Thursday, December 29, 2005

Parshat Miketz

Miketz 05
Who here has not woken one morning, head filled with a dream from the night before, thinking, "What a horrible dream," and just shuddered a bit, with a creeping superstitious feeling, hoping that it wouldn't come true. Throughout history, humans have shuddered or delighted in the visions that our minds have given us at night. And throughout history, humans hav believed in the power of dreams, that dreams hold the power to unlock the future for us.
The rabbis, too, stated that a dream is 1/60th of prophecy. The Torah portion of Miketz is enthralled with dreams. Pharaoh dreams of cows and and grain, and he sought someone to interpret his dreams for him. Strangely, though, even though he sent for all the magicians and wise men of Egypt, no one could help him, until the head cupbearer remembered the young servant who had correctly interpreted his dream and that of the head baker years before. Joseph is summoned and sure enough, does provide a dream interpretation that proves later to be perfectly correct.
In light of this, it is somewhat interesting to note that in a chapter of the talmud in which the rabbis extensively discuss dream interpretation, the end conclusion they give is that in fact, dreams are, as they are interpreted.
The midrash tells the story of
Midrash Rabbah - Genesis LXXXIX:8
A certain woman who went to R. Eliezer and said to him: ' I saw in a dream how that the loft of the upper storey of my house was split open.’ ‘You will conceive a son,’ he told her. She went away and it happened even so. Again she dreamed the same and came and told it to R. Eliezer, who gave her the same interpretation, and it happened even so. She dreamed this a third time and repaired to him but did not find him, so she told his disciples, ' I saw in a dream that the loft of the upper storey of my house was split open.’ ‘You will bury your husband,’ they told her, and this did happen. R. Eliezer, hearing a cry of wailing, asked what was amiss, whereupon they related to him what had occurred. ‘You have killed the man,’ he upbraided them; is it not written, AND IT CAME TO PASS, AS HE INTERPRETED TO US, SO IT WAS?
R. Johanan said: All dreams are dependent on the interpretation given to them, save a dream about wine. Sometimes a dream of drinking wine augurs well, and sometimes it betokens misfortune. When a scholar drinks [in a dream], it is a good augury; when an ignoramus drinks, it betokens misfortune.
Rabbi Yochanan's statement is an interesting response. It suggests that a dream interpretation is more natural than the sages stattement that it is 1/60th prophecy would seem to suggest: one whose life is in general in good order, one might expect to have a good outcome, whether or not they had a dream about it. Someone whose life is not so together, one might predict a negative future. But in fact, if this is how we understand the rabbi's views on dreams we would be very mistaken.In fact, what the rabbis man is that speaking the dream makes it happen, even if the speaker is completely without knowledge of the circumstances of the dreamer.
A key tothe rabbinic view of dreams can be found in the portion itself. When Pharaoh tlls Joseph I dreamt a ream, but there is no one who could interpret it; I heard it said about you that if you hear a dream you are able to interpret it," Jospeh responds (Ber. 41:16):
áÌÄìÀòÈãÈé àÁìÉäÄéí éÇÍòÂðÆä àÆúÎùÑÀìåÉí ôÌÇøÀòÍÉä:
"That is beyond me [to interpret a dream]; God will answer for pharaoh's welfare."
That is, unlike the students of our story whose interpretation killed a person, Joseph made himself transparent in a way; a window for God to be seen through.
There is a saying of the rabbis that appears in the talmud:
Yevamot 49b
ëãúðéà: ëì äðáéàéí ðñúëìå áàñô÷ìøéà ùàéðä îàéøä, îùä øáéðå ðñúëì áàñô÷ìøéà äîàéøä
All the prophets looked into a dim glass, but Moshe rabeinu looked into a clear glass.
Why would we say that the prophets only saw God through a dim glass? So often when we seek God, we see God only through the lens of -ourselves. IN fact, instead of seeing God, we see ourselves: we make of our religoin a mirror. We do what we wnt and hear what we wish for. The prophets were better at this than most of us - they were able to scrape a little of the silver off the mirror and see through to God's wishes of us, but still, one can see by the different tones of the prophets, that they, too, revealed themselvs through their prophey evn as they were revealing God to us. But when Moshe sought to reveal God in the world, he made of himself a clear glass, one through which not his wishes, but God's, came through - at least most of the time. Even Moshe, after all, wasn't perfect.
In Isaiah 59:21 which appears at the end of the weekday morning service,
it says:
As for me, this is my covenant with them, says the Lord; My spirit that is upon you, and my words which I have put in your mouth, shall not depart from your mouth, nor from the mouth of your seed, nor from the mouth of your seed’s seed, says the Lord, from now on and forever.
God promises Israel that we and our children will always have the power of prophecy. Now you may think that this has turned out not to be true, not withstanding bubbe's uncanny ability to call when one of her grandchildren have broken a leg or dinged the car on the last trip out. But if we think about Jospeh's response, perhaps we might come to a different conclusion.
