Monday, December 3, 2018

Miketz (I'm Listening Now)

In last week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev, dreams get 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 earlier downfall becomes 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 hear—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.

English singer Joe Cocker describes the journey from arrogant youthful dreams to maturity in his song, “I’m Listening Now” from his 2002 album Respect Yourself.  The opening stanza uncannily echoes Joseph’s teenage years as the singer reflects on his own days gone by:

There were times I was sure
Everything was gonna be alright
The sun would shine, the world would turn
No matter how I lived my life
Never needed anyone’s advice

Then, with the turn of a phrase, Cocker takes us, flash forward, to the present, where he is older and wiser—because he has recognized the importance of learning from others’ dreams:

Well, that was then
Today I’m thinking twice

The chorus repeats throughout the song:

I’m listening now
Trying to get it right
Trying to figure it out somehow

Joe Cocker reminds us that a good, joyful, fruitful life is rooted in relationship, which is only possible when we learn to look outside ourselves and truly listen.  The song ends with this affirmation:

Yes I’m listening now
Yes I’m listening now
Yes I’m listening now

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

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