Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Genius of Hospitality: In Memory of Shmully Moskowitz, A"H

The following speech in memory of Shmully Moskowitz was delivered at SBH, Shabbat, Parashat Matot-Masei, 5777.
I am so honored to have been asked to speak in memory of my dear friend Shmully, a”h. My earliest memories of Shmully go back more than twenty years ago, when I was still studying in yeshiva. Though he was no longer “officially” studying in the yeshiva, he would frequently come to the Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Chait’s shiur. No matter what the topic, or how complex the discussion, Shmully was “holding,” as we say in yeshivish. Most of the shiur would be a dialogue between Shmully and Rabbi Chait that very few people were able to follow. We would simply watch and behold the wonder of Shmully’s agile and profound mind.
Though he was undoubtedly a genius, what was so unique about Shmully was his gift with people. He possessed a kind of openness and ease of relating that anyone who was blessed to know him could tell you countless stories about. There was no one he would not receive with סבר פנים יפות—with a welcoming and embracing smile. If each of us could emulate even a fraction of Shmully’s openness and receptivity to others the world would certainly be a better place.
I hope that my remarks will be an honor to his memory.
We are now in the middle of the three weeks period—Bein haMeitzarim, between the straits—leading up to Tisha B’av on which we commemorate the destruction of, principally, the first and second Temples. Close to 40 years before the destruction of the first Temple, Yoshiyahu haMelekh led a massive campaign to purge the Land of idolatry and return the people to the service of Hashem. Sadly, his son, Yehoyakim, did not continue in his footsteps and through his wicked deeds sealed the decree for destruction. The following two deeply connected, yet diametrically opposed stories are about the seminal events of these two men’s lives.
Story #1: (Melakhim II, 22)
In the eighteenth year of Yoshiyahu’s rule, while undergoing repairs to the Temple, Shafan the Sofer/scribe came to the king with some interesting news…
            “Chilikiya the Kohen has given me a Sefer/scroll,” he announced.
Chilkiya read the scroll before the king—it was the Torah. What part of the Torah he read him, we do not know. (Rashi tells us he read from the curses listed in Sefer Devarim—specifically the verse (28:36) which says, “G-d shall cast out you and the king you place over you to a nation you and your fathers never knew—and there you shall serve other gods, of wood and stone.”) Whatever he read to him, Yoshiyahu was shaken. Awakened from a spiritual slumber he was horrified to see how low he and the people had descended—how steeped in pagan worship and immoral behavior. Mortified, he tore his garments. He commanded a contingent including Chilkiya the Kohen Gadol, Shafan the Sofer and Shafan’s son Achikam to, and I quote, “seek out Hashem for me, the people, and all of Yehuda, concerning the ספר הנמצא הזה, the sefer that has been found, for great is the wrath of Hashem against us for our forefathers have not paid heed to the words of this sefer to do everything that is written concerning us.” (22:13)
What followed was a religious reformation like no other. Yoshiyahu haMelekh was utterly transformed. He gathered all the people and read the Torah in a massive gathering in which he and the people rededicated themselves to the covenant. He removed the pagan icons and paraphernalia that had been placed in the Temple and idolatry and all form of pagan practice were purged from the land.