It's true that none of us are Moses. We're mostly - especially today when we're accustomed to living however we wish and thinking that whatever we wish must be the right thing- unable to put ourselves aside to make a clear glass for God's will. But God doesn't expect that of us, anyway. God doesn't ask, why weren't you Moshe rabeniu, God asks us, why weren't you, you?
But while we my not be able to be a clear glass, we o hav the capability of avoiding being the mirror, inwhic we see only ourselves, when we look for God.
While perhaps we don't have the power to make our dreams come true through interpretation, we have something almost as good, the power to make our lives be true through the power of making them a window for God.
When Jospeh told pharaoh that he didn't hve the power or wisdom to interpret dreams, he took himself out of the mirror, and made a little space for God to act in the world. Thus through him, thw beginning of Israel's destiny to come down into Egypt so that we could be redeemed and made holy at Sinai began. Who knows what our dreams may hold, if we open our minds to God?

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Parshat Vayeishev

Vayeishev 05
In the talmud, we read a story about one of the rabbis and his wife:
Ketubot 67b
Mar ‘Ukba had a poor man in his neighbourhood into whose doorstep he used to throw money every day. Once [the poor man] thought: ‘I will go and see who does me this kindness’. On that day [it happened] that Mar ‘Ukba was late at the house of study and his wife was coming home with him. As soon as [the poor man] saw them moving the door he went out after them, but they fled from him and ran into a furnace from which the fire had just been swept. Mar ‘Ukba's feet were burning and his wife said to him: Raise your feet and put them on mine. As he was upset, she said to him, ‘I am usually at home so the poor have easy access to me; while you give money to the poor which they must then go and buy food with, I cook food for them which they can eat right away, thus my merit is greater than yours.". And what [was the reason for] all that? — ... Better had a man thrown himself into a fiery furnace than publicly put his neighbour to shame. Whence do we derive this? From [the action of] Tamar; for it is written in Scripture, When she was brought forth, [she sent to her father-in-law].
The story of Yehudah and Tamar is a strange interlude in the otherwise unbroken story of Joseph. Judah's son Er, has married a woman, but God becomes angry with him and he dies. Through levirate marriage, his brother, Onan ought to marry Tamar to produce an heir, but because he dislikes the idea of his own child being an heir to someone else, he spills his seed on the ground to prevent Tamar from conceiving. This annoys God, and he dies as well. Tamar is now beside herself: the youngest son, ought to now be married to her, but Judah is worried that Tamar is a sort of black widow, and doesn't really want her to marry him, so he puts her off. Tamar, after some years, seeing that Judah has no intention of giving her his last son, takes matters into her own hands, seducing Judah by the roadside, taking only a few markers to prove that he was the one who was with her. When she became pregnant, Judah is outraged, and allows her to be condemned to death, yet she sends to him the possessions that she had taken from him as collateral for his payment of the woman he supposed was a prostitute, and asks him if he knows whose they are. He recognizes them, and acknowledges them, saving her life, and admits, to boot, that she is more righteous than he for taking matters into her hands to produce an heir for his son.
Many of our commmentators have asked why this interlude was dropped into the middle of our portion, and what is it about? The midrash explains that we can take two lessons from the story of Tamar and Yehudah.
The first is that it is better to burn alive than to shame another human being. The second is that God returns what we do to one another midah kneged midah - measure for measure:
The midrash suggests that it is because of Yehuda's dying the coat of Yosef in goat's blood to fool his father into thinking that Yosef was dead that Tamar used the expression "Recognize" that she used when presenting Yehuda's signet and cloak to him to save herself from being burnt to death.
According to the midrash:
Beresheit Rabbah 85:11
[Tamar] SENT TO HER FATHER-IN-LAW, SAYING: BY THE MAN, WHOSE THESE ARE, AM I WITH CHILD. He wished to deny it, whereupon she said to him: ‘Acknowledge thy Creator in these, for they are thine and thy Creator's.’ RECOGNIZE, I PRAY THEE, WHOSE ARE THESE, THE SIGNET, etc. R. Johanan said: The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Judah: ‘Thou didst say to thy father, [Do you]Recognize[ this garment?] [know] I pray thee (Gen. XXXVII, 32); as thou livest, Tamar will say to thee, RECOGNIZE, I PRAY THEE.
Midrash tanchuma also connects this measure for measure punishment more directly, saying that the reason that Yehuda's son Er died, it was God saying to Yehuda, "When you showed your father Yosef's garmnt dipped in blood, you did not take into consideration the pain that a father feels at the loss of a child. You too, will lose your wife and bury your children, to experience the pain of losing children.
Thus when Tamar said to Yehuda, "Recognize these please," he experienced the shock of recognition for his past sins in selling off Yosef and letting his father think that Yosef was dead.
In fact, the Talmud hammers at this point with another passage about King David.
