Saturday, November 23, 2013

On Dreams, Part 2: "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities" (portion Miketz)

In last week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev, dreams got Joseph into deep trouble, as his eagerness to share his visions of lordship over his brothers provokes their wrath.  Fed up with Joseph’s pampered and arrogant dream-talk, the brothers sell him into Egyptian slavery.  It only gets worse from there: Joseph ends up in prison, languishing for years in the bowels of Pharaoh’s dungeon.  The youth with visions of glory now seems hopelessly sunk in the obscure darkness of the pit.

So what prompts Joseph’s ensuing rise to redemption in this week’s portion, Miketz?  Dreams!  The source of his almost-demise now proves to be his salvation.  Joseph correctly interprets the dreams of two of his cellmates and, eventually, those of Pharaoh himself.  Pharaoh rewards Joseph abundantly for his astute interpretation and advice, elevating him to second-in-command of all Egypt, where he is in charge of all food storage and distribution.  This extraordinary promotion sets the stage for Joseph’s eventual reunion with his brothers, in which his youthful dreams are, in fact, realized.

Looking at these events, one wonders: How can dreams be both the source of Joseph’s travails and the answer to them?  Rabbi Isaac Bernstein offers an important insight here.  He notes that as a brash youth, all that Joseph could here—and tell—were his own dreams.  This inevitably invites trouble.  But as he matures, Joseph learns to listen to, and respect, other people’s dreams. When he gains that hard-won wisdom, he triumphs.

We are all dreamers.  And surely there is no shame in dreaming large, in big youthful aspirations.  As Hillel teaches, if we are not for ourselves, who will be for us?  But when our dreams—and egos—leave no space for the dreams of our brothers and sisters, they can only pull us down.  Maturity comes with the recognition that our dreams are bound with—and tempered by—those of our family, our friends, and even our adversaries.  As the poet W.B. Yeats wrote: “In dreams begin responsibilities.”  If we are only for ourselves, what are we?

May we learn to listen to, and learn from, one another’s dreams.

Happy Thanksgiving, all.

And here's a great video on the promise of hope and dreams from The Boss:

Learning Gratitude (Idaho Statesman, November 23)

Gratitude comes relatively easily in good times.  Even though we must always guard against taking abundance for granted, it is natural to feel thankful when we are healthy, successful and surrounded by friends and family who, themselves, enjoy the fruits of good fortune.

It is much more daunting to be grateful when things are not going well.  When we and our loved ones suffer, we incline toward anger, depression, and bitterness.  And yet, in this season of Thanksgiving, many of us will face precisely this test: how to give thanks despite ongoing physical, material, emotional, and spiritual hardships.  This is the true trial of the measure of our gratitude.  How do we wrestle blessing out of darkness and despair?

The book of Genesis offers an unlikely but inspiring role model in the person of the fourth and final matriarch, Leah.  Jacob is tricked into marrying her and only does so in order to also marry her younger and prettier sister, his beloved Rachel.  Leah is unloved—Torah even describes her as “hated”—and unappreciated.  Jacob does not even make an effort to hide his feelings of disdain for her.

We see Leah’s loneliness and disappointment in the names that she gives to her first three children.  She calls the oldest Reuven, from the Hebrew word for love (ahavah) and declares: “Now my husband will love me.”  No such luck.  She names the second Shimon, from a Hebrew word meaning “to hear” (shama) and proclaims: “This is because God heard that I was unloved and gave me this one, too.”  By the third boy’s arrival, Leah has given up on love and would settle for even an amicable connection to Jacob, as she prays: “This time my husband will become ‘attached’ (from the same root as the child’s name, Levi) to me, for I have borne him three sons.”  Not surprisingly, this, too, goes nowhere.

But then the pattern shifts radically.  Leah names her fourth child Judah, which comes from the Hebrew root meaning “to give thanks” and exults: “This time I will offer praise to God!”

