Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Parashat Vayigash: On Rapprochements and Scarcity

This parsha is about the coming together of Yaakov’s family, its rapprochement and reunification. This is the first family in the book of Genesis who does come together in this way. Cain kills Abel, Yitzhak and Yishmael are estranged from one another, and Yaakov and Esav, while meeting and making peace, ultimately each go their separate ways. But with the children of Yaakov is born the nation; all of his sons are our ancestors, and so they must come together, must be permanently reunited.

The parsha is called Vayigash for good reason. Vayigash means “And he approached.” The verse refers to Yehudah, but everyone does some approaching and meeting in this parsha. Four separate meetings take place – that of Yosef and his brothers, Yosef and his father, Pharaoh and the brothers and Pharaoh and the father. That’s why they live in “Goshen,” the place of approaching or coming together. Yosef uses the same words to coax his brothers to come toward him after his frightening revelation of his identity, geshu na elay, “Come towards me.” Coming together is the name of the game.

What strikes me about all this coming together is that it is driven by scarcity. There is the scarcity of food all around them, the great 7-year famine which physically drives the brothers to go down to Egypt first once and then a second time, ultimately leading to their reunification with their brother.

And then there is another type of scarcity, a sense in which time feels scarce, especially the time left in Yaakov’s life. It is this worry over his father’s approaching death that drives Yosef’s revelation to his brothers. He hears Yehudah speak of his father’s death, of how likely it is that his father will die from grief if Binyamin does not return (44:31), and Yosef is scared. All along, he’d been asking about the health of his father and heard it was fine (“shalom,” 43:28), but now, when he hears death might be around the corner, he realizes he must reveal himself immediately; there is no time to waste. “I am Yosef,” he says, “Is my father still alive (45:3)?” In other words, wait. Hold on. Can I still stop the story early enough to change the ending, to keep my father alive right now so I can still see him and he me before he dies? Hurry, hurry, he says to his brothers. Bring my father to me right away.

There is a deep lesson here. We most appreciate our loved ones when we are faced with the prospect of losing one another. Whoever has had a child come close to death and escape it, feels forever the gift of that child’s life in a different way. The trick is to remember that death is eventually the end for us all, so that life is always scarce, not just at the end. We should love and hunger for each other, desire such “Goshen” meetings, like we would hunger for scarce food in a famine. Part of what makes this parsha such a tear-jerker (Yosef himself cries 4 times) is our sense of regret, of the loss of all those years the family spent apart. They needed that time and that suffering to learn some lessons, but perhaps we can learn them just by reading their story.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Parashat Miketz: Seeing God in the Dreidl

The dreidl spins and spins, like the world around us. Sometimes we land on a “gimmel” or a “heh,” and sometimes we land on a “nun” or a “shin.” Sometimes we win and sometimes we lose.

The funny thing about the dreidl is that, like the lots of Purim, it makes it seem like everything has to do with luck. But at the same time, the message of its letters is otherwise: Nes Gadol Hayah Sham. “A great miracle happened there.” Miracles imply divine control, that there is some order or purpose in the universe, not just dumb luck.

Yosef’s story is similar. He starts out on top, a beloved son, adored by his father, with dreams of grandeur, but then he gets pushed down and down some more. He is thrown down into a pit, “brought down” to Egypt as a slave, and sent further down into the “pit” of jail. Finally, in this week’s parsha, his “luck” turns again, and he rises quickly to the position of second to the king, riding high through the streets in a chariot.

Is that all Yosef’s story is? A story of good and bad luck, like the randomly spinning dreidl?

Yosef himself thinks not. His skill is to interpret dreams and also to interpret life. What he sees in these dreams is always a plan. At first, in his own dream, he imagines that he himself is the mover of this plan, the center of the universe. As a slave in Egypt, he learns otherwise, so that when he comes to interpret the baker and the cup-bearer’s dreams, he sees king Pharaoh as the planner, the one who has the power to either impale or re-instate his servants. Finally, in this week’s parsha, Yosef comes to terms with the true Planner, the real King, the Master of the Universe. What do Pharaoh’s dreams of fat and skinny cows and grain mean, according to Yosef? They mean that God has a plan and that God has revealed this plan to Pharaoh. And what do Yosef’s own ups and downs mean? Yes, he tells his brothers, you meant evil when you sold me, but see, it was all part of a divine plan to feed people.

