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.

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