D’var Torah: When our dreams include all, we follow the divine plan

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Rabbi Dale Schreiber

RABBI DALE SCHREIBER

The Book of Genesis is divided into four major narratives. They are marked by deceit, violence, double-crossing, payback, redemption and reconciliation.

This weeks portion, Vayeshev, is read during the month of Kislev, a month of darkness, dreams and hope. Twenty years ago, Vayeshev coincided with Thanksgiving and Hanukkah. Torah commentaries two decades ago focused on the symbolism of Jewish light as a beacon of hope and a source of illumination.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, author of the “The Bedtime Torah:  Wisdon, Visions and Dreams,” wrote: Our lives are made full by our dreams. Aspirations for a better tomorrow, hopes for a world of peace and plenty, of inclusion and freedom — these hopes keep us alive and help us to live our lives with purpose.”

Jewish tradition has a reverent respect for dreams, viewing them as potential prophetic messages. Rabbi Artson continues:

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Through our dreams, we imagine a world worthy of our efforts and responsive to our needs. Through our dreams, we preview ourselves as heroic, larger than life in bringing that better tomorrow today. … But dreams can become vessels of our ambition, sources of jealousy in whom they are confided.”

The introductory lines of our portion tell us that Jacob has settled, arriving at his native place. The text says he arrives intact after wrestling with a force and securing a new name: Yisrael. He settles in after reuniting and restoring the birthright he stole from his brother. He settles in after the agonizing abduction and violation of his only daughter and the enraged retribution of her two brothers.

God, who has been a comforting and guiding force during the past 22 years, tells Jacob to go back to the beginning to the land where his father had dwelled, thus ending the dramatic events of the Patriarchal Era. The story that will occupy Torah until the end of Genesis is about Joseph and the melodramatic chain of events precipitated by two dreams and one very colorful coat.

The Torah portion Vayeshev is one of descent. Joseph descends into a pit, into Egypt and into a dungeon where he languishes for two years. There are no comforting Divine affirmations, directions or promises. Gods voice is noticeably silent during the descent and subsequent spectacular rise to power.

Gods silence in Josephs story is called a momentous change in the relationship between God and humans. God spoke to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob at times, commanding, teaching, instructing and reassuring. Josephs father, grandfather, and great-grandfather had the benefit of Divine counsel, but Joseph had to find his own way whatever the circumstances. No angels were along the way to redirect him, as there are in many scriptural stories.

Joseph is described as complex and contradictory. Each upturn in the story is matched by a downturn. He is loved most of all by his father and is hated by his brothers. When Reuven saves him from their brothersmurderous attempt, Joseph is taken and sold into slavery. He works his way up to be steward of Potiphars household, only to be falsely accused by his wife and cast into prison. Eventually Josephs gift in interpreting Pharoahs dream places him as second in command of the Egyptian Empire.

The rabbis describe him as a handsome, highly engaging, vain  and insensitive young man who exacerbates antagonism within his family.

His odyssey from youthful indulgence to a most powerful diplomat impress the rabbis. From a rabbinic perspective, the Talmud, midrash and throughout rabbinic literature, Joseph is consistently referred to by a name awarded only to a very select few. Each of the patriarchs is granted the designation of Avinu, our father, and the matriarchs are referred to as Imeinu, our mother. Moses earns the title of Rabbeinu, our teacher. But Joseph is given the title of Yosef Hatzadik,Joseph the Righteous. 

The rabbis see within Josephs life a deep moral commitment and tremendous courage. Josephs story is about accepting and living gratefully with the hand God deals you rather than the audacious claim that we can influence God to change it.

Joseph brings God into the story in what the rabbis label astounding ways. He refuses to take credit for any dream interpretation, saying, Do not the interpretations belong to God?”

Even when asked to interpret Pharoahs dream, he responds emphatically: It is not I. God will respond to Pharaohs welfare.”

Joseph continues to champion a silent God as the source unlocking aspects of Divine Providence through prophetic dreams during a nonprophetic time. Joseph Hatzadik understood that nothing that happened to him happened by coincidence. His odyssey through suffering and ascendancy served a higher purpose that enabled his gifts of diplomacy, leadership and dream interpretation to bring his estranged family to a safe place, ensuring the destiny of a father and a people called Israel.

Rabbi Artson wrote:

“A world without dreams is too small for the human soul. But a world in which our dreams are projected onto the world without making room for each other is too brutal. Ultimately, Joseph and his brothers learn to bring each other into their dreams, recognizing that the greatest dream of all is the one God dreams for us all: ‘On that day, all will be one, and God’s name: One.’ ”

Kein Y’hi Ratzon. May it be so.

Rabbi Dale Schreiber is a mostly retired chaplain who enjoys making and spending time with her husband of 52 years, and their children and grandchildren, who all live out of town. She is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.