What has happened here?  Rabbi Shai Held notes: “Leah has found the courage to accept that her life is not going to turn out as she had hoped.  She has spent years aching for the love of her husband.   But now she sees that this constant yearning will only generate more fantasy and illusion and the steadily mounting pain of a dream dashed time and time again.  Something inside of her shifts, and rather than sinking in the sorrow of what she does not have, she is able to embrace the beauty and fullness of what she does. . . Leah is disappointed, and as we have seen, she has every right to be.  But now she is also grateful—despite the intensity of her pain, she, too, has her blessings.  With the birth of Judah, Leah has discovered the awesome capacity to feel grateful even amidst her sorrows.”

Leah’s challenge remains for us, her descendants—and her example inspires us to rise to meet that challenge, as she so remarkably did.  May this Thanksgiving weekend call us all to a renewed sense of gratitude, in good times and, especially, in trying ones, too.

For a terrific poem on the subject, by WS Merwin, see:

Thursday, November 14, 2013

On Dreams, Part 1: Bread and Dreaming (portion Vayeshev)

 At first glance, our tradition’s most curious blessing is HaMotzi, which we say before consuming a meal with bread.  Consider the literal translation of the Hebrew: “We praise You, Sovereign of the Cosmos, who brings forth bread from the earth.”  Odd, for even a young child knows that God does not “bring forth bread from the earth.”  God, as it were, makes wheat.  It is up to us to grind that wheat into flour and then bake it into bread.

But the Rabbis teach that this divine/human partnership is the whole point of the blessing.  Bread is the paradigmatic Jewish food, the one that turns a nosh into a meal, because it points to the true nature of creation: God provides the raw materials, but what we do with them, for good or ill, is up to us.

With this in mind, let us turn to this week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev, and an insight from the Hasidic commentator Mei HaShiloach.  His focus is on dreams, which lie at the heart of the parasha, which features Joseph as both a dreamer and a dream interpreter.  Mei HaShiloach teaches: “All things of the world are like a dream that needs interpretation.  ‘Bread’ (lechem) is a word made of the same Hebrew letters as ‘dream’ (chalom).  This is because both bread and dreams must be ‘interpreted’ as must all things from which we derive benefit.”

What is Mei HaShiloach saying?  That for Joseph—and for us—dreams, like wheat, constitute a sort of starting point, but what matters more than the “ingredients” with which we begin is what we make with those ingredients.

By way of example, our tradition offers a little-known ceremony called hatavat chalom in which a person can transform a troubling and seemingly nightmarish dream into a good one by convening three witnesses and declaring in front of them: “Master of the Universe: I have dreamed a dream and do not know what it is. . . May it be your will that all my dreams shall be for good.  If they are good dreams, strengthen and reinforce them.  But if they require healing, heal them.  As you have transformed the curse of Balaam from a curse to a blessing, so shall you transform all of my dreams to good. . .”   The witnesses then proclaim the dream a good one, thereby nullifying all of its ill effects.

What a beautiful model this offers us all, and not just in our dreams!  Life is less about what happens to us than how we consciously choose to respond to our fate.  May we find the strength and courage to interpret our dreams—and the events and choices of our waking life, enjoyable and difficult alike—for blessing.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Peace, Love, and Understanding (portion Vayishlach)

“Make Peace, Not Love.”
            -Amos Oz

In Jewish tradition, peace and love are not the same, and the former is not necessarily dependent upon the latter.  Christianity has inextricably linked the two since Jesus’ injunction to “love your enemies” but in Judaism, this linkage is seen as unrealistic at best and, at worst, counterproductive, for it sets the bar for peace so high as to make it essentially unattainable.  Thus Israeli writer and peace activist Amos Oz’s twist on the 1960s hippy slogan: “Make Peace, Not Love.”  Or, for a slanted answer to Elvis Costello’s sly musical question, “What’s so funny ‘bout peace, love and understanding?” our tradition might say: “We’ll happily settle for two out of three.” (Alas, Mr. Costello himself won't settle for anything other than anti-Israel bias; a few years ago, he cancelled two scheduled shows in Tel Aviv, bowing to pressure from the boycott crowd).

