Saturday, December 19, 2020

Parsha Miketz - Don't Follow Your Dreams

Parshas Miketz begins with a dream. Previously, Vayetze had begun with a dream and Vayeshev had begun and ended with dreams. But there's a substantive difference between the earlier dreams, those of Yaakov, and the later dreams involving Yosef. In Yaakov's dreams, G-d or an angel had explained their meaning or purpose to the patriarch, whereas Yosef' had to explain his own dreams and those of others.

As the embryonic Jewish people moved closer to the point of exile, the connection with G-d appeared to grow tenuous. Until Moshe, Yaakov would be the last Jew whom the Torah describes G-d speaking to. In the Egyptian exile, the Jews were no longer able to hear G-d. Yosef's dreams, filled with abstract symbols, but without words, were the beginning of that exile in more ways than one. The dreams would help bring on a physical exile, but they were also the symbols of a spiritual exile from the close connection of direct conversations and clear messages that Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov had enjoyed with G-d. 

When Yosef encounters Pharaoh's two stewards, themselves exiled, in prison, he responds to their dreams by saying, "Are not interpretations for G-d? Relate them to me." 

It's a strange declaration, at once humble and yet full of a grand assertion. If G-d knows the meaning of dreams, how does it follow that Yosef can be so privileged as to know their meanings as well?

The brothers had mocked Yosef as the Baal HaHalomot or the Master of Dreams. His destiny and exile had seemingly begun with his own two dreams, in which he sees stalks of wheat and stars bowing. Yet there is a significant difference between these two dreams and the later dreams of Pharaoh and his stewards which may help explain both his title and why he is able to assert his ability to interpret them.

Yosef interprets Pharaoh's dreams and those of the stewards, but despite their obvious meaning, he never interprets his own dreams. It's the brothers and his father who see in them dreams of ambition and glory.

"Are not interpretations for G-d?" Instead of interpreting his own dreams, Yosef left them to G-d.

In the modern culture, we are often told to follow our dreams. When the brothers taunted Yosef as the Master of Dreams, they meant that his mastery was as vaporous as dreams and perhaps that he had been mastered by dreams that had no reality to them. But Yosef never allowed the dreams to master him. He did not interpret his own dreams or allow himself to be ruled by these visions of power and glory.

Yosef truly was the Master of Dreams because he did not follow his dreams. They followed him.

In prison, vastly distant from these visions of power and glory, Yosef did not follow his dreams, he followed his faith. He could interpret the dreams of others because he was not ruled by his own dreams.

When we interact with others, we are often driven by our own agendas. We want things from other people and our time with them is defined by what we want. Yosef never made requests or suggestions that would serve his own agendas until he had interpreted the dreams, of Pharaoh and his stewards. 

"Are not interpretations for G-d?" Yosef interpreted the dreams as he believed G-d had intended. He did not allow his dreams to dominate the dreams of others. Instead of following his own dreams, he helped others understand their dreams. And that is what made him so powerful. 

Sold into slavery, Yosef climbed the ladder in a society with no social mobility by helping others and refusing to take advantage of them even when, as with Potiphar's wife, he put himself at risk. He went from a lowly slave to the manager to an estate to the viceroy of Egypt by helping those around him. And he did so for the same reason that he interpreted their dreams, because that is what G-d would want.

That is what makes Yosef one of the most selfless figures in the Torah. 

We think of the Baal HaHalomot as someone who is driven by dreams, but it is actually the man or woman who masters their dreams and lives a life of meaning and purpose. Yosef could not have survived as a slave if he had spent all his time pursuing fantasies. He saw dreams as forms of meaning, not from his subconscious, but from G-d, and followed a destiny laid out by G-d, by helping others. 

Yosef's interpretation of dreams, like his waking labors, were based on paying close attention to other people and to the world around him, and creating a bridge between it and G-d. Cast off into exile, he brought light to wherever he was by seeing that everything around him was illuminated by G-d.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

The Chanukah of Chanukah - Why We Only Celebrate the Dedication of a Defiled Temple

What is Chanukah specifically?

Many discussions about Chanukah begin with the artificial distinction between the military victory and the miracle of the oil that burned for 8 days. This distinction is wholly artificial because the war had been fought by a priestly family over the desecration of the sacred service and concluded with the purification of the Temple. The military campaign and the reclamation of the Temple are the means and the end.

The miracle of the oil was the achievement of the goal for which the battle had been fought. To separate the two as if they belonged to two different world is like separating the blowing of the shofar at the Western Wall from the Six Day War. Both were miracles, but one was the moral climax of the miracle.

The miracle of the menorah was, in the old military slogan, "why we fight".

And yet Chanukah, the name of the holiday, references neither the battle nor, explicitly, the menorah. Chanukah simply means dedication. The first dedication occurred with the Mishkan, the portable tabernacle, in the desert, with the First Temple, built by Solomon, and the Second Temple, assembled by the returning exiles from Babylon under the leadership of the last of the prophets.