Story #2: (Yirmiyahu 36)
Now we must fast forward roughly 17 years to the fourth year of Yoshiyahu’s son Yehoyakim’s reign—now less than 30 years before the destruction.
Yirmiyahu was instructed by Hashem to take a מגילת ספר/a scroll and have Barukh, the Sofer, write all of his prophecies concerning Yisrael, Yehuda and the other nations…perhaps the people would, as a result, repent.
Radak, the pashtan, suggests this marked the beginning of Yirmiyahu’s literary output—he was instructed to write most of what we now call Sefer Yirmiyahu. The Chakhamim suggest that he was bidden to compose Megillat Eicha—the Book of Lamentations. Either way, same message: the end was neigh.
A short time later a public fast day was called. This was the opportunity they’d been waiting for. Barukh brought the sefer to Yerushalayim and, in the chamber of Gemaryahu the son of Shafan (the Sofer from the previous story), by the entrance to the Temple, he began to publically read the words of Yirmiyahu.
Word got out. The king’s men heard about Barukh’s provocations.  They called upon him to bring the scroll. They were deeply frightened and informed him that they would bring a report back to the king. After verifying the authenticity of the scroll with Barukh they put it away for safekeeping and sent Barukh away to safety.
They brought the report to the king and he bid them to bring it so he could hear for himself.
It was Kislev—the middle of the winter—and the king was sitting in his winter-house, a fire burning in the fireplace. As he warmed himself by the flame Yehudi (that’s the name of one of his men) arrived with the scroll.             
After Yehudi read a few verses, the king took a scribe's knife and tore out the offending words and threw them onto the fire. He read a few more verses and repeated the same horrific act over and over until the entire roll was nothing more than ash.
No one, we are told, tore their garments in response.
The king commanded his men to arrest Baruch the scribe and Yirmiyahu the prophet, but Hashem had hidden them.
Yoshiyahu tore his garments upon hearing the words of the Sefer haTorah. Yehoyakim tore the scroll of Yirimiyahu, one paragraph at a time. Yoshiyahu sought out Hashem. Yehoyakim tried to take Yirmiyahu and Barukh prisoner. Yoshiyahu was moved by the Word of Hashem to transform his kingdom. Yehoyakim set Hashem’s Word to flame.[1]
As I mentioned before, the Chakhamim said that the scroll was, in fact, the book of Eicha/Lamentations—Yirmiyahu’s heartbreaking dirge on the destruction of the Temple and the kingdom of Judah. The Chakhamim tell the following elaboration of our story in the Gemara, Mo’ed Katan, 26a:
They said to Yehoyakim: Yirmiyahu has written a book of Lamentations!
He said to them: What is written in it? 
They read the first verse: “Oh, How the city sits solitary” (Lamentations 1:1). 
He said: I am king. 
They read the second verse: “Weeps, she weeps in the night” (Lamentations 1:2).
He said: I am king.
They read the third verse: “Judah is gone into exile due to affliction” (Lamentations 1:3).
He said: I am king. 
They read the fourth verse: “The ways of Zion do mourn” (Lamentations 1:4).
He said: I am king. 
They read the next verse: “Her adversaries have become the chief”(Lamentations 1:5), (meaning, the king will be removed from power)
Once he heard this, he said to them: Who said this?
They said to him (from the next pasuk): “For Hashem has afflicted her for the multitude of her transgressions” (Lamentations 1:5). 
Immediately, he cut out all the names of Hashem from the book and burned them in fire.[2]  
Yehoyakim could not stand to have his power challenged—he was the king! He could not bear the imposition of the Word of Hashem. He could not let it upset the illusion of his impeachable power.
In contrast, Yoshiyahu was open to critique—he did not suffer from a delusion of grandeur. He humbled himself before the Word of Hashem and utterly abandoned his old lifestyle and fully embraced the unsettling truth that all of his decisions up until that point had been a horrible mistake.
I believe there is a deep connection between one’s receptivity to the Word of Hashem and one’s receptivity to others. The Prophetic Word disrupts and shatters one’s previously held conceptions. The one who thinks he is king cannot accept any disruption to his comfort—neither from Hashem nor from another man. One must discomfort oneself to accommodate the other—to be hospitable, to place another’s needs and wants before your own. And this is the key: to be hospitable to another human is the ultimate sign of the readiness of one’s heart to be hospitable/to welcome the Word of Hashem—and, vice-versa: to welcome the Word of Hashem is to welcome the other.
This should not come as a surprise—this is Avraham, the man whose absolute devotion to G-d came in tandem with his devotion to his fellow man. As Hashem says before revealing his plan to destroy Sedom: “I know him—such that he will command his children after him to keep the way of Hashem—to do tzedaka/righteousness and mishpat/justice.” As Yishayahu said, “צִיּוֹן בְּמִשְׁפָּט תִּפָּדֶה וְשָׁבֶיהָ בִּצְדָקָה”—“Zion shall be redeemed with justice—and they that shall return with righteousness.” (Yishayahu 1:27)
This was also Shmully. He had an unparalleled receptivity to the Word of Hashem and to people. His genius was in his hospitality—his ability to welcome in the other and the ultimate Other. He was a true student of Avraham. May his memory be a blessing to us all.




