Thursday, December 30, 2010

CONVINCING OURSELVES: PARASHAT VA-AYRA 5771/2010

                 WESTWOOD VILLAGE SYNAGOGUE
Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi
RABBI ABNER WEISS’S WEEKLY TORAH TEACHING


PARASHAT VA-AYRA:  2010/5771


CONVINCING OURSELVES


The background of the Torah teaching of this week is the run-up to Moses’ announcing the first plague to Pharaoh. Moses was not comfortable with his mission. His initial encounter with Pharaoh had been profoundly disappointing. The King had not only been dismissive of him, but had also retaliated by increasing the burdens of his Hebrew slaves. Their bitterness was not at all surprising: “And they met Moses and Aaron, who stood in the way as they came forth from Pharaoh; and they said unto them: you have made us odiously foul-smelling in the eyes of Pharaoh, and in the eyes of his servants, to put a sword in their hand to slay us.” (Ex. 5:22-23). Moses had responded by directing his frustration at God: “And Moses returned to the Lord and said: ‘Lord, why have You dealt ill with this people? Why is it that You sent me? For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name,, he has dealt ill with His people; neither have You delivered Your people at all.’” (Ex. 5:22-23). But God persisted: “And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying: ‘Go in and speak unto Pharaoh, King of Egypt, that he let the children of Israel go out of his land.’” (Ex. 6:11-12). Moses had responded famously: “Behold, the children of Israel have not listened to me; how then shall Pharaoh hear me, who am of uncircumcised lips?!” (Ex. 6:12). Having confidently assured Moses of the imminent salvation of the Jewish people, God now prepares him for the encounter:

And the Lord spoke unto Moses and Aaron, saying: When Pharaoh shall speak unto you, saying, ‘Show a Ex. for you [lakhem]’; then you shall say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and cat it down before Pharaoh, that it become a serpent. ‘” (Ex. 6:12).

God’s instructions to Moses and Aaron are puzzling. For one thing, if the transforming staff was meant to convince Pharaoh of something, why does our text read: ‘Show a wondrous sign for you [lakhem]’? It should have read for him [lo]!  For another, how was a trivial magic trick supposed to convince Pharaoh? Indeed, the royal magicians could easily do the same trick: “And Aaron cast down his staff before Pharaoh and before his servants, and it became a serpent. Then Pharaoh also called for the wise men and the sorcerers, and they also, the magicians of Egypt, did in like manner with their secret arts. For they cast every man his staff and they became serpents.” (Ex. 7:11-12).


These difficulties disappear when we understand God’s real message. It was not Pharaoh who could be convinced by the staff, but the Hebrew slaves. It would require no fewer than ten terrible plagues and pressure from his own followers  to ultimately persuade the Egyptian King that God indeed could and would redeem Pharaoh’s slaves--not a transforming staff.  At this stage of the redemptive process, it was clearly Moses, Aaron and the Jews who needed convincing.

Moses and Aaron had experienced frustration and disappointment through the initial failure of their mission. They therefore needed to be convinced that the old way in which    representatives of the slaves had dealt with Pharaoh had outlived its utility. Begging for relief was no longer an option.

Because people adjust to even the most terrible conditions, the dehumanized Hebrew masses had learned how best to cope with the Egyptian bondage, and even distorted their perceptions of the dreadful experience: “And the children of Israel said unto them:’ would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt when we sat by the fleshpots, and we did eat bread to the full, for you have brought us into the wilderness to kill the whole assembly with hunger.” (Ex. 16:3). Clearly, they needed to be convinced that their coping mechanisms of the past were not their best option for surviving in the future. Hence God declared: “: When Pharaoh shall speak unto you, saying, ‘Show a wondrous sign for you [lakhem]’; then you shall say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and cast it down before Pharaoh, that it become a serpent. ‘” (Ex. 6:12).

But how was a transforming staff to convince them? What did a staff’s becoming a serpent symbolize for them? Rabbi Bentziyon Zaks explains the meaning of the divine lesson with penetrating insight: one relies on one’s staff for stability, to prevent one from falling, and for self-defense. But one should not believe that what has worked to keep one safe in the past will do the same in the future. What gave one comfort and support in the past can, without warning, transform and destroy in the future. One’s staff can become a poisonous snake.

The truth of this bitter lesson has been repeated many times in human history. It is a truism that nations fight today’s wars with yesterday’s tactics. The parenting strategies of previous generations are not necessarily effective with contemporary children—and yet, leaders often fail to adapt, until their old staffs have done grievous harm to those who relied on their leadership, and old pedagogies have hurt new generations. How many children were turned off Torah by the punishing approaches of teachers who could not communicate in English, and who were stuck in behavior patterns that had been comfortable for them in the old country. However, you can no more effectively fight today’s battles in coats of armor  than  win the hearts of children with a “spare the rod and spoil the child” philosophy.

Jewish history is punctuated with disastrous instances of staffs suddenly becoming poisonous serpents. The economic power of medieval Jewry was its staff. So comfortable were communities with the security gained by using that power, that they could not even imagine the possibility, that their success would provoke hatred and lead to expulsion. Could a community, for example, which for 700 years had provided various Spanish regimes with foreign and finance Ministers, diplomats, funding for their wars and imperial expansion, and scientific and cultural innovation, foresee inquisition and exile in 1492?

The Weimar Republic was deeply indebted to Jews for art, science and finance. German Jewry had leaned on its staff of acculturation and assimilation, multitudes turning their backs on their Jewish identities as their strategy for success. Sigmund Freud could deny his knowledge of Hebrew and be scornful of the faith of his ancestors, and many Jewish  artists and intellectuals could “accept” Christianity as pathways to respectability.  Could an extraordinarily successful Jewish community, “more German than the Germans” ever imagine their fellow citizens as Hitler’s willing executioners?

What is true collectively is also true individually. We are all too often stuck in old habits. Survival strategies that we have learned as young children are carried into adulthood—with awful consequences. A brilliant young woman came for help with her commitment phobia. Whenever she had been engaged, she had managed to sabotage the relationship. As an infant, she had indelibly stained her father’s beautiful new suit. His stinging “You are a clumsy idiot. You will never be anything” played endlessly in her head. Her  coping strategy was to become perfect--at school and work. But the tape kept playing in her head. Notwithstanding her amazing accomplishments, she considered herself an inauthentic fraud, “ a clumsy idiot […who] will never be anything.” So she rejected her suitors before they discovered who she really was and rejected her. What had worked for the child was destroying the adult. Her staff had become her serpent.

An enormously successful tycoon sought counsel because could not sustain intimate relationships. His father had frequently beaten him for  his poor academic performance. The lesson he had learned from his father’s brutal enforcement of study regimens was to please nobody but himself. He would show his Dad that he did not need to excel in school to become wealthy.