Yosef lives in the same kind of world we do. Bad things happen, good things happen, and it all seems random. God no longer speaks directly to Yosef as he did to his ancestors, and there are no clear miracles. Yosef is the first of the patriarchs to have children without divine intervention.

In such a world, to be great is not to converse with God, not to hear God’s voice or to speak His words, but to be able to read God’s presence in the world as it is, to be a Tzafnat Paneah, “an interpreter of hidden things,” as Yosef is called in Egypt. Yosef’s ability to do this -- his ability to see in Pharaoh’s dream the marks of a divine plan -- is the key to his success. It is only when Yosef learns to speak, not of his own dreams of greatness, but of God’s plan, that he can become great. Being great in this kind of seemingly random world involves the ability to read the words: Nes Gadol Hayah Sham on the swirling dreidl of life.

This essay was inspired by the story “Right Side Up” by Barbara Diamond Goldin and by a shiur given last shabbat by Joel Linsider at Congregation Beth Abraham-Jacob.

An Extra Thought on Numbers and Yosef’s Dreams:

There are 3 sets of dreams in the Yosef narrative. In both the second and third set, the numbers in the dreams correspond, according to Yosef, to time elements. The 3 branches of the vine in the cup-bearer’s dream and the 3 baskets in the baker’s dream each correspond to 3 days. In Pharaoh’s dreams, the 7 cows, skinny and fat, and the 7 ears of grain, skinny and fat, all correspond to 7 years.

What about the first set of dreams, Yosef’s own? There is no number given in the first of his dreams (though it refers to his brothers’ sheaves of wheat, apparently 11), but in the second he says that the sun, the moon and 11 stars will come and bow down to him. On one level, the dream clearly refers to his father and mother (although dead at the time) and 11 brothers. But what if we also apply the time/number interpretation to this dream? What do we come up with?

1 sun + 1 moon + 11 stars = 13. The Torah does not often tell us its protagonists’ ages, but it tells us that when Yosef had this dream he was 17 years old (37:2) and that when he interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams and thereby became a vice-roy with many people bowing down to him, he was 30 years old (41:46). 30 – 17 = 13. The celestial elements in Yosef’s dream would then correspond to the number of years until his dream was to be fulfilled.

(What about the number 11? Yosef’s first dream involves 11 sheaves of wheat, though they are not numbered there, and in the second dream the number 11 stands out. But why 11, if, as we have just seen, it was 13 years until Yosef’s dreams were fulfilled? The Torah emphasizes that Pharaoh had his dreams “after 2 years.” Based on this strange detail, the rabbis say that Pharaoh was actually supposed to dream his dream 2 years earlier but that God postponed the event as a punishment to Yosef for trying to get the cup-bearer to help him get out of jail instead of relying on God. Perhaps then Yosef’s dreams of 11 sheaves and 11 stars refer to the 11 year time-frame after which he was supposed to have his dream fulfilled? The original plan was 11 years so the dream had 11 stars. The addtion of the sun and the moon turns the number to 13, corresponding to the actual number of years it took.)

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Some Chanukah Thoughts

This year, the first and the last nights of Chanukah fall on Friday night. Twice we will be lighting double candles, those for Chanukah and those for Shabbat.

Chanukah candles are not like Shabbat candles. Shabbat candles are for use, for oneg, “pleasure,” to provide light to sit and eat by on Friday night. Chanukah candles, on the other hand, may not be used at all. V’eyn lekha reshut lehishtamesh bahem ela lirotam belvad. “You do not have permission to use them but only to look upon them.” If you want light to eat or read by, light another lamp as well. These candles are not ordinary lights; they are kadosh, holy.

This law about the use of candles expresses a basic theme of Chanukah – its emphasis on what is out of the ordinary, the supernatural, the miraculous. Shabbat celebrates the creation of the natural world in 7 days, but Chanukah has 8 days. It moves on into the realm of the supernatural -- the realm of the nes, the miracle.