[1] The first place I encountered the comparison of these two stories is a brief paragraph in Lau, Binyamin. Jeremiah: the Fate of a Prophet. Maggid Books, 2013. p. 113.
[2] Translation adapted from the The William Davidson digital edition of the Koren Noé Talmud, with commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz Even-Israel.

Friday, November 25, 2016

The 5th Cup

Derasha for the 2nd day of Pesach, תשע"ה

Most of us have heard of the four cups, but very few of us have heard of the much less famous fifth cup. This is probably for a few very good reasons: 1. the Mishna mentions four cups, not five; 2. the printed text of the Talmud does not say anything about a fifth cup; 3. we all learned in day school that the four expressions of redemption from the beginning of Parashat Vaeraוהוצאתי, והצלתי, וגאלתי, ולקחתי—I will take out; I will save; I will redeem; and I will take—teach us that we need four cups, not five.

But as one ventures toward the fringes of the pages of the Talmud, one discovers that there was an alternative text possessed by many of our medieval sages which stated: “Rabbi Tarfon says, “[On] the fifth [cup], we recite the Hallel Hagadol.” Hallel haGadol refers to the 136th chapter of Tehillim, which consists of 26 verses, each beginning with an exclamation of gratitude and each concluding with the same phrase:  כִּ֖י לְעוֹלָ֣ם חַסְדּֽוֹ׃for his loving-kindness endures forever.[1]

Rambam codifies Rabbi Tarfon’s dictum in the following words:

…he pours the fourth cup and completes hallel upon it…and he may not taste anything else the rest of the night—except for water.
One may pour a fifth cup, and say hallel haGadol upon it. This cup is not a requirement like the four cups.

This is a very peculiar halakha. Either it’s good to say hallel haGadol or it’s not—why is it tied to this optional fifth cup!? Why is this cup not a requirement? Is it merely a halakhic mechanism permitting someone to drink just one more cup? Basically, what is the purpose of this fifth cup?

And furthermore, if, according to the Rambam, drinking the four cups is a fulfillment of the obligation for a person “to present himself as if he himself went out at that moment from the bondage of Egypt”[2] what does the fifth cup represent?

On Pesach we are presented with a basic problem: on one hand, we are supposed to rejoice in our freedom—but on the other hand, we are still (even after the establishment of Medinat Yisrael) in the bondage of the exile.

This tension is most palpable in the blessing said on the completion of the Maggid.[3] At the moment we should be experiencing the greatest joy, the tone of our prayers shifts as we pray for the rebuilding of Yerushalayim and the Beis HaMikdash and express our yearning for the day on which we will give thanks to God with, and I quote:

“a new song for our redemption and the saving of our souls.”

Though while in exile each of our festivals is tinged with a degree of grief and bitterness, perhaps on Pesach more than any other festival we feel this anguish most acutely. As we sing hallel haMitzri, rejoicing in our redemption from Egypt, how can we not be reminded of the redemption that is yet to come? How do we deal with this tension between reality and vision?
I believe that the fifth cup comes to provide a kind of resolution to this problem. To understand how this is so, let us take a closer look at the text of the hallel haGadol.

The most striking feature of this chapter of Tehillim is the 26 time repeated phrase, כִּ֖י לְעוֹלָ֣ם חַסְדּֽוֹ׃for His loving-kindness endures forever. Why is it repeated so many times in the hallel haGadol? What is its significance?