But his staff had transformed into a serpent. Because he had convinced himself that he needed to please nobody but himself, he had become incapable of the mutuality of real love. He had success, but his success had prevented him from experiencing real happiness.

This was God’s lesson to Moses and the Hebrew slaves. It is also His lesson to us. Only when we are, ourselves, convinced that our staffs can become serpents, when we are ready to alter comfortable, but non-adaptive ways of being, can we face our future with real confidence.

Friday, December 24, 2010

THE TYRRANY OF HUMAN RIGHTS PARASHAT SHEMOT 5771/2010


                 WESTWOOD VILLAGE SYNAGOGUE
Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi
RABBI ABNER WEISS’S WEEKLY TORAH TEACHING


PARASHAT SHEMOT:  2010/5771


THE TYRANNY OF HUMAN RIGHTS


And the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives [ha- meyaldot ha-Ivriyot], one named Shifra and the other Puah; and he said:  ‘when you birth the Hebrew women, you shall look upon the birth stool.  If it be a son, you shall kill him; but if it be a daughter, then shall she live.’ But the midwives feared God, and did not do the king of Egypt’s bidding, but saved the male children alive. (Exodus 1:15-17).

The sages claim that Israel was redeemed from Egypt only on account of their righteous women.   Many slaves despaired of the future, deciding not to bring children into a world so cruel, avoiding intimate contact with their wives.  Their wives refused to enable this passive collective destruction, enticing their husbands into intimacy and declaring:  “the Egyptian king has decreed death to Hebrew male children.  Will you exceed his barbarous decree by withholding life from female   children as well?”  Tradition has it that the couple who were to become the parents of Moses had, themselves,  separated until they were persuaded by their daughter Miriam to resume their marital bond.  Were it not for the optimism and courage of the righteous Hebrew women, Jews would have been enabled Pharaoh’s solution of his Jewish problem. 

Our text is a striking example of Jewish women’s courageous sabotage of Pharaoh’s extermination policy.  Indeed, most Jewish commentators assume that the midwives were Hebrew women. Rashbam accepts the rabbinic tradition that Shifra and Puah were nicknames for Miriam and Yocheved.  He states explicitly that the meyaldot ha-Ivriyot were Hebrew women. But If this was obvious, why would he bother to say so? Clearly, it is not obvious.   The Hebrew phrase meyaldot ha-Ivriyot is ambiguous.  It can mean either “the Hebrew midwives” or “the midwives of the Hebrew women.” Accordingly, Rashbam felt constrained to reject the notion that the midwives were not Hebrew women.  

There is another valid Jewish interpretation of our text.  The Septuagint, Josephus and Abarbanel, among others, assert that the midwives were not Hebrew women.  Abarbanel, for example, writes:  “How could Pharaoh trust Hebrew women to kill their own newborn?  Clearly they were Egyptian women serving as midwives to the Hebrews-that is to say, assisting them with the birth process.  Behold those midwives, not withstanding the fact that they were Egyptian, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had ordered.  Indeed he rebuked them by saying: ‘why did you do this thing, and save the male children alive?’ “ 

According to this line of reasoning, the righteous women who facilitated the redemption of the Jewish people included gentiles.  Rabbi J. H.Hertz makes the startling observation that the phrase “[they] feared God” is most commonly used to describe the moral sensibilities of gentiles.  Long before this, Abraham had pretended that Sarah was his sister, “for I said: there is no fear of God in this place, and they shall kill me [to take] my wife” (Gen. 20:11). Joseph, pretending to be an Egyptian, says to his bothers:  “Do this and live.  I fear God,” [and shall therefore spare you from death for the crime of espionage]. (Gen. 42:18).  The despicable behavior of the Amalekite nation in attacking the weak and the weary Israelite stragglers is because “it did not fear God” (Deut. 25:18).

The notion that individuals would dare oppose the explicit policies of their own totalitarian regime is radical.  This act of civil disobedience by the Egyptian midwives is the first recorded instance of active resistance to “crimes against humanity”.   It is doubly significant in its historical context.  Until very recently, kings were thought to have the divine right to do whatever they pleased.  Their authority could not be questioned.  Disobedience would inevitably lead to execution.

 The innate moral compass of the midwives, based on their intuitive religious convictions, led them to declare that no governing authority can act unethically.   Immoral laws must be disobeyed.  In a sense, these anonymous, courageous Egyptian women were asserting that the universal human right to liberty and life transcended the rights of kings, and, by extension, all human forms of government. Racial, religious, political and cultural differences were irrelevant. Egyptians could and should protect the humanity and dignity of any beleaguered individual or group.

Centuries before the Nuremburg Trials in 1946 created the international law that paved the way to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, two God fearing Egyptian women had already done so. And to protect those rights, the United Nations created The Human Rights Commission. These righteous gentiles had done far more than participate in the redemption of Israel.

Tragically the pendulum has swung full circle.  The protector of citizens of member states has itself become the abusing tyrant.  Half of the 2010 Human Rights Commission membership is non democratic.  Although Resolution 60/251 of the General Assembly provides that countries should be elected based on their human rights records, 24 out of 47 current members (52%) fail to meet basic standards of democracy and human rights.  The Human Rights Commission has turned a blind eye to the world’s worst violations, granting impunity to all of the worst violators except Burma and North Korea.  It has taken no action against abuses by China, Cuba, Iran, Laos, Libya, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, or Zimbabwe-to name some of the world’s twenty greatest abusers.

   Not surprisingly, Israel has been condemned more than any other country.  Since its creation in 2006 The Human Rights Commission has devoted 27 of its 33 censures to one-sided resolutions against Israel.  Professor Christian Tomuschat was placed in charge of the special committee to put into effect the vile findings of the Goldstone Report, another activity of the so-called Human Rights Commission.  He was given this responsibility on the basis of his reputation for fairness and lack of bias.  Fortunately, the research of the Geneva based UN Watch revealed anything but absence of bias.  Inter alia, he penned an essay in 2007 comparing Israel’s actions during the Second Lebanon war to “The barbarism, which was the particular hallmark of WW II”. Tomuschat was Arafat’s legal advisor—hardly testimony to absence of bias. Harvard law professor, Alan Dershowitz said of this so-called unprejudiced individual:  “He has a long history of bigotry towards the Jewish state and of singling out Israel for a double standard”..  Faced with these revelations, Tomuschat was forced to resign.  His committee and the Human Relations Committee’s reputation was tarnished internationally. 

Nevertheless and notwithstanding, The UN Commission on Human Rights will likely continue to act as the UN’s primary anti-Israel forum, delegitimizing the Jewish state without ever taking note of the war crimes of Hamas, Hezbollah and their agents of terror. 

Two anonymous Egyptian women changed the moral landscape of humanity.  Sadly, it has changed again.



