Posts Tagged ‘Joseph’

Dreams and Stories: Parshat Vayeishev

December 14, 2020

This past weekend it was my turn to deliver the D’var Torah (commentary on Torah, like a sermon) at Temple Sinai’s Zoom Shabbat service. The weekly Torah portion covered Genesis 37:1−40:23. Here’s what I wrote.

This week we begin the saga of Joseph, whose brothers bitterly called him “the master of dreams.” This will be a drash about dreams and the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. 

But this week also happens to be Chanukah, which gives us the opportunity to compare two very different set of brothers in Jewish history. 

The Maccabees were five brothers—sons of a Jewish priest—who with their father led a revolt against the Greek rulers of Judaea in the second century BCE; the success of their revolt is commemorated by Chanukah. We don’t have details about how those Maccabee brothers got along with each other. But to win a guerrilla war against such a powerful establishment they would have had to work together very well, to communicate with each other—in short to be unified.  

Joseph and his 11 brothers are a different matter. 

Rather than standing behind his father, one son, Reuben, sleeps with his father’s concubine. The sons identify themselves in factions based on their four different mothers—for instance, one verse tells us how Joseph worked as a helper “to the sons of his father’s wives Bilhah and Zilpah.” And the brothers are in conflict with Joseph from the very start of the story, partly due to Jacob favoring Joseph.

“And when [Joseph’s] brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his brothers, they hated him so that they could not speak a friendly word to him.”

The brothers hate Joseph so much they decide to kill him—then with a slight change in plans sell him into slavery—and lie to their father about his fate.

Given a choice, of course we would all want our children to be Maccabee siblings rather than Joseph’s siblings. 

So this is another way to think about the Chanukah miracle—not just the oil burning miraculously for eight days, not just feisty farmers miraculously defeating an imperial power—but five siblings who miraculously manage to respect each other and work together and learn from each other. 

In the unhappier story of Joseph, one of the things that turns his brothers against him are two dreams that he recounts to them—one where they’re all gathering wheat, and the brothers’ sheaves bow down to Joseph’s sheaves, and the other where the sun, moon, and eleven stars bow down to him. 

“His brothers answered, ‘Do you mean to reign over us? Do you mean to rule over us?’ And they hated him even more for his talk about his dreams.”

Dreams are perplexing. From the beginning of humankind, we’ve been mystified and terrified and inspired by dreams, and have struggled to understand where they come from and what they mean. 

One of the oldest ways of making sense of dreams is to view them as direct messages from a supernatural being. We see that earlier in the Torah, when we are told that God came to King Abimelech in a dream and ordered him not to marry Sarah. 

Another approach is to view dreams as portents of the future—not as direct as Abimelech’s “phone call” from God, but something that, if interpreted properly, lets you know in advance what will happen. Joseph does this kind of interpreting in Egypt when he says that Pharoah’s dream of seven fat cows followed by seven gaunt cows is a prediction of good harvests followed by famine. 

More than a century ago, Freud suggested that dreams are the upwelling of uncomfortable or taboo thoughts that we shut out from our conscious minds. 

Neuroscientists today would give us an explanation based on brain circuitry. Our Aunt Sadie might say bad dreams are a result of too many latkes and sufganiot. The Talmud suggests that a dream is 1/60th of a prophecy…. and these are just some of the different ways that people have to tried make sense of the phenomenon of dreaming. 

I’d like to go in a slightly different direction. Let’s set aside the biological or mystical reasons Joseph had those dreams, and not worry about whether they came from God or from a latke overdose. 

Let’s think about Joseph’s dreams as stories. And let’s look at the function that those dreams—or stories—played within his already-conflicted family.

Here we have a family riven by power inequity. As the late-in-life child of Jacob’s favorite wife Rachel, Joseph came into the world with an advantage over his brothers. He was Jacob’s favorite from the start, even though the others were older. Jacob showed his favoritism with the gift of that famous, beautiful, many-colored coat. You might say Joseph was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. You might say he was born with privilege.

His brothers didn’t like that. Joseph must surely have been aware of their resentment.

And so—here we are getting away from text and into speculation, but bear with me—perhaps these stories of the sheaves and the stars were intended to justify his privilege

Perhaps Joseph shared those dreams of the bowing sheaves and stars to explain why he deserved his special status within the family:

“See? Dad was right to give me that coat—Dad is right to single me out—because I’m special! These dreams say so, and dreams don’t lie!” 

Even if Joseph didn’t intend it that way, that could easily have been the message that his brothers took from those dreams. 

The dreams were stories that filled a function—rightly or wrongly—of justifying Joseph’s status as the privileged, favorite child. 

The dreams provided a rationale for injustice in the small, intimate world of Jacob’s family.

Similarly, societies create stories to rationalize their injustices. This can happen through scientific and historic myth-making—for instance, when 19th century white male scientists claimed that women and black people were naturally inferior because they supposedly had smaller skull sizes. 

Today we live in a society that, like Joseph’s family, is riven by power inequity. Whatever metric you choose—money, housing, healthy food, good medical care, job options, a sense of physical safety, connections to people who run our institutions—some people have a lot and others have very little. 

The people who have a lot often tell stories that explain why they deserve it. Like Joseph’s dream, their stories paint their privilege as part of the natural order—logical, unarguable, even just.

“I came up with a better idea.” “I’m smarter than those other guys.” “I worked my butt off, and they’re just plain lazy.” “I pulled myself up by my bootstraps.” 

Parts of those stories may be true. But there’s usually more to it than that.

Most of us in this Zoom service benefit from some kind of privilege. You don’t have to be Bill Gates or live in a mansion to benefit from privilege. We can be powerful in one facet of our lives, yet vulnerable in other facets. 

For instance, as a white person I feel a sense of physical safety around police officers that many people of color wouldn’t feel. That’s privilege. Yet as a woman, I feel vulnerable walking past a construction site of cat-calling men. Powerful in one area; not so powerful in the other. 

As a child, I grew up with immense class and race privilege that I took for granted. I never noticed it because it seemed so normal to me. I had a father who earned enough money that my mother could stay home and give us huge amounts of attention. A public school that was wealthy enough to have an orchestra and lend us violins to take home! Streets that were safe and stores that welcomed our teenage browsing, even if we didn’t buy anything. Relatives who were lawyers and doctors and so made the question for me not IF I would go to college but WHERE I would go to college….

Put that all together, and I grew up with a sense that the world valued me and was safe for me. A belief that I could go out into that world and use my voice and take risks and succeed.  

That all seemed as natural as air to me, just as Jacob’s preferential love must have seemed as natural as air to Joseph.

And yet so many people don’t have all or even a part of that.

In telling the story of our own successes, honesty requires us to acknowledge our privilege—the places where we’ve benefitted from an uneven playing field. 

Jewish ethics then requires us to seek ways to even out that playing field. 

I invite you to take a minute now to think about your own life. In what ways, are you privileged? 

Have you benefited from advantages of economic class, race, gender, sexual orientation? From being part of a