The answer, I believe, can be found in the words of our prophets. This refrain just happens to be identical with the joyful cry of the final redemption expressed by Yirmiyahu:

So said the Lord: There shall again be heard in this place, concerning which you say, "It is desolate without man and without beast," in the cities of Yehudah and in the streets of Yerushalayim that are desolate without a man and without an inhabitant and without a beast, the sound of joy and the sound of happiness, the voice of a bridegroom and the voice of a bride, the sound of those saying,  הוֹדוּ֩ אֶת־ה' צְבָא֜וֹת כִּי־ט֤וֹב ה֙ כִּֽי־לְעוֹלָ֣ם חַסְדּ֔וֹ "Thank the Lord of Hosts, for the Lord is good, for His loving-kindness endures forever," bringing a thanksgiving offering to the House of the Lord, for I will restore the captivity of the land as at first, said the Lord. (33:10-11)
Hallel haGadol is, in fact, a song of redemption!
With this in mind, I am ready to offer an interpretation.
“The fifth cup is not a requirement like the four cups.” What this means is that the fifth cup is not like the other four, which represent our redemption from Egypt. The fifth cup recognizes our state of exile and represents the possibility of a personal redemption that echoes the ultimate redemption—it cannot be a requirement like the four cups, but it must be there as a possibility.
This, of course, begs the question: how do we achieve this personal redemption? The secret is revealed by taking an even closer look at the text of the hallel haGadol. After a litany of gratitude for the wondrous creation and the numerous salvations God has wrought for us time and again—including the exodus, the splitting of the Yam Suf, the defeat of the mighty kings, Sichon and Og, and the inheritance of the Promised Land—we end with the following two verses:
נֹתֵ֣ן לֶ֭חֶם לְכָל־בָּשָׂ֑ר    כִּ֖י לְעוֹלָ֣ם חַסְדּֽוֹ׃
ה֭וֹדוּ לְאֵ֣ל הַשָּׁמָ֑יִם    כִּ֖י לְעוֹלָ֣ם חַסְדּֽוֹ׃
He provides sustenance to all flesh; for his loving-kindness endures forever.
Give gratitude to the God of Heaven; for his loving-kindness endures forever.
This, according to R’ Yochanan, is the reason it is called hallel haGadol, the Great Hallel. “Because the Holy One, blessed is He, resides at the height of the world and distributes sustenance to every creature.” (Pesachim 118a) God’s greatness is ultimately demonstrated in His everyday sustenance of the world!
The tension between exile and redemption is resolved by a shift in focus: from the political to the personal. The fifth cup embodies the idea that when we are able to recognize the true chesed that God does for us at every moment—providing us with our daily sustenance—we can experience a redemption that can transcend the limitations of our exile.

It is my b’rakhah to all of you that, even in the midst of our exile, each of you be able to experience this personal redemption. May we all merit to say l’chaim on the fifth cup, speedily in our days!





[1] More precisely, it begins with three calls to give praise using the word הודו, followed by 22 exclamations of praise and capped with a final call of הודו.
[2] In every generation a person is obligated to present himself as if he himself went out at that moment from the bondage of Egypt, as it says, "and us—He took out from there..."(Deuteronomy, 6:23).  And concerning this matter the Torah commands, "And remember, that you were a slave" (Deuteronomy, 5:14; 15:15; 16:12; 24:18; 24:22), meaning, it is as if you yourself were a slave and you went out to freedom and were redeemed.

Therefore, when a person dines on this night, he must eat and drink while he is reclining in the way of freedom. And every single person, male and female, is obligated to drink on this night, four cups of wine, no less; and even a poor person who is supported by charity, they should not give him less than four cups….

[3] Blessed are you Hashem our God, King of the Universe, who redeemed us and redeemed our forefathers from Egypt, and enabled us to reach this night to eat matza and marror. So Hashem our God and the God of our forefathers should enable us to reach other convocations and festivals that are coming to greet us in peace, happy in the building of Your city and joyful (sasim), in your service, and we shall eat there from the sacrifices and from the paschal offering that their blood should reach the wall of Your altar for favor, and we shall give thanks to You [with] a new song for our redemption and for the saving of our souls. Blessed are you Hashem, Redeemer of Israel.


Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Early Morning Bialik

This morning, after waking up very early, I was reading Yehuda Mirsky's biography of Rav Kook. On page 35 he quotes a line from a Bialik poem, לא זכיתי באור מן ההפקר.[1]
I dutifully looked up the poem in my copy of Kol Kitvei Bialik and was quite taken by the short poem. A google search for the text brought to my attention that Miki Gavrielov (http://jazztimes.com/guides/artists/14267-miki-gavrielov) had actually put this song to music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B8Th7oH5HUA
(These are all things that I’m sure any Israeli my age would know like the back of their hands—but, of course, I’m not Israeli.)
Being up so early, I felt motivated to translate this beautiful poem. After completing my translation, I discovered that I was not the first (nor, I’m sure the last) to have tried my hand at translating this poem (for example: http://www.soulandgone.com/2014/05/03/hayim-nahman-bialik-lo-zakhiti-be-or-min-ha-hefqeir/ this is also the site from which I stole the Hebrew with nikkud) but here’s my attempt:

H.N. Bialik
I Did Not Merit the Light from the Castoff
I did not merit the light from the castoff,
Nor did it come as an inheritance from my father,
But from my rock and my slab I cleaved it
And hewed it from my heart.

One spark is concealed in the flint of my heart,
A small spark—but it is all mine,
Neither borrowed from another, nor stolen
But it is from me and in me.

Under the hammer of my great sorrows
For my heart bursts, my strength’s rock,
The spark flies, it leaps into my eye,
And from my eyeto my verse.

And from my verse it escapes to your hearts,
And in the burning of your fire that I have ignited, it vanishes,
And I, with my flesh and my blood
Shall fulfill the burning-flame.

חיים נחמן ביאליק
לא זכיתי באור מן ההפקר

לֹא זָכִיתִי בָאוֹר מִן-הַהֶפְקֵר,
אַף לֹא-בָא לִי בִירֻשָּׁה מֵאָבִי,
כִּי מִסַּלְעִי וְצוּרִי נִקַּרְתִּיו
וַחֲצַבְתִּיו מִלְּבָבִי.

נִיצוֹץ אֶחָד בְּצוּר לִבִּי מִסְתַּתֵּר,
נִיצוֹץ קָטָן – אַךְ כֻּלּוֹ שֶׁלִּי הוּא,
לֹא שְׁאִלְתִּיו מֵאִישׁ, לֹא גְנַבְתִּיו
כִּי מִמֶּנִּי וּבִי הוּא.

וְתַחַת פַּטִּישׁ צָרוֹתַי הַגְּדוֹלוֹת
כִּי יִתְפּוֹצֵץ לְבָבִי, צוּר-עֻזִּי,
זֶה הַנִּיצוֹץ עָף, נִתָּז אֶל-עֵינִי,
וּמֵעֵינִי – לַחֲרוּזִי.

וּמֵחֲרוּזִי יִתְמַלֵּט לִלְבַבְכֶם,
וּבְאוּר אֶשְׁכֶם הִצַּתִּיו, יִתְעַלֵּם,
וְאָנֹכִי בְּחֶלְבִּי וּבְדָמִי
אֶת-הַבְּעֵרָה אֲשַׁלֵּם.




[1] Kol Kitvei Ch. N. Bialik (Tel Aviv: Dvir, 1947), 31.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Dreams of Destiny