Chief among such miracles is the very existence of our nation. On Chanukah we celebrate the ability of our nation to have survived a war with the Syrian Greek army against all odds. Rabim beyad me’atim. They were mighty and numerous and we were few and weak. By the normal order of things, we should have been defeated, defeated then, and defeated again in the many persecutions that preceded and followed Chanukah (see the Maoz Tzur song). That we weren’t defeated, that we are still hanging on, is indeed a miracle.

This survival theme is also the meaning of the oil story, the story of the jug of oil which should have lasted only one day but ended up lasting eight. We are the flame lit by that jug of oil, surviving and burning for all these years beyond all reasonable expectations. And the reason our flame keeps burning, the reason we survive, is that our jug of oil, the Torah, will never run out. We are fueled by the Torah, fueled by precisely this kind of story. You see, the story is actually speaking about itself, about its own future, its own tenacity to live and keep burning in us.

For here we are, not just alive, but lighting Chanukah candles, carrying on an ancient tradition. The Hebrew word nes means both “miracle” and “sign-post.” When we light candles, we are simultaneously commemorating a miracle of the past and creating a sign-post for the present and the future, a sign-post of our commitment to this memory, our heritage. While we are busy marking a miracle of the past, we are also creating a miracle in the present, the miracle of the past’s survival in ourselves and our children.

On Shabbat we thank God for creating the world with all its physical lights -- its sun and its moon and its stars. On Chanukah we thank God for the miracle of another kind of light, for the miracle of a light which burns within us and can never be extinguished.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Parashat Vayishlah: Yaakov's Transformation

People are often bothered by the unseemly deeds of our ancestors, especially those of Yaakov, the trickster. What kind of role-model is he for us and for our children?

Actually, a very good role model. Not because of who he is, but because of who he works to become, because of how he changes and grows over time.

Yaakov transforms himself from a Yaakov to a Yisrael. He first receives this name change as a blessing from the angel with whom he fights. As Rashi points out, the name change is fitting because it is the first blessing Yaakov earns through an open, direct confrontation (related to the word Yisrael) rather than through deception and crookedness (related to the word Yaakov). He has fought the angel face to face as opposed to hiding behind the skin of his brother, fooling his father into giving him his brother’s blessing.

A new face-to-face kind of openness is at the heart of Yaakov’s, or rather, Yisrael’s, new way of being, as the Torah makes clear through the repeated use of the word panim, “face,” in this story. Yaakov calls the place Peniel because of this face to face – panim el panim – encounter with the angel. And his encounter with Esav is also described in these open terms. What he hopes for ahead of time is to see Esav’s face, and to win his forgiveness and favor, all three of which are described using the term panim (32:21). And, when he does actually meet Esav, Yaakov describes the encounter as fulfilling exactly this panim goal – “To see your face is like seeing the face of God” (33:10).

Yaakov has been in many situations in which faces could not be openly seen. He was born holding on to his brother’s heel, not seeing his face. Later, when it came to blessings, his father, in his blindness, could not see his sons’ faces, relying instead, mistakenly, on the feel of their arms as he blessed the wrong son. And Yaakov himself could not see the face of his bride when, in the darkness of night, he was given Leah instead of Rachel. Yaakov wants out of this cycle of darkness and trickery. It is time for night to end and the honesty of daylight to shine forth.

And so it does. When Yaakov runs away from Esav in the beginning of last week’s parsha, the Torah tells us the sun was setting (28:11), but here, when Yaakov returns, ready for an open-faced encounter with his brother, the verse instead reads: Vayizrah lo hashemesh, “And the sun rose for him (32:32)” A new day has dawned for Yaakov/Yisrael, one which is to be bright with honesty rather than dark with hiding and trickery.

Yaakov is not perfect. He is, like us, a struggler, a striver. And in that sense, he is a perfect role model, a perfect father for our people, as he models not a particular personality trait or great deed but a process, the process and the promise of personal growth and transformation.