, properly interpreted.
Behold, Joseph dreamed.
And told his dreams to his brothers and father
But he did not interpret those dreams
And if it had ended there
Things might have turned out very differently.
But Jacob the aging Wrestler understood and interpreted
And gave him a striped coat
And so the dreams came true
The story commenced
And one day he saw his brothers again
He was a lord
And they bowed down to him
And he understood,
He had dreamed the story
And it had been explained
The cycle was complete
And no need to be bitter
And they embraced. And they wept. And they ate.
And what was it all for?
To save the family from starvation?
To get them to Egypt
so they could become slaves?
so they could escape?
So they could meet God at Sinai?
Or was it just for the story?
It’s a good story.
Rabbi Hannina says the unripened fruit of prophecy is a dream.
And Rebbi Avin says the unripened fruit of heavenly wisdom is Torah.
And I say the unripened fruit of truth is the story.
In English, the word dream speaks about what we do during REM sleep but it also is about what we aspire to for our future, the stories we tell ourselves, personal and communal prophecies. We dream of the past, they dreamt of the future but I suggest that we embrace the ancient sense of dreams and look to our future, and dream of what is to come.
And I wish for us all that we choose our stories and interpret them properly through our words and our actions so they will come true and change the world for the better, and may we all see whatever happens as part of a larger story so we can forgive and not be bitter and weep and embrace and eat, just like our illustrious and probably fictional ancestor, Joseph of Egypt.