This is the derasha I gave on Shabbat at BCMH:
These past few months have been difficult ones for the Jewish people. It feels as if not a day passes without being confronted by some horrific event that leaves us feeling depressed and wondering: what’s next?
Three times each Shabbot before Birkat HaMazon we sing the words of David Hamelekh in Tehillim:
שִׁיר, הַמַּעֲלוֹת: בְּשׁוּב ה', אֶת-שִׁיבַת צִיּוֹןהָיִינוּ, כְּחֹלְמִים.
A song of ascents. When the L-rd restores Zion’s fortunes, we were like dreamers.[1]
Like a dream, the events that play themselves out before our eyes seem unreal. We sense there is a meaning, a purpose, to all of our sufferings, but it alludes us. We are desperately in need of a Yosef who can discern the inner truth that lies hidden beneath the horror.
I believe that a deeper understanding of Yosef and his dreams can teach us how to approach these difficult times as we await the final dream of redemption.
The Gemara in Berakhot (55b) relates a fascinating story:
R. Bizna bar Zavda said in the name of R. Akiba, who said it in the name of R. Panda, who said it in the name of R. Nahum, who said it in the name of R. Biryam, who said it in the name of a certain elder — and who was this? R. Bana'ah: There were twenty-four interpreters of dreams in Yerushalayim. Once I dreamt a dream and I went round to all of them and they all gave different interpretations, and all were fulfilled, confirming that which is said: “כל החלומות הולכין אחר הפה”—“All dreams follow the mouth.” But is the statement “all dreams follow the mouth” Scriptural?  Yes, as stated by Rebbi Eleazar. For Rebbi Eleazar said: From where do we know that all dreams follow the mouth? Because it says, “וַיְהִי כַּאֲשֶׁר פָּתַר-לָנוּ, כֵּן הָיָה “—“and it was, as he interpreted to us, so it was.”[2]
Those, as we will read in next week’s parasha, were the words of the Minister of Butlers when he was describing Yosef to Pharaoh.
But does this not contradict the words of יוסף himself who says quite clearly (B’reishit, 40:8): הֲלוֹא לֵא-לֹהִים פִּתְרֹנִים—do not interpretations belong to G-d?[3]
So which one is it? Did Yosef (and other interpreters) determine the outcome of dreams or does G-d?
I believe Rav Ovadia Seforno’s comments on this verse offer a novel solution to this problem. He suggests that Yosef was not saying that G-d would directly provide him with an interpretation[4] but that the science of dream interpretation was something within man’s grasp, in so far as he is created בצלם א-לוהים, in the likeness of G-d.
Let me take a moment to explain what the Seforno means. א-לוהים is the name of G-d used in the first chapter of B’reishit—it expresses G-d’s dominion over creation; that by His word everything came into being and by His word all is sustained. When man is described as being created בצלם א-לוהים, it means that man himself is endowed with a creative capacity—first and foremost expressed in his ability to speak[5]—which can be exercised to shape his own future. Saying that interpretations belong to א-לוהים is identical with saying that man has been given the capacity to interpret and shape his future.[6]
I believe this idea can be brought into sharper focus by a beautiful distinction Rav Yosef Dov HaLevi Soloveitchik, זצ"ל, made in his famous essay, Kol Dodi Dofek, The Voice of My Beloved Knocks—between what he calls the “I of fate” and the “I of destiny.”[7]
Let me explain.
There are times in life when I feel like I have no control. I did not chose when I was born, where I grew up, who my parents were. Numerous circumstances outside of my control have led me to my job, my spouse, my community. I have very little impact on the political climate. I have no say over the economy, whether my country is at war, disease, the list goes on and on. I am like a ship tossed and thrown on the waves of fortune—carried aloft and then cast back down into the depths. This is the “I of fate.”
On the other hand, I realize that I need not take this position. No matter what faces me, I am endowed with creativity. I am able to choose my path; to make out of what gets thrown my way what I will. However, this takes tremendous patience. I must be reconciled with the fact that I may never see the fruits of my labors—that freedom lies not in the ability to reach a certain end, but in the ability to choose the path. This is the “I of destiny.”
With this distinction in hand, I believe we are ready to see Yosef and his dreams in a whole new light. Let us start by going back to the beginning of the Parasha and draw our attention to Yosef’s dreams: first, the bundles of grain bowing to his bundle and then, the sun, moon and eleven stars bowing to him.
The meaning of these dreams was so obvious to the brothers that they nearly murdered Yosef and ultimately sold him into slavery. He was a בעל החלומות, a dreamer, and therefore dangerous. Yosef thought that he was not only superior in the realm of the economic (their bundles of grain prostrated before his own) but in the celestial realm as well (the sun, moon and 11 stars bow to Yosef himself)—he was not just arrogant, but delusional. This dreamer could bring about nothing but ruin and tyranny for the House of Yaakov: he was a threat—he had to be stopped.