And yet, of all of these, as thrilling and meaningful as they were, the only chanukah, the only dedication that we celebrate for thousands of years, is the one that took place in the defiled, but liberated Temple.

It's puzzling, but not that much.

People who don't know much about Judaism sometimes reduce Jewish holidays to, "They killed us, we won, let's eat". In reality, only 3 holidays, Passover, Purim, and Chanukah, fit this description.

The traditional Jewish division of holidays has been into the biblical holidays, Passover, Sukkot, and Shavuot, which endow the agricultural cycle of planting and harvesting that governed the lives of an agricultural society with symbolic and historical religious meaning by recalling key events in the redemption and the nationalization of the Jewish people, by visiting the Temple on these 'moadim' and, similarly to Shabbat, refraining from physical labor and secular activities.

And then there were the post-biblical commemorations, Purim and Chanukah, which commemorated specific miracles that occurred around the time of the Second Temple, which did not require any trips to the Temple or cessation of physical labor, but an appreciation of the presence of G-d in our lives.

These holidays were not just about the defeat of a genocidal enemy through military prowess, although the Jews fought and won physical battles in both Chanukah and Purim. These were national religious revivals.

Purim begins with a feast of evil, moves to a fast of repentance, and then concludes with a proper feast. 

Chanukah also begins with a Jewish people who have become comfortable with a secular society, losing their values, before suddenly coming to a terrible choice between being Jewish and imminent death.

In both Purim and Chanukah, two men, Mordechai and Mattisyahu, stood up with grand gestures of defiance that woke a slumbering nation and forced them to confront the forces that would destroy them.

And to do that, the Jews first had to dedicate, or rather rededicate themselves, to G-d and the Torah.

That is why we celebrate only one chanukah. Every other dedication of temples and tabernacles had begun with a perfect new structure. Chanukah's dedication alone begins with a soiled and defiled Temple, turned over to idolatry, deliberately tainted in every ugly and indecent way.

The Temple that the Maccabees liberate is a reflection of the state of the Jewish people.

The chanukah of Chanukah is the only one we celebrate because it is the only one that remains relevant to us in all these thousands of years. We are not worthy of the other dedications. The sacred buildings that were built are lost to us. But Chanukah reminds us that we can rise from the depths, and with dedication repair our inner selves, our society, and with it, the Temple where we most closely encounter G-d.

The final post-biblical holidays are appropriately enough the holidays of the baalei teshuva, the penitent ones, they are not the stories of the open might of G-d smashing down waves or bringing the commandments of the Torah in fire, but of a lost people who are still protected, unseen by G-d, and who return, no matter how much they have fallen, when they are willing to dedicate themselves to Him.

Chanukah and Purim are holidays of Teshuvah, not, like many of the fast days, through physical penitence, but through the commemorations of a national revival and a shining moment of rejuvenation.

They are not, "They tried to kill us, we won, let's eat." Rather they are, "They tried to kill us, we found G-d and won, let's celebrate."

Let us consider the Al Hanissim prayer: our only formal addition to the daily prayers for Chanukah. After briefly describing the rebellion and the battle, fought by G-d, it turns to the return of the Temple.

"And then Your children came to Your Holy of Holies of Your house, cleansed Your sanctuary, purified Your temple, and lit lights in Your holy courts. And they designated these 8 days of Chanukah to give thanks and to praise Your name."

The reference is to the lights plural. In other descriptions of the Second Temple, we've seen that a multitude of lights lit there would have shone down across Jerusalem filling the city with light. 

The emphasis in the prayer is not on the miracle of the oil, which a small number of warrior priests witnessed, but on the celebration of the dedication afterward that the entire city rejoiced in. The conclusion is the plurality of lights lit by all the returning priestly and levitical families in the Temple. A light show that lit up a nation similar to the way that each family spreads the light of their menorah today.

Why indeed does each family light the menorah? We're not high priests. And few of us are even priests. There is no other temple ritual that we so explicitly recreate, almost blasphemously, in our own homes.

And yet each of us lights to rededicate our homes, our families, and our flawed selves, to G-d.

In the moment of the lighting, each of us is a priest, striding through the rubble of a defiled temple, searching out that one pure jug of olive oil, a gift from G-d to a fallen man or woman, and hoping that in this lighting it will burn far beyond its normal capacity within our souls even when Chanukah ends.

In lighting the menorah, we ask G-d for a gift of purity, of purpose and conviction, not to make us over anew, but to empower us to reclaim and purify what has been soiled, and to rededicate ourselves again.

Chanukah, unlike Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashana, does not tell us that we can leave the past behind, and yet it allows us to celebrate, not a new beginning, but the bright start of cleaning up the mess.

It is the holiday of the Baal Teshuvah, of the broken responding to that self-knowledge of brokenness, not with despair, but with dedication and even joy at the Divine inspiration that has kindled their flame.

It is that dedication, that chanukah, the addition of light after light, sweeping back the darkness without and within, that we celebrate. It is a miracle. It is many miracles. But most of all it is the miracle that G-d kindles a light of inspiration and hope even within the defiled temple in Jerusalem or in a Jew.