Baba Metzia 59a
Better it is for man to cohabit with a doubtful married woman rather than that he should publicly shame his neighbour. Whence do we know this? ...David exclaimed before the Holy One, blessed be He, ‘Sovereign of the Universe! You know full well that had they torn my flesh, my blood would not have poured forth to the earth. Moreover, when they are engaged in studying "Leprosies" and "Tents" they jeer at me, saying, "David! what is the death penalty of him who seduces a married woman?" I reply to them, "He is executed by strangulation, yet has he a portion in the world to come. But he who publicly puts his neighbour to shame has no portion in the world to come."
King David underscores that one who shames another is among the worst of sinners. But the reverse is true as well. One who honors other human beings by taking extra care not to shame them is honored.
And so the Talmud rewrites the story so that we understand that the true ending of the story is Judah recognizing Tamar's righteousness, but also that Judah's public acknowledgement of Tamar's righteousness - thus restoring her honor- in turn restores him in God's eyes.
Sotah 10b
...Better for a man to cast himself into a fiery furnace rather than shame his fellow in public. Whence is this? From Tamar.
Discern, I pray thee. R. Hama b. Hanina said: With the word ‘discern’ [Judah] made an announcement to his father, and with the word ‘discern’ an announcement was made to him. With the word ‘discern’ he made an announcement — Discern now whether it be thy son's coat or not; and with the word ‘discern’ an announcement was made to him — Discern, I pray thee, whose are these. The word ‘na’ [‘I pray thee’] is nothing else than an expression of request. She said to him, ‘I beg of thee, discern the face of thy Creator and hide not thine eyes from me’.
And Judah acknowledged them, and said: She is more righteous than I. ...
And so why do we find this story in the midst of the story of Joseph? The two themes of measure for measure and honoring one's fellow humans mirror each other.
It is said that refraining from evil speech is the hardest of the mitzvot.
Speaking ill of others - even when one tells the truth, which is what we call lashon hara, let alone when it is false - motsi shem ra - literally giving another a bad name- together in the category of evil speech, they are shaming a human being and are considered akin to murder. The rabbis call it whitening of the face. Literally, think of what happens when you embarrass someone - sometimes they blush, but when you really humiliate someone, if you've ever seen this, humiliation causes the blood to drain from a person's face, and they look, momentarily, like a corpse drained of blood.
So actually, these two themes are really one: we are looking at a story in which we are dealing with words that cause utter disruption. The point of the story of Joseph being paired with that of Judah and Tamar is to tell us that speech is not idle: ones' words lead to action. Lashon haRa, evil speech, like the musings of the brothers on how much they hate Joseph, leads them to commit an action that only narrowly avoids being murder outright. Conversely, Tamar's incredible bravery and refusal to engage in lashon hara even at the expense of her own life, brings not only honor to her, but forgiveness to another. Judah sees her righteousness and publicly admits it.When this happens, he is himself forgiven of his own sins, and it is at that moment when he truly becomes an adult. Of the twelve brothers, although Joseph is the more or less prodigal son, it is the descendants of Judah who recieve the honor of having a a kingdom named for him.
And why is Judah given the opportunity for such a glorious repentance? Remember that it was he who saved Joseph from death - through the power of his words. He was the one who suggested that there was no profit in murder, and suggested selling him to the Ishmaelite caravaners. Okay, this is perhaps not the greatest act of heroism that we have ever encountered, but it is the mark of at least an ability for rational thought to overcome pure hatred.
And so we're meant to be left with a message: even the smallest act can be returned to one. Our language is not empty. Every word is full of meaning, as full of meaning as a dream. In tractate brachot of the talmud, there is a very lengthy story about two rabbis. One was sort of a cheapskate, and he and this other rabbi had a dream - in fact they both had the same dream. Each in turn went to a dream interpreter, who offered them a meaning. The one who paid well, he gave a wonderful interpretation to, and for the cheap rabbi, he interpreted the dreams as full of horror and terrible outcomes. Both of these rabbis came back to the interpreter having had identical dreams for many nights running, yet the interpreter continued to give them differing interpretations.
Finally, after the cheap rabbi had been bereft of his business, his family and his health, he discovered a book of interpretation which suggested that dreams come true according to how they are interpreted. That is to say: if the dream interpreter had given him a positive outcome for his dreams, his family would still be living and healthy, his job still safe and his health still good. His response was to forgive the interpreter of everything except the death of his wife, for which I cannot blame him.
But the talmud's point is particularly meaningful in the story of Joseph, which is also full of dreams and their interpretations. Speech is a powerful tool, and a holy one: after all, God spoke, and the world was created.
Too, when we speak, worlds are created, and so it is especially important for our speech to be holy. Not just in shul when we come and speak the words of prayer to God, but at at every moment, our words create worlds, our interpretations make people's lives better, or disastrous. Our visions can build lives or destroy them. And it is up to us to make sure that we pay atttention to the words we speak, so that our words may lay the path to redeem us from exile, not to sell us into slavery.