Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            Starting two weeks ago dreams become a major feature in the advancement of the narrative line in the book of Genesis, and Ya'akov is the dreamer.  This week there's a new wrinkle on the dream front, as Yosef becomes the dream meister.  We begin dealing with twin dreams.  Yosef has two pretty obvious dreams, then the baker and butler have dual dreams, and, finally next week, Pharaoh has doubled dreams of cows and corn.  Yosef claims that the repetition implies that the events predicted are definite and immanent (Genesis 41:32).  Who am I to disagree with Yosef, the world's greatest authorities on dreams until Freud, but I'd like to take a different tack.  I think that the doubling teaches us two ideas each time around.  Let's take a look at Yosef's dreams, which I believe carry an eternal lesson.

            Here is the first dream scenario:  And Joseph dreamed a dream and told his brothers, and they continued to hate him. And he said to them, "Listen now to this dream, which I have dreamed: Behold, we were binding sheaves in the midst of the field, and behold, my sheaf arose and also stood upright, and behold, your sheaves encircled [it] and prostrated themselves to my sheaf (Genesis 37:6 & 7."  The next dream has a similar scenario, but instead of bundles of grain the participants are the stars, moon and sun.  The simplest approach to understanding the dual nature of these dreams is that Yosef is going to rule over the family in both natural, mundane matters and in spiritual, supernal issues.  This not only makes sense on its own, but fits in well with contexts.  Next week Pharaoh has two dreams but they're both about agricultural wealth, because his power is only in this earthly realm.  A couple of weeks ago Ya'akov steals blessings from Esav.  These blessings are about worldly power and prosperity.  Then, before fleeing to Aram, he is granted the spiritual blessings of holy leadership.  So, too, Yosef is portrayed as both a temporal and sacred leader. 

            However, much rabbinic energy has been expended on trying to de-emphasize the secular nature of Yosef's greatness.  Rabbeinu Bachye (d. 1340) explains that the grain gathering dream isn't about Yosef as a secular leader at all, rather it predicts the method by which Yosef will attain his leadership position, as the agriculture Czar of Egypt.  Yosef becomes the dominant brother in spiritual matters, but this authority comes through providing the grain which saves the family (as well as the known world).  This fits in with a famous mystical position that Zadikim are the conduit for worldly blessings to reach this earth.  The Sfat Emet (Rabbi Aryeh Yehudah Leib Alter, the second Gerer Rebbe, 1847-1905) explains that the significance of the dream can be understood from the reference to the field.  Esav is referred to as the man of the field (25:27), and he likes t he fields because they represent the uncontrolled, chaotic nature of the world.  Along comes Yosef and he is gathering the grain and tying it into bundles.  In other words, the varied approach of the natural world is being gathered and unified by Yosef, the Zadik or spiritual guide, and redirected towards God.  This mystical interpretation is cool, but gets away from the literal meaning of the story. 

            Let's get back to the clear point of the story.  Yosef is demonstrating that pious individuals can contribute in the secular realm.  When I read about observant Jews winning the Nobel Prize (Shmuel Yosef Agnon, Dr. Robert Aumann, or Dr. Rosalyn Yallow), I find this not only inspiring, but a continuation of the tradition of Yosef.  Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, director of the Bronfman Center for Jewish Life at NYU, spoke in Stamford a few weeks ago and he made a critically important point.  Too often observant Jews are focused on what we can absorb from the dominant culture around us.  Instead we should be asking ourselves, what we can contribute to this civilization which is graciously hosting us.  That's what we can learn from Yosef.  We shouldn't be trying to belittle Yosef's secular prowess; we should be celebrating it.  It's almost a Jewish version of President Kennedy's challenge from January 20, 1961:  Ask not what your country can do for you.  Ask what you can do for your country.

            This message is always appropriate, but is especially poignant as Chanukah begins this Shabbat.  The Chanukah War was primarily a war of ideas, a kulturkampf.  It is clear that the Sages initially were enamored of Greek culture, philosophy, math and probably their music and fashion.  The Rabbis declared the Greek translation of our Bible to be Divinely inspired, and allowed it to be used in place of the Hebrew original under certain circumstances.  So, what went wrong?  When did we find ourselves on opposite sides of a cultural divide?  The traditional answer is that the problem developed when the Hellenist king of Syria, Antiochus IV Epiphanes (215-164 BCE), declared himself a god and brought idolatry to the holy Temple.  The Jews had lived alongside Greek paganism without major incident for 150 years, why this breach now?  I think the problem was on our side.  By 170 BCE many Jews had adopted Greek ways and abandoned Jewish mores.  The zealotry of the Hasmoneans was aimed more at the Jewish infidelity to God, than to the Greek way of life.  We failed, and had to fight a war to get our country back.  I believe that the cultural defeat was the result of unrestrained admiration for things Greek with no comparable affection for things Jewish.  History shows that Jewish culture can outlast any civilization.  We must proudly believe in and proclaim our rich place in world sophistication.

            This is a wonderful time of year for this message because the Yosef of our Torah reading fulfilled this ideal.  We can compete with the dominant culture and thrive, without compromising our Jewish heritage.  Yosef taught us that we can dream of earthly success and spiritual greatness, and that lesson must be applied now to help win our war with assimilation.  Happy Chanukah!                           

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