What is truly startling is that no one ever explicitly interprets these dreams—and this, I believe was the problem. If only they had taken a moment to truly consider what the dreams might be saying beyond the surface—if they had only talked it out, perhaps they would have reached a different conclusion. When things are left unsaid, unspoken, they are not subject to our creativity, our insight—the I of Destiny cannot express itself when silence prevails: וַיִּשְׂנְאוּ, אֹתוֹ; וְלֹא יָכְלוּ, דַּבְּרוֹ לְשָׁלֹם—the brothers hated him and could not speak to him peaceably (37:4).
Yosef, in his naiveté—והוא נער, he was a lad, immature—shared his dreams with his brothers. He did not perceive the danger—he didn’t see the hatred that was stirring in their hearts. What he hoped to gain by sharing his dreams we can only speculate. Perhaps he thought he could win them over. Perhaps he thought he could impress them. Perhaps, as the Ohr HaChayim (37:5) suggests, he thought that if his brothers knew that his appointment of leadership was ordained by Heaven, they would cease to hate him.  
Whatever the case may be, what none of Yaakov’s sons could perceive was that, perhaps, there was nothing fatalistic about these dreams. Perhaps they offered a glimmer of the future—but what that future would be was not yet determined. How they chose to interpret those dreams was truly in their hands.
Only Yaakov is described as not rushing to any conclusions about the dreams.
וְאָבִיו, שָׁמַר אֶת-הַדָּבָר
And his father, guarded the matter. (37:11)
Yaakov held onto the dreams. Certainly, he was repelled by the dream of the sun, the moon and the stars—would he, his wife (who has already passed away) and his sons come to bow down to him? But, Yaakov took dreams seriously. It was a dream that provided him succor during his many years of exile—during cold frost-bitten winter nights and long summer days of thankless labor under the burning sun tending to Lavan’s flocks. He knew that the G-d of his fathers would protect him and return him, one day, to the Promised Land. It was a dream that protected him from the schemes of the duplicitous Lavan and another dream that ultimately encouraged him to return to the place of his birth.
Yaakov knew that a dream never spelled out one’s fate—it could only point out the way. Yaakov’s dreams did not give a precise prediction—it is hard to find anything in Yaakov’s life that worked out the way he expected it to. His dreams bid him to take hold of his destiny and dig deep—into his inner resources—and courageously move forward.[8]  
When Yosef encountered the שר המשקים, the minister of the butlers, and the שר האופים, the minister of the bakers, he had finally made the breakthrough. Clearly, his own dreams did not spell out a glorious fate. As quickly as he had moved up the ladder in the house of Potifar, he had been cast back down. Now he was both a slave and a prisoner.
He realized—ממעמקים, from the depths—that לא-לוהים פתרונים—to G-d belong interpretations. That the only choice for man—no matter how dire the circumstances—is to shape his own destiny. That nothing, no matter how much it might seem to be, is inevitable. With this insight he was more than ready to interpret the ministers’ dreams.
Interpreting these dreams (as many have pointed out) was a simple matter of observation: the minister of butlers spoke first, his dream radiated confidence, he was an actor, Pharaoh’s cup was in his hand, he took the cluster of grapes, he squeezed them into his cup, and he placed the cup onto Pharaoh’s hand—he was a man of destiny.[9] The minister of the bakers was a passive victim. He spoke second, he was clearly more worried by what he saw. In his dream he has no agency whatsoever. The baskets rest on his head, the bird eats from the basket as he does nothing. He was the ultimate man of fate.
Yosef saw that we can either seal our fate, like the minister of the bakers, with passivity and inaction or, we can take our fate in our own hands, and live a life of destiny.[10]
So why did he remain in jail for another two years? Because he played the victim card. He tried to appeal to the minister’s pity. He was stolen from his land! He was in prison, but had committed no crime! He shifted from a man of destiny, creative and full of vitality, into a man of fate.[11]
These are the choices that are before us when we face tragedy and suffering. We can bemoan the horrible situation we find ourselves in. We can cry out that we are victims—we have been wrongly accused. But that will gain us no sympathy. The only choice is to act resolutely, with confidence in our creative capacity to face our destinies with pride and dignity. We must embrace the motto of the man of destiny so beautifully expressed by Rav Soloveitchik: “על כרחך אתה נולד ועל כרחך אתה מת, אבל ברצונך החפשי אתה חי”—“Against your will you were born and against your will you shall die, but by your free will you shall live.”



