Friday, December 8, 2017

Parshas Vayeishev - The Wisdom of Dreams

At the very beginning of Parshas Vayeishev, Yosef is referred to as a 'Na'ar', a lad, an immature boy, in comparison to all his older brothers. And yet, we are told in the next pasuk that his father Yaakov loved him because he was a "Ben zekunim". One of the meanings of that phrase is that Yosef was sagely, he was wise in the way that the old are.

How could Yosef be both young and old? How could his brothers see him as an immature boy trying to take what was rightfully theirs while his father saw him as sagely?

One of the meanings of Avrech, the name that he is hailed by in Egypt, is young in years but a father in wisdom.

That's still the term we use for a young married man who learns Torah in an academic setting.

How could Yosef be both old and young, wise and immature at the same time? And what can we learn from him?

Why did Yosef's brothers hate him so much? It was his dreams that infuriated them. And they refer to him only sourly as the "Baal Hahalomot" or the "Master of Dreams". A similar term in Yiddish would be "Luftmensch". A man who doesn't properly exist in this world. But instead lives in a fantasy world.

It wasn't that his brothers did not have their own dreams. But for most people growing up requires putting aside one's dreams. Or at the very least keeping them private, instead of sharing them, as Yosef did.

The brothers saw Yosef's dreams as a sign of immaturity and irresponsibility. Instead of taking on an adult role, Yosef was retreating into a fantasy world in which he mattered more than they did.

And, to their minds, their father refused to discipline him because was too caught up in mourning his dead wife.

The brothers resented Yosef, but they also envied him. They envied him in the way that anyone who was forced to put aside dreams must envy someone who still believes in them. And so they cruelly chose to destroy his dreams to assure themselves that they had made the right decision.

By killing Yosef's dreams, they were also killing their own dreams.

But dreams also contain their own wisdom. That was Yosef's gift. Each of the brothers had inherited something special from their father. Yaakov's gifts had been divided into twelve.

Reuven had his quick temper. Yehuda had his leadership qualities. Levi had his zealousness. Naftali had his speed. Zevulun had his talents for business. But Yosef had his dreams. And it was Yaakov's dreams that took him from Beit El and returned him there. They enabled him to see a vision of the ladder of heaven that reached earth. Dreams allowed Yaakov to reach the divine.

And that was why Yaakov understood Yosef's gift of dreams in a way that none of the brothers did.

Dreaming requires both wisdom and youthful naiveté. The dreamer believes in the impossible and gains depths of inspiration.

Yosef was the best kind of dreamer. Like his father, he could take a vision, be enraptured by it, and yet translate it into practical solutions to real world problems, like dealing with a famine.

To the brothers, the world was a wholly tangible place. It is why Yehuda could never think that behind the veil of the woman he had just propositioned might be his son's widow.

Such unlikely things did not happen in his world.

Yehuda's stolidity was an important quality. It allowed him to confront Yosef and offer to sell himself into slavery. Because just as he could not imagine that the veiled woman was his daughter-in-law, he could not imagine that the cruel Viceroy about to drag away his brother in chains was also his brother.

Like the other brothers, Yehuda lived in the real world. But Yosef's talent for dreaming, for imagining, allowed him to transcend the ordinary, and to see how the ordinary could be transcended. It allowed him to execute the complex narrative of deception and revelation that ends when he confronts his brothers with his true identity. And in doing so he shows them that what they believe is the real world can be nothing more than a dream.

This was Yosef's special wisdom. It is both the wisdom of the child who hasn't yet learned the rules of the world and also of the old man who knows how absurd the world can be.

Yosef could bring his dreams into the real world. And transform the world.

That is what Yaakov sensed about him. The brothers were correct. He was indeed a Baal Hahalomot.

The unreality of the world is an essential religious virtue. The truly religious person understands that our reality is not final. The dirt beneath our hands and the sky above our heads can shift places at any time. The world is the product of G-d's will and it is far more marvelous than we can imagine.

Beyond our daily lives and limitations is an incredible dream. It is G-d's dream.

It is easy to forget that as we cope with our daily challenges. Yosef's brothers, struggling to wrest a living from their herds, had lost sight of that. They resented Yosef's dreams. They didn't want to think of the world as a place that could come apart around them at any moment. Yaakov however understood that the world was far too unstable a place to take it for granted. He knew that at any moment, angels might appear and animals might change their stripes. He knew that there was a ladder reaching from heaven to the earth.

Yosef's challenge was that of every dreamer. He had to convince a skeptical public that a dream can become a reality. And to do that he had to, like his father, go on a journey, wrestle with men and women whose imaginations roved no further than their greedy appetites, and then he had to wait for the moment that would open the sky and show them the truth.

And so Yosef was immature enough to see the world as a place that could be changed by a dream and wise enough to understand the meanings of dreams and the nature of the world to be able to make his dreams real.

Some people feel that they must choose between their dreams and their goals. But the wisdom of dreams unites them both.