Thursday, December 16, 2010

WHO IS A JEW; ETHICAL PERSPECTIVES PARASHAT VAYECHI 5771/2010


                          WESTWOOD VILLAGE SYNAGOGUE
Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi
RABBI ABNER WEISS’S WEEKLY TORAH TEACHING


PARASHAT VA-YECHI:  2010/5771


WHO IS A JEW?





Judah, as for you, your brothers will praise you [yodukhah].  Your hand will be on the neck of your enemies, and the sons of your father will bow down to you (Gen 49:8).

 Most English translations of our text render the word yodukhah  “will praise you”.  Both the King James and Jewish Publication Society of America translations render it in this way. Rashbam agrees, but elaborates. He renders yodukhah  “they will ascribe to you the glory [hod] of majesty.”   He cites a cognate of yodukhah to support his explanation: “Nations will bestow glory upon you [yehodukhah]” (Psalm 45:18). Saadia Gaon suggests that yodukhah implies acknowledgement: “You will be lord [adon] unto your brothers, and they shall bow down to you, “ associating the word adon [lord] with a cognate of the verb yodukhah (odonukhah). Ibn Ezra has a similar take on our text, declaring:  “When [your brothers] see that ‘your hand is on the neck of your enemies, the sons of your father will bow down to you’”.

The common thread of these classical rabbinical commentaries on our text is the laudatory acknowledgement by his brothers that Judah is to be sovereign over them. The tribes will accept his authority simply because he subdues their enemies.  In a word: Power empowers. This is clearly the contextual meaning of Jacob’s blessing. 

Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel, a classical Aramaic rendering of the Torah, has a radically different understanding of the meaning of the word yodukhah:  “Judah, you took public responsibility  [odita} for your immoral encounter with Tamar, when you declared: ‘She is more righteous than I’ (Gen. 38:26).  For this reason, your brethren, the Jews, shall be called Yehudim, taking on your name as their identity.”   According to Targum Yonatan, Judah’s preeminence rests not on his power but on his humble integrity. His preparedness to accept ownership of his reprehensible behavior makes him the progenitor of the Jews.  Leadership consists, not in conquest, but in ethical living.  True majesty is a function of integrity and the courage to be publicly in the wrong rather than in the false, superficial trappings of royalty. This, according to Targum Yonatan, is what defines Jewishness.

Who is a Jew?  In recent years the definition of Jewishness has been the topic of bitter and painful debate. All segments of the Jewish people recognize conversion as a legitimate pathway to Judaism. In addition, the Reform movement defines Jewishness both by paternal and maternal descent.  As long as one has either a Jewish father or a Jewish mother, or is a convert to Judaism, one is regarded as a Jew.  The traditional biological aspect of Jewish identity is, in contrast, exclusively maternal.

 To be sure, the pathway into the Jewish community through conversion is, itself, the source of extremely painful disagreement. Not all processes of conversion are deemed equally valid.  The orthodox generally reject non-orthodox conversions, and, lately, even conversions supervised by those orthodox rabbis of whom they disapprove. 

Tragically, disagreements about the halakhic definition of Jewishness increasingly splinter the Jewish people. Marriages between people from different streams of Judaism are no longer always possible. The State of Israel, which is on the way to becoming home to the majority of Jews, rejects the non-orthodox conversions of people who wish to marry there. And even most orthodox rabbis who do conversions are held in open contempt by a small but very influential and politically powerful group of orthodox spiritual leaders. Needless to say, their contempt translates into painful identity crises for those whom the delegitimized rabbis have welcomed into the fold.

I am committed to the traditional halakhic pathway to conversion and to the traditional maternal biological component of Jewish identity. It has accounted for the unity of the Jewish people through the millennia. But I am deeply appalled and embarrassed by the ugly judgementalism of orthodox rabbis who so easily insult and disparage the authority of other rabbis.

Happily, Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel defines an additional aspect of Jewish identity about which there can be no possible disagreement:  the fundamental characteristic of Jewishness, according to Targum Yonatan’s exposition of our text, is the ethical behavior of those who wish to be known as Yehudim, the descendants of Judah [Yehudah]. Judah was blessed by his father Israel for his uncompromising self-awareness and integrity--even when it might be to his disadvantage, even when it might be embarrassing and shameful.

The Targum’s ethical definition of who is a Jew is completely in line with another famous Talmudic dictum:  “There are three characteristics of this people.  They are merciful, meek and perform acts of loving- kindness (Yevamot 79a).

 Who is a Jew?  These rabbinic definitions challenge those who disparage other Jews to consider whether they themselves are Jewish according to the ethical definitions we have shared.




Thursday, December 9, 2010

FROM EMERGENCY TO EMERGENCE: PARASHAT VA-YIGASH 5771/2010


The Joseph narrative is an exquisite novella.  It is no wonder that this literary gem has inspired novelists, screenwriters, and creators of musical theatre.

Aviva  Gottlieb Zornberg has masterfully demonstrated how, like all great literary works, the Joseph story is organized around several recurring motifs.  Among these are the dialectics of cognition and recognition, composure and discomposure, and dismembering and remembering. 

Recognition and Cognition

The Hebrew word haker [recognize] recurs in the story in its various grammatical forms.  When Jacob is presented with Joseph’s special coat, bloodied and torn, the Torah declares: “Va-yakirah [and he recognized it] and said: It is my son’s coat.  A wild animal has devoured him.  Joseph has certainly been dismembered.” (Genesis 37:34).  

Judah sleeps with his disguised daughter-in-law Tamar, thinking her a harlot, and leaves his signet ring, cord and staff as a pledge of payment.  When he returns to pay her he cannot find her, and nobody recalls that she had ever been there.  Unbeknownst to him, he had made Tamar pregnant. His initial cognitive assumption was that she had “committed adultery”, and was thus guilty of a capital offense.  When he accused her publicly, she declared:  “Haker na [recognize, if you please] to whom these signets, cords and staff belong. Va yaker [and he recognized].” Making a radical cognitive shift, Judah declared:  “She is more righteous than I.”  (Genesis 38:25-26).

 The same Hebrew key word is used three times in the initial encounter between Joseph and his brothers in Egypt: “Va-yakirem [and he recognized them] and made himself out to be a stranger to them…and Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him.”  (Genesis 42: 7-8)

Composure and Discomposure

A second overarching theme of the Joseph narrative is its dizzying oscillation between composure and discomposure, which so disorients the lead characters. The novella begins with the sentence: “And Jacob dwelt in the land of his fathers, sojourning, in the land of Canaan. “ (Genesis:  37:1)  Rashi, citing the Midrash, declares: “Jacob wished to dwell in tranquility, but the upheaval relating to Joseph suddenly overtook him.”  Jacob’s life had been extraordinarily difficult.  He had fled from his brother, Esau, fearing for his life.  His father-in-law, Laban, had tricked him into marrying a woman whom he did not love, and then exploited him for twenty years.   Having been unexpectedly forgiven by his brother, he had suffered the pain of his daughter Dina’s rape, and the humiliation of the barbarous revenge of his sons, Shimon and Levi. And finally, when he was at last living securely, his composure was to be ruptured by the crowning tragedy of his life, the assumed death of his beloved son Joseph, whose loss he could not stop mourning.