This pragmatic worldview lies at the heart of our weekly Torah portion, Vayishlach.  As the portion begins, estranged brothers Jacob and Esau are reunited for the first time since their bitterly antagonistic parting twenty years earlier.  Upon seeing one another, they weep and embrace—and then, in short order, go off again on their separate ways.  Do they reconcile?  Yes.  Do they live together lovingly, happily ever after?  No.  Jacob and Esau reach a kind of hard-earned, watchful peace based on shared history, common interests, and wary respect.  And this—rather than heartfelt and abiding love—proves to be good enough.  The two brothers will come together again to bury their father Isaac.  Then, for the rest of their lives, they will co-exist peacefully with a healthy distance between them.

I believe that this episode offers a still-vital model for us as we wrestle with the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  The na├»ve dream of a Jewish-Arab peace settlement based on love and admiration is, by all accounts, dead in the water.  The time has come to bury that romantic but ultimately unhelpful dream, just as Jacob and Esau buried their father—so that we can move on to the arduous and unsentimental work of laying the foundation for a realistic end to the conflict based on shared interests rather than wildly unrealistic idealism.  I will leave you with the words of Israeli journalist Ari Shavit, from a piece he published in the New York Times last spring.  To read the entire article, see:

The New Peace will be very different from the Old Peace. There will not be grandiose peace ceremonies in Camp David or at the White House, no Nobel Prizes to be handed out. The New Peace does not mean lofty declarations and presumptuous vows, but a pragmatic, gradual process whereby the New Arabs and the New Israelis will acknowledge their mutual needs and interests. It will be a quiet, almost invisible, process that will allow Turks, Egyptians, Saudis, Jordanians, Syrians, Lebanese, Palestinians and Israelis to reach common understandings. The New Peace will be based on the humble, pragmatic assumption that all the participants must respect, and not provoke, one another, so that conflict does not disrupt the constructive social reforms that all seek to promote.
Israel. . . needs a new strategic concept toward the Palestinians. The Arab world needs new organizing principles for its fledgling states. And America needs a new Middle East vision — one aimed not at grand and unattainable all-encompassing solutions but at incremental steps to temper the flames of extremism, tribalism and hate.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Stairway to Heaven (Portion Vayetze)

In my high school days, every dance finished with “Stairway to Heaven. ”  Jimmy Page’s unmistakable opening acoustic guitar riff was, therefore, the clarion call to find a partner for the last eight minutes of the evening.  What ensued was inevitably awkward, for this classic rock song is, in fact, truly terrible for dancing (for more details here, see:  
You’d sway earnestly to the recorder for the first six minutes, then stumble about with ever-more frenetic cluelessness as the pace and volume quickened, with Robert Plant exploding into “And as we wind on down the road....”  Ah, high school.

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayetze, Jacob dreams of a very different stairway to heaven, with angels going up and down upon it.  For the patriarch, this is more a beginning than an end.  This vision comes to him on the first night of his flight from his home, escaping his enraged brother Esau, who he cheated out of their father’s blessing.  Upon waking, Jacob proclaims, “Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it”—and then he asks God to protect him on the long and arduous journey that lies ahead.

But why does God appear to him on a stairway?  Perhaps this comes to teach him—and us—something about the nature of spiritual growth.  Rabbi Harold Kushner notes: “We ascend toward God one step at a time, making one small change in our lives and stabilizing it before we take another step.  Sometimes we slip and miss a step, falling back, but we recover and keep climbing.  Most people do not leap toward God in one great burst of enthusiasm.”

Indeed.  Sustained forward progress of any sort in this life comes slowly, in fits and starts.  After his dream, Jacob experiences both remarkable triumphs and deep failures.  Twenty years will pass before he reconciles with Esau.  In the meantime, he labors to win both Leah and Rachel after their father Laban deceives him (yes, he has it coming), then he wrestles with an angel—and his own conscience.  Sometimes, as in this week’s portion, he will feel God’s presence intensely.  At other times, he experiences the ache of divine absence.  Jacob will eventually become Israel, the father and namesake of our people.  But his path to that place is neither easy nor straightforward.  And as we wind on down the road. . .

So it is for us.  Like Jacob, we experience moments of extraordinary beauty, and holiness.  And then we get back to the hard work of ordinary living, day to day, hoping and praying that the power of those times of grace, now past, will sustain us until those that yet lie ahead.  On the sometimes very long dry stretches in between, the music isn’t always danceable.  The trick is to keep dancing anyway.

Now this kid gets it!