[1] I use Rober Alter’s (2007) translation with one alteration. Where he has “we should be like dreamers” I have put “we were like dreamers.” This reflects an ambiguity of meaning in this verse. Different commentaries have interpreted this verse in accordance with both translations. See, for instance, Meiri, who presents both possibilities.
[2] Rebbi Eleazar surely was noting the use of a unique choice of words: וַיְהִי—and it was; כֵּן הָיָה—so it was—a formula previously found (and repeated 6 times) only in מעשה בראשית, the story of creation: וַיְהִי-כֵן—and so it was.
[3] See Ibn Ezra (40:8) who notes and dismisses the contradiction: וכל החלומות הולכים אחר הפה דברי יחיד הם.
Compare to Seforno (ibid.):
הֲלוא לֵא-להִים פִּתְרנִים. הִנֵּה חָכְמַת הַפִּתְרון הִיא בְּאָדָם מִצַּד מַה שֶּׁהוּא "בְּצֶלֶם אֱ-להִים", וְלָזֶה יִתָּכֵן שֶׁתִּהְיֶה גַּם בִּי, אַף עַל פִּי שֶׁאֲנִי עַתָּה עֶבֶד וּבְבֵית הָאֲסוּרִים, וּמִפְּנֵי זֶה אֶפְשָׁר שֶׁלּא צְדַקְתֶּם בַּמֶּה שֶּׁאֲמַרְתֶּם "וּפתֵר אֵין אתו". 
For Seforno there does not seem to be a contradiction between the gemara and the verse. I am following the approach of the Seforno.
[4] Cf. to Ibn Ezra, Ramban and Netziv (ibid.).
[5] See Onkelos and Rashi (2:7).
[6] It is also the name used for G-d from the beginning of chapter 40 until the end of B’reishit. The only exception being 49:16, where the שם הויה is used once in the blessing of Dan. It should also be noted that beginning with 32:11, the only two chapters that use the שם הויה are 38 and 39, the stories of the Yehuda and Yosef’s respective descents. This absence is conspicuous considering that the שם הויה is used 153 times (if my count is correct) in the first 32 chapters of B’reishit.
[7] See especially p. 12 in Divrei Hagut v’Ha’arakha, 1982.
[8] See Berakhot 55b: א"ר לוי לעולם יצפה אדם לחלום טוב עד כ"ב שנה מנלן מיוסף דכתיב (בראשית לז) אלה תולדות יעקב יוסף בן שבע עשרה שנה וגו' וכתיב (בראשית מא) ויוסף בן שלשים שנה בעמדו לפני פרעה וגו' מן שבסרי עד תלתין כמה הוי תלת סרי ושב דשבעא ותרתי דכפנא הא כ"ב
[9] This might explain the מדרש (מ"ר פ"ח:ה) the interprets the שר המשקים’s dream as relating to the גאולה:
ויספר שר המשקים והנה גפן לפני 
אלו ישראל, שנאמר (תהלים פ): גפן ממצרים תסיע.
ובגפן שלושה שריגים, משה אהרן ומרים.
היא כפורחת, הפריחה גאולתן של ישראל.
עלתה נצה, הנצה גאולתן של ישראל.
הבשילו אשכלותיה ענבים, גפן שהפריחה מיד הנצה, ענבים שהנצו מיד בשלו. וכוס פרעה בידי 
מכאן קבעו חכמים ד' כוסות של לילי פסח.
[10] His mistake was that he lost his confidence. He became desperate and presented himself as a victim of circumstance to the minister of the butlers. It would be two more years until he had his next opportunity. When he stands before Pharaoh he is ready. Note the echoing back to the שר המשקים in Pharaoh’s pronouncement: על פיך ישק כל עמי—by your mouth all of my people will be provided for.
[11] See Rashi, 40:23.