Joseph’s life is also a series of disorienting oscillations between composure and discomposure. His youth is a striking example of self-confident composure.  He is the favorite son, spoiled by his doting father, and dreaming extravagantly of his superior destiny.  But his tranquility is suddenly shattered when he is sold into slavery.  There, again, he experiences a measure of composure, as master of Potipher’s household, only to be accused of rape by his employers’ wife.   His prison experience is once more the inexorable shift from discomposure to the relative composure of his trusted role there. Real composure comes to him only when he achieves greatness in Pharaoh’s court.

There are other instances of the novella’s theme of dizzying shifts from composure to discomposure. Judah’s complacent composure is shattered by the revelation that he has fathered his own grandsons.  The composure of Joseph’s brothers is shattered by the absurd accusation of the Egyptian Viceroy that they have come to spy out the land, and that their brother has stolen his ceremonial goblet.

Dismembering and Remembering

The final theme to which I should like to draw attention is the story’s counterpoint of dismembering and remembering.  Joseph’s brothers had deliberately created the impression that he had been devoured and dismembered by a wild animal.  There is no reference to any feeling of guilt on their part for this cruel subterfuge, until, astonishingly, so many years later, confronted by the false allegation of espionage and theft, they remember Joseph, and the pain they has caused their father.  Almost absurdly,  dis-membering eventually brings re-membering, and family reintegration follows family fragmentation. 

From Emergency to Emergence

What is it that unifies the central motifs of the Joseph story?  I believe that it is the movement from disorienting emergency to spiritual emergence.   The emergency situations in the Joseph story result from inappropriate cognitions, and eventual spiritual emergence comes from the restructuring of initial erroneous cognitions.

  Joseph’s brothers had made the cognitive error of believing that the alleged dismemberment of their spoiled brother would bring them peace and tranquility.  Their disorienting experience in Joseph’s court radically altered this cognition.  Their own experience of distress awakened their consciousness of the distress they had caused Joseph: “ But we are indeed guilty concerning our brother in that we saw the distress of his soul when he pleaded with us and we would not hear; therefore this distress has come upon us.” (Genesis 42:21).

  Joseph’s erroneous cognition that his life’s emergencies were caused by his brothers eventually gave way to the emergence of a radically different re-cognition of reality. He finally realized that the dizzying, disorienting experiences of his life were preparations for a divinely ordained mission: “And Joseph said unto them:  Do not fear.  Am I in the place of God?  You meant evil against me, but God conceived it for good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, for me to sustain multitudes of people in life.” (Genesis 50:20).

Stanislav Grof, an eminent psychiatrist, confirms the universality of this central teaching of the Joseph story. In his seminal volume, Spiritual Emergency: When Personal Transformation Becomes a Crisis, the contributors provide many examples of the experience of crisis, of spiritual and psychological emergency, as a prelude to the emergence of spiritual and psychological wholeness.  One section of the book is, significantly, titled:  The Stormy Search for the Self.  These essays abound with many instances of personal journeys from darkness to light, discomposure to composure, dissolution to integration (dis-membering to more evolved re-membering) and erroneous cognition to healthier, adaptive and functional re-cognition.

None of us is blessed with a life of undisturbed tranquility.  Dreams are shattered, hopes are lost, and success often inexplicably ends in failure.  Many of us become embittered and depressed by the absurdly disorienting changes in our lives.  The Joseph story reminds us not to surrender to despair, and shows us how personal growth is often an outcome of personal crisis.  Spiritual emergence frequently follows spiritual emergency. This appears to be part of God’s cosmic design.



FROM EMERGENCY TO EMERGENCE: PARASHAT VA-YIGASH 5771/2010


WESTWOOD VILLAGE SYNAGOGUE


Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi


RABBI ABNER WEISS’S WEEKLY TORAH TEACHING
PARASHAT VA-YIGASH: 5771/2010  
FROM EMERGENCY TO EMERGENCE


The Joseph narrative is an exquisite novella.  It is no wonder that this literary gem has inspired novelists, screenwriters, and creators of musical theatre.

Aviva  Gottlieb Zornberg has masterfully demonstrated how, like all great literary works, the Joseph story is organized around several recurring motifs.  Among these are the dialectics of cognition and recognition, composure and discomposure, and dismembering and remembering. 

Recognition and Cognition

The Hebrew word haker [recognize] recurs in the story in its various grammatical forms.  When Jacob is presented with Joseph’s special coat, bloodied and torn, the Torah declares: “Va-yakirah [and he recognized it] and said: It is my son’s coat.  A wild animal has devoured him.  Joseph has certainly been dismembered.” (Genesis 37:34).  

Judah sleeps with his disguised daughter-in-law Tamar, thinking her a harlot, and leaves his signet ring, cord and staff as a pledge of payment.  When he returns to pay her he cannot find her, and nobody recalls that she had ever been there.  Unbeknownst to him, he had made Tamar pregnant. His initial cognitive assumption was that she had “committed adultery”, and was thus guilty of a capital offense.  When he accused her publicly, she declared:  “Haker na [recognize, if you please] to whom these signets, cords and staff belong. Va yaker [and he recognized].” Making a radical cognitive shift, Judah declared:  “She is more righteous than I.”  (Genesis 38:25-26).

 The same Hebrew key word is used three times in the initial encounter between Joseph and his brothers in Egypt: “Va-yakirem [and he recognized them] and made himself out to be a stranger to them…and Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him.”  (Genesis 42: 7-8)

Composure and Discomposure

A second overarching theme of the Joseph narrative is its dizzying oscillation between composure and discomposure, which so disorients the lead characters. The novella begins with the sentence: “And Jacob dwelt in the land of his fathers, sojourning, in the land of Canaan. “ (Genesis:  37:1)  Rashi, citing the Midrash, declares: “Jacob wished to dwell in tranquility, but the upheaval relating to Joseph suddenly overtook him.”  Jacob’s life had been extraordinarily difficult.  He had fled from his brother, Esau, fearing for his life.  His father-in-law, Laban, had tricked him into marrying a woman whom he did not love, and then exploited him for twenty years.   Having been unexpectedly forgiven by his brother, he had suffered the pain of his daughter Dina’s rape, and the humiliation of the barbarous revenge of his sons, Shimon and Levi. And finally, when he was at last living securely, his composure was to be ruptured by the crowning tragedy of his life, the assumed death of his beloved son Joseph, whose loss he could not stop mourning.

Joseph’s life is also a series of disorienting oscillations between composure and discomposure. His youth is a striking example of self-confident composure.  He is the favorite son, spoiled by his doting father, and dreaming extravagantly of his superior destiny.  But his tranquility is suddenly shattered when he is sold into slavery.  There, again, he experiences a measure of composure, as master of Potipher’s household, only to be accused of rape by his employers’ wife.   His prison experience is once more the inexorable shift from discomposure to the relative composure of his trusted role there. Real composure comes to him only when he achieves greatness in Pharaoh’s court.

There are other instances of the novella’s theme of dizzying shifts from composure to discomposure. Judah’s complacent composure is shattered by the revelation that he has fathered his own grandsons.  The composure of Joseph’s brothers is shattered by the absurd accusation of the Egyptian Viceroy that they have come to spy out the land, and that their brother has stolen his ceremonial goblet.

Dismembering and Remembering

The final theme to which I should like to draw attention is the story’s counterpoint of dismembering and remembering.  Joseph’s brothers had deliberately created the impression that he had been devoured and dismembered by a wild animal.  There is no reference to any feeling of guilt on their part for this cruel subterfuge, until, astonishingly, so many years later, confronted by the false allegation of espionage and theft, they remember Joseph, and the pain they has caused their father.  Almost absurdly,  dis-membering eventually brings re-membering, and family reintegration follows family fragmentation. 

From Emergency to Emergence

What is it that unifies the central motifs of the Joseph story?  I believe that it is the movement from disorienting emergency to spiritual emergence.   The emergency situations in the Joseph story result from inappropriate cognitions, and eventual spiritual emergence comes from the restructuring of initial erroneous cognitions.

  Joseph’s brothers had made the cognitive error of believing that the alleged dismemberment of their spoiled brother would bring them peace and tranquility.  Their disorienting experience in Joseph’s court radically altered this cognition.  Their own experience of distress awakened their consciousness of the distress they had caused Joseph: “ But we are indeed guilty concerning our brother in that we saw the distress of his soul when he pleaded with us and we would not hear; therefore this distress has come upon us.” (Genesis 42:21).

  Joseph’s erroneous cognition that his life’s emergencies were caused by his brothers eventually gave way to the emergence of a radically different re-cognition of reality. He finally realized that the dizzying, disorienting experiences of his life were preparations for a divinely ordained mission: “And Joseph said unto them:  Do not fear.  Am I in the place of God?  You meant evil against me, but God conceived it for good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, for me to sustain multitudes of people in life.” (Genesis 50:20).

Stanislav Grof, an eminent psychiatrist, confirms the universality of this central teaching of the Joseph story. In his seminal volume, Spiritual Emergency: When Personal Transformation Becomes a Crisis, the contributors provide many examples of the experience of crisis, of spiritual and psychological emergency, as a prelude to the emergence of spiritual and psychological wholeness.  One section of the book is, significantly, titled:  The Stormy Search for the Self.  These essays abound with many instances of personal journeys from darkness to light, discomposure to composure, dissolution to integration (dis-membering to more evolved re-membering) and erroneous cognition to healthier, adaptive and functional re-cognition.

None of us is blessed with a life of undisturbed tranquility.  Dreams are shattered, hopes are lost, and success often inexplicably ends in failure.  Many of us become embittered and depressed by the absurdly disorienting changes in our lives.  The Joseph story reminds us not to surrender to despair, and shows us how personal growth is often an outcome of personal crisis.  Spiritual emergence frequently follows spiritual emergency. This appears to be part of God’s cosmic design.



Thursday, December 2, 2010

THE REAL CHANUKAH MIRACLE: PARASHAT MIKETZ 5771/2010


WESTWOOD VILLAGE SYNAGOGUE


Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi


RABBI ABNER WEISS’S WEEKLY TORAH TEACHING

PARASHAT MIKETZ-SHABBAT CHANUKAH 5771/2010

THE REAL MIRACLE



The story of the Chanukah miracle is well known, and is based on the Talmud’s answer to the question: “What is Chanukah” (Shabbat 21b)?
 After the victorious campaign of the Maccabees and the routing of the Seleucid invaders, the work of cleansing and purifying the Holy Temple in Jerusalem commenced. The Hellenized Syrians had completely desecrated the Temple. All its holy contents had been defiled save for one small flask of oil for the eternal flame.  It contained sufficient fuel to keep he flame alive for one day, but miraculously sustained it for the full eight days it took for a fresh supply of untainted oil to arrive. We celebrate this miracle by adding a flame to our Chanukah menorah each evening of the festival until all eight are kindled on the last evening.

  The Prayer Book explains the miracle very differently: “In the time of Mattityahu, the son of Yochanan the Hasmonean High Priest and his sons, when the wicked Hellenic kingdom rose up against Your people Israel, to make them forget Your Torah and to alienate them from the statutes that You desired. Then in Your abundant mercies You stood up for them at the time of their distress.  You took up their cause, judged their claims, and exacted vengeance for them.  You delivered them strong into the hand of the weak, the many into the hand of the few, the impure into the hand of the pure, the wicked into the hand of the righteous and the deliberate transgressors into the hand to those who were engaged with Your Torah.  You made a great and hold name for Yourself in Your world, and accomplished great salvation and redemption for Your people Israel on that day, after which Your children came into the innermost Chamber of Your House, cleansed Your royal abode, purified Your Temple and kindled lights in the courts of Your sanctuary.  They established these eight days of Chanukah to render praise and acknowledgement of Your great Name”.

Astonishingly, this description, which is recited at least three times each day during the Chanukah period, makes no mention whatsoever of the tiny cruse of oil that burned for eight days.  Significantly, the liturgy elaborates on the miraculous outcome of the military struggle, in which the weak and outnumbered Jewish people vanquished the multitudes of their better-armed foes.

 Which, then, was the real Chanukah miracle—the single-day supply of oil that burned for eight days, or the unprecedented, astonishing military victory of the Maccabees?

 According to the great Rabbi Loewe of Prague, the Maharal, Chanukah is really the celebration of the miraculous victory. He argues that Hallel, the liturgical selection of psalms of praise and gratitude, never celebrates the fulfillment of any mitzvah. It certainly does not celebrate the mitzvah of the kindling of the Chanukah menorah, which could have been fulfilled even with impure oil had no pure oil been available.  Hallel always acknowledges the deliverance of the Jewish people from physical danger, or the culmination of the process of deliverance.  Why then, he asks, does the Talmud transmute the miraculous military victory into the miracle of the fuel that burned for eight days instead of one?

 His answer is profound.  The miraculous nature of great military victories is all too quickly rationalized in non-miraculous terms.  Surely the Maccabees were more motivated than the foreign invaders.  Surely they were more familiar with the terrain.  Surely their guerrilla tactics were more appropriate than the slow moving, regular Imperial battle formations. Surely Judah the Maccabee was a more gifted military tactician than his Syrian counterpart. For all these reasons, suggests the Maharal the real Chanukah miracle would soon have been forgotten, whereas the incredible story of the cruse of oil would serve as a permanent reminder of the role of the Divine Providence in the Chanukah miracle.

Our own experience has re-enforced the Maharal’s wise insight.  Most of us remember the events that preceded and followed the Six-Day War in 1967.  Jewish angst was universal.  The Suez Canal was closed.   Egyptian and Syrian forces were on the move.  Israel pleaded with Jordon not to interfere, not once, but over and over again.  The Jewish leaders were deeply concerned with having to deal with a Jordanian front as well.  Who could have imagined that King Hussein’s refusal to hold fire would again place a reunited Jerusalem and the holiest Jewish sites in Jewish hands, and that Judah and Samaria would once again be Jewish.  The most hardened secular Israelis melted at the sounding of the shofar of the liberated Kotel [Western Wall].  The spontaneous return of so many Jewish agnostics to the religious fold was a striking reflection of the perception that the victory was miraculous.  And yet, after a few short years, the miracle was rationalized away-- just as the Chanukah miracle had been more than two thousand years before.  Indeed, many Israelis actually came to believe that the victory was pyrrhic, and were ready to easily surrender what God had given them.  As Abba Eban once famously noted:  Never before in the annals of warfare had the victors sued for peace, and the vanquished made itself ready for still more war.

The true profundity of the Maharal’s understanding of the Chanukah miracle is its application to the nature of miracles in general.  For whatever reason, people are unable to discern the miraculous dimension of even the most normal events.  Not so the Jewish tradition.  Three times each day, we thank God “for Your miracles that we experience each and every day, evening, morning, “ 

For the spiritually attuned Jew, every breath we take is a miracle.  Any serious asthmatic will attest tot this. Every normally functioning body is a miracle.

The very beautiful blessing that we recite after visiting the bathroom is a striking illustration of this outlook: “Blessed are You, Lord, God of the universe, for having fashioned the human in wisdom, and for having created in them orifices and closed vessel. Should any of those be blocked, or any of these burst open, we could not possibly survive. Blessed are You, Lord, Healer of all flesh, Who acts miraculously”.

The real lesson of Chanukah is that the most ordinary is, in fact, extraordinary.  It is not fortuitous that the Joseph story is always read during Chanukah.  On its face, it is the story of a gifted human being, whom the Torah designates as a “successful man” and who, by dint of his talent, insights, wisdom, and ingenuity emerges from the depths, to become the second most powerful individual in the greatest empire in the world.  But we know differently.  The whole point of the Joseph story is a demonstration that Divine Providence guides the mundane affairs of humankind.  Joseph himself acknowledges this reality when he reassures his brothers that their callous betrayal was an instance of the inscrutable will of God. 

Joseph knew that the ordinary is extraordinary.  The Maharal of Prague urges us to be conscious of the miraculous nature of every breath we take, and of every victory we win.

THE REAL MIRACLE PARASHAT MIKETZ-SHABBAT CHANUKAH 5771/2010 2010 THE REAL MIRACLE The story of the Chanukah miracle is well known, and is based on the Talmud’s answer to the question: “What is Chanukah” (Shabbat 21b)? After the victorious campaign of the Maccabees and the routing of the Seleucid invaders, the work of cleansing and purifying the Holy Temple in Jerusalem commenced. The Hellenized Syrians had completely desecrated the Temple. All its holy contents had been defiled save for one small flask of oil for the eternal flame. It contained sufficient fuel to keep he flame alive for one day, but miraculously sustained it for the full eight days it took for a fresh supply of untainted oil to arrive. We celebrate this miracle by adding a flame to our Chanukah menorah each evening of the festival until all eight are kindled on the last evening. The Prayer Book explains the miracle very differently: “In the time of Mattityahu, the son of Yochanan the Hasmonean High Priest and his sons, when the wicked Hellenic kingdom rose up against Your people Israel, to make them forget Your Torah and to alienate them from the statutes that You desired. Then in Your abundant mercies You stood up for them at the time of their distress. You took up their cause, judged their claims, and exacted vengeance for them. You delivered them strong into the hand of the weak, the many into the hand of the few, the impure into the hand of the pure, the wicked into the hand of the righteous and the deliberate transgressors into the hand to those who were engaged with Your Torah. You made a great and hold name for Yourself in Your world, and accomplished great salvation and redemption for Your people Israel on that day, after which Your children came into the innermost Chamber of Your House, cleansed Your royal abode, purified Your Temple and kindled lights in the courts of Your sanctuary. They established these eight days of Chanukah to render praise and acknowledgement of Your great Name”. Astonishingly, this description, which is recited at least three times each day during the Chanukah period, makes no mention whatsoever of the tiny cruse of oil that burned for eight days. Significantly, the liturgy elaborates on the miraculous outcome of the military struggle, in which the weak and outnumbered Jewish people vanquished the multitudes of their better-armed foes. Which, then, was the real Chanukah miracle—the single-day supply of oil that burned for eight days, or the unprecedented, astonishing military victory of the Maccabees? According to the great Rabbi Loewe of Prague, the Maharal, Chanukah is really the celebration of the miraculous victory. He argues that Hallel, the liturgical selection of psalms of praise and gratitude, never celebrates the fulfillment of any mitzvah. It certainly does not celebrate the mitzvah of the kindling of the Chanukah menorah, which could have been fulfilled even with impure oil had no pure oil been available. Hallel always acknowledges the deliverance of the Jewish people from physical danger, or the culmination of the process of deliverance. Why then, he asks, does the Talmud transmute the miraculous military victory into the miracle of the fuel that burned for eight days instead of one? His answer is profound. The miraculous nature of great military victories is all too quickly rationalized in non-miraculous terms. Surely the Maccabees were more motivated than the foreign invaders. Surely they were more familiar with the terrain. Surely their guerrilla tactics were more appropriate than the slow moving, regular Imperial battle formations. Surely Judah the Maccabee was a more gifted military tactician than his Syrian counterpart. For all these reasons, suggests the Maharal the real Chanukah miracle would soon have been forgotten, whereas the incredible story of the cruse of oil would serve as a permanent reminder of the role of the Divine Providence in the Chanukah miracle. Our own experience has re-enforced the Maharal’s wise insight. Most of us remember the events that preceded and followed the Six-Day War in 1967. Jewish angst was universal. The Suez Canal was closed. Egyptian and Syrian forces were on the move. Israel pleaded with Jordon not to interfere, not once, but over and over again. The Jewish leaders were deeply concerned with having to deal with a Jordanian front as well. Who could have imagined that King Hussein’s refusal to hold fire would again place a reunited Jerusalem and the holiest Jewish sites in Jewish hands, and that Judah and Samaria would once again be Jewish. The most hardened secular Israelis melted at the sounding of the shofar of the liberated Kotel [Western Wall]. The spontaneous return of so many Jewish agnostics to the religious fold was a striking reflection of the perception that the victory was miraculous. And yet, after a few short years, the miracle was rationalized away-- just as the Chanukah miracle had been more than two thousand years before. Indeed, many Israelis actually came to believe that the victory was pyrrhic, and were ready to easily surrender what God had given them. As Abba Eban once famously noted: Never before in the annals of warfare had the victors sued for peace, and the vanquished made itself ready for still more war. The true profundity of the Maharal’s understanding of the Chanukah miracle is its application to the nature of miracles in general. For whatever reason, people are unable to discern the miraculous dimension of even the most normal events. Not so the Jewish tradition. Three times each day, we thank God “for Your miracles that we experience each and every day, evening, morning, “ For the spiritually attuned Jew, every breath we take is a miracle. Any serious asthmatic will attest tot this. Every normally functioning body is a miracle. The very beautiful blessing that we recite after visiting the bathroom is a striking illustration of this outlook: “Blessed are You, Lord, God of the universe, for having fashioned the human in wisdom, and for having created in them orifices and closed vessel. Should any of those be blocked, or any of these burst open, we could not possibly survive. Blessed are You, Lord, Healer of all flesh, Who acts miraculously”. The real lesson of Chanukah is that the most ordinary is, in fact, extraordinary. It is not fortuitous that the Joseph story is always read during Chanukah. On its face, it is the story of a gifted human being, whom the Torah designates as a “successful man” and who, by dint of his talent, insights, wisdom, and ingenuity emerges from the depths, to become the second most powerful individual in the greatest empire in the world. But we know differently. The whole point of the Joseph story is a demonstration that Divine Providence guides the mundane affairs of humankind. Jos

WESTWOOD VILLAGE SYNAGOGUE


Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi


RABBI ABNER WEISS’S WEEKLY TORAH TEACHING

PARASHAT MIKETZ-SHABBAT CHANUKAH 5771/2010

THE REAL MIRACLE



The story of the Chanukah miracle is well known, and is based on the Talmud’s answer to the question: “What is Chanukah” (Shabbat 21b)?
 After the victorious campaign of the Maccabees and the routing of the Seleucid invaders, the work of cleansing and purifying the Holy Temple in Jerusalem commenced. The Hellenized Syrians had completely desecrated the Temple. All its holy contents had been defiled save for one small flask of oil for the eternal flame.  It contained sufficient fuel to keep he flame alive for one day, but miraculously sustained it for the full eight days it took for a fresh supply of untainted oil to arrive. We celebrate this miracle by adding a flame to our Chanukah menorah each evening of the festival until all eight are kindled on the last evening.

  The Prayer Book explains the miracle very differently: “In the time of Mattityahu, the son of Yochanan the Hasmonean High Priest and his sons, when the wicked Hellenic kingdom rose up against Your people Israel, to make them forget Your Torah and to alienate them from the statutes that You desired. Then in Your abundant mercies You stood up for them at the time of their distress.  You took up their cause, judged their claims, and exacted vengeance for them.  You delivered them strong into the hand of the weak, the many into the hand of the few, the impure into the hand of the pure, the wicked into the hand of the righteous and the deliberate transgressors into the hand to those who were engaged with Your Torah.  You made a great and hold name for Yourself in Your world, and accomplished great salvation and redemption for Your people Israel on that day, after which Your children came into the innermost Chamber of Your House, cleansed Your royal abode, purified Your Temple and kindled lights in the courts of Your sanctuary.  They established these eight days of Chanukah to render praise and acknowledgement of Your great Name”.

Astonishingly, this description, which is recited at least three times each day during the Chanukah period, makes no mention whatsoever of the tiny cruse of oil that burned for eight days.  Significantly, the liturgy elaborates on the miraculous outcome of the military struggle, in which the weak and outnumbered Jewish people vanquished the multitudes of their better-armed foes.

 Which, then, was the real Chanukah miracle—the single-day supply of oil that burned for eight days, or the unprecedented, astonishing military victory of the Maccabees?

 According to the great Rabbi Loewe of Prague, the Maharal, Chanukah is really the celebration of the miraculous victory. He argues that Hallel, the liturgical selection of psalms of praise and gratitude, never celebrates the fulfillment of any mitzvah. It certainly does not celebrate the mitzvah of the kindling of the Chanukah menorah, which could have been fulfilled even with impure oil had no pure oil been available.  Hallel always acknowledges the deliverance of the Jewish people from physical danger, or the culmination of the process of deliverance.  Why then, he asks, does the Talmud transmute the miraculous military victory into the miracle of the fuel that burned for eight days instead of one?

 His answer is profound.  The miraculous nature of great military victories is all too quickly rationalized in non-miraculous terms.  Surely the Maccabees were more motivated than the foreign invaders.  Surely they were more familiar with the terrain.  Surely their guerrilla tactics were more appropriate than the slow moving, regular Imperial battle formations. Surely Judah the Maccabee was a more gifted military tactician than his Syrian counterpart. For all these reasons, suggests the Maharal the real Chanukah miracle would soon have been forgotten, whereas the incredible story of the cruse of oil would serve as a permanent reminder of the role of the Divine Providence in the Chanukah miracle.

Our own experience has re-enforced the Maharal’s wise insight.  Most of us remember the events that preceded and followed the Six-Day War in 1967.  Jewish angst was universal.  The Suez Canal was closed.   Egyptian and Syrian forces were on the move.  Israel pleaded with Jordon not to interfere, not once, but over and over again.  The Jewish leaders were deeply concerned with having to deal with a Jordanian front as well.  Who could have imagined that King Hussein’s refusal to hold fire would again place a reunited Jerusalem and the holiest Jewish sites in Jewish hands, and that Judah and Samaria would once again be Jewish.  The most hardened secular Israelis melted at the sounding of the shofar of the liberated Kotel [Western Wall].  The spontaneous return of so many Jewish agnostics to the religious fold was a striking reflection of the perception that the victory was miraculous.  And yet, after a few short years, the miracle was rationalized away-- just as the Chanukah miracle had been more than two thousand years before.  Indeed, many Israelis actually came to believe that the victory was pyrrhic, and were ready to easily surrender what God had given them.  As Abba Eban once famously noted:  Never before in the annals of warfare had the victors sued for peace, and the vanquished made itself ready for still more war.

The true profundity of the Maharal’s understanding of the Chanukah miracle is its application to the nature of miracles in general.  For whatever reason, people are unable to discern the miraculous dimension of even the most normal events.  Not so the Jewish tradition.  Three times each day, we thank God “for Your miracles that we experience each and every day, evening, morning, “ 

For the spiritually attuned Jew, every breath we take is a miracle.  Any serious asthmatic will attest tot this. Every normally functioning body is a miracle.

The very beautiful blessing that we recite after visiting the bathroom is a striking illustration of this outlook: “Blessed are You, Lord, God of the universe, for having fashioned the human in wisdom, and for having created in them orifices and closed vessel. Should any of those be blocked, or any of these burst open, we could not possibly survive. Blessed are You, Lord, Healer of all flesh, Who acts miraculously”.

The real lesson of Chanukah is that the most ordinary is, in fact, extraordinary.  It is not fortuitous that the Joseph story is always read during Chanukah.  On its face, it is the story of a gifted human being, whom the Torah designates as a “successful man” and who, by dint of his talent, insights, wisdom, and ingenuity emerges from the depths, to become the second most powerful individual in the greatest empire in the world.  But we know differently.  The whole point of the Joseph story is a demonstration that Divine Providence guides the mundane affairs of humankind.  Joseph himself acknowledges this reality when he reassures his brothers that their callous betrayal was an instance of the inscrutable will of God. 

Joseph knew that the ordinary is extraordinary.  The Maharal of Prague urges us to be conscious of the miraculous nature of every breath we take, and of every victory we win.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

A DIFFERENT KIND OF DREAM PARASHAT VA-YESHEV 5771/2010


WESTWOOD VILLAGE SYNAGOGUE


Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi


RABBI ABNER WEISS’S WEEKLY TORAH TEACHING

PARASHAT VA-YESHEV 5771/2010

A DIFFERENT KIND OF DREAM


And he dreamed again another dream (Gen. 37:90).

The part of the book of Genesis that we have been studying during the past several weeks focuses heavily on dreams.  Jacob begins his odyssey with the magnificent dream of a ladder joining heaven and earth, with angels ascending and descending, and with the Divine Presence at its head.  This dream is Jacob’s first encounter with God.  Significantly, Jacob himself recognizes the dream as an unconscious experience.  Upon awakening he is disappointed that he had not been conscious of his encounter with God.
According to Maimonides and several other commentators, Jacob’s encounter with the mysterious “man” during the dark night of his soul was also a dream experience. In his unconscious state, he played out his struggle with his twin brother Esau, who was, in fact, his alter ego, the disowned part of his personality. It was with this unacceptable aspect of himself with which he wrestled, and whose unconscious influence upon him had tormented him until the resolution of his inner conflict on that fateful night.

This week’s Torah reading again focuses on dreams.  It opens with Joseph’s vision of his brothers gathering sheaves, and of those sheaves bowing down before his own.  In his second dream the sun and the moon and the twelve stars are pictured as acknowledging him.  These dreams are prophetic. The first is his unconscious intimation of himself as provider, his family recognizing their dependence upon him for their physical survival.  The second is his intimation of the transcendent force that moved him to initiate the preordained exile of his family, and, ultimately, of his people, their descendents.
 
 Joseph’s are not the only dreams of pivotal importance in the unfolding of his destined path.  The baker and the butler, too have disquieting nightmares. Joseph’s accurate interpretation of these dreams catapults him onto the central stage of history, since Pharaoh, too, has two disquieting dream experiences. Joseph, alone, succeeds both in analyzing the symbology of the dreams, and also in strategizing the national response to what those dreams portend.
Both Joseph and Pharaoh have two dreams. But there is a striking difference between Joseph’s dreams and Pharaoh’s dreams.  In the case of Joseph’s dreams, our text states:  And he dreamed again another dream [acher].  In Pharaoh’s case, the Torah declares:  And he slept and dreamed a second time. Joseph, interpreting Pharaohs dream, notes that:  Pharaoh’s dream is one [echad].  The Hebrew words acher and echad are similar in that they share two of the three root letters-- and yet they are significantly different.  The similarity invites comparison.  The difference demands comment.
 
Both dreamers have two dreams.  Both are symbolic representations of reality.   But whereas the symbols of each of Pharaoh’s dreams are different, the meaning is identical.  Two sets of symbols are really the same dream message conveyed slightly differently.  Both use farming images.  Both focus on physical reality.  Pharaoh’s two dreams are one in that they are earth- bound and focused upon the land as a source of sustenance.

 Joseph’s dreams, on the other hand, are about the earth and its sustenance, but also about the heavens.  Joseph’s ability to encompass both heaven and earth in his vision make him a different kind of dreamer from Pharaoh, the baker and the butler.  This is why our text describes his second dream as different [acher] from his first.

 Pharaoh’s dreams reflect his understandable concern for the physical welfare and survival of his subjects and the prosperity of his realm.  His unconscious dream process reveals his single-minded focus.  Joseph, on the other hand synthesizes the material and the spiritual, recognizing the transcendent forces that govern our physical reality and personal histories.  It is precisely in this synthesizing vision that his uniqueness is expressed.
.  

Dreaming is a universal human experience.  Everybody dreams.  Our dreams, for the most part, reveal our unconscious struggles and anxieties.  They tell us, usually in symbolic form, what it is that bothers us. At the end of tractate Berakhot, the Talmud, focuses on dreams and their interpretation, predating Sigmund Freud by many centuries. 


Rabbi Yisra’el Salanter, like Sigmund Freud after him, recognized the importance of our subconscious processes.  For Freud, the unconscious is determinative.  Unconscious forces, over which we have no control, drive us and determine many of our behavioral patterns.  Salanter, on the contrary, believed that we can control the content of our unconscious minds, so that we no longer need to be influenced by dark forces that are not under our control.

Because we can actually train our unconscious minds and transform their content, the dreams we dream are in our hands.  We can choose about what we wish to dream.  For Freud, our dreams necessarily reflect who we are; for Salanter, they reflect who we wish to be.

 Pharaoh’s dreams reflected the role that destiny had determined for him.  Joseph’s dreams were intimations of what he could become on his own initiative.  Scripture does not call him a cholem chalomot [a dreamer of dreams], but a ba’al chalomot [a master of dreams].  Not only did he dare to dream the impossible synthesizing dream of heaven and earth, of the physical and the spiritual, but also he knew that the fulfillment of those dreams was in his hands.  The Hebrew word ba’al means “owner”.  Joseph owned his dreams and translated them into reality.

Joseph is our role model. He dared to dream a different dream.  What dreams shall we dream?   

Note: Rabbi Abner Weiss’s weekly Torah teaching can be accessed at www.rabbiabnerweiss.com