Sunday, December 14, 2014

Dreaming Dreams, Seeing Visions (Portion Miketz)

What does it mean to dream?

As Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson notes, we use the word “dream” to connote two very different things (this is also true of the Hebrew term, chalom). 

Merriam-Webster’s first definition is: “a series of thoughts, images, or emotions occurring during sleep”.  This is the sort of dream that Pharaoh recounts to Joseph in this week’s portion, Miketz.  In the Joseph story—and often in literature—this sort of dream may prove prophetic.  At other times, however, our sleep-time dreams seem to be of little or no significance in the waking world.

But there is another definition of dream: “an aspiration, goal, or aim.”  This is the meaning expressed in Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech or Theodor Herzl’s proclamation, “If you will it, it is not a dream.”

The first sort of dream is mostly something that happens to us, conjured up unconsciously by our sleeping brains.  They may confer insight, but they do not require any action.  The second sort of dream, by contrast, provides a kind of roadmap through life—a vision of where we seek to move ourselves and our society.

Pharaoh has dreams.  But Joseph, as he grows up, from a spoiled youth to a compassionate sage, becomes more than one who has, or even interprets, dreams.  The mature Joseph is, in the more active and far-reaching sense, a dreamer.   It is his vision, in which we are all vessels through which the Divine works, that ultimately enables him to forgive his brothers and finally break the dysfunctional favoritism that has plagued every family in Genesis since Cain and Abel.

Proverbs teaches that when there is no vision, the people perish.  As we celebrate Chanukah this week, enjoy the light and consider: what is the state of your dreams and visions?  Are they calling you to do your part in repairing the world?

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Growth by Fire (Portion Vayeshev)

Sometimes, we are like lodgepole pines.

During most of that tree’s life, their cones are tightly sealed with layers of resin and woody tissue.  They do not open unless they are exposed to very high temperatures of the sort that only forest fires provide.  In other words, lodgepole pines only spawn new growth in the heat of crisis conditions.

Sometimes we, too, require adversity to grow.  At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Va-yeshev, we meet our forefather Joseph.  As a youth, he seems to have it all: striking good looks, his father Jacob’s favor, sartorial splendor in his many-colored coat, and the ability to prophesy through dreams and their interpretation.  Yet young Joseph’s life takes some very difficult turns as a result of his one nearly fatal flaw of narcissism.  At seventeen, Joseph lacks empathy or even awareness of others’ feelings.  He flaunts his status as favorite over his brothers, recounting his dreams of personal glory in a manner that can only serve to inflame their jealousy.  As a result, they sell Joseph into slavery in Egypt, then lie to their father Jacob, telling him that Joseph is dead.

Things go from bad to worse.  After he resists the advances of his master’s wife, Joseph winds up in prison, where he languishes, lost and forgotten.  The youth who seemed destined for greatness has hit rock bottom.  But it is in precisely this place of darkness and despair that Joseph becomes worthy of his birthright and his visions of leadership.  When he encounters two fellow prisoners (Pharaoh’s former baker and cupbearer), Joseph notices that they are distraught before either one utters a word.  With great compassion, he asks them: “Why do you appear downcast today?”  The vicissitudes of life have helped Joseph mature from a profoundly gifted but rather callous lad into a genuine mentsch.

So, too, in our own lives.  While we certainly do not seek out struggle, suffering, and loss, these things inevitably find us.  Our challenge is to transform our difficult times and events into pathways of growth and compassion.  Out of the heat of crisis, new seeds of hope and possibility can germinate.  Or, as the psalmist puts it, in beautifully poetic imagery: “The stone that the builder rejected can become the chief cornerstone.”

For a great song on the subject, give a listen to Joe Henry’s Sparrow, which opens with the line: It wasn’t peace I wanted/So it wasn’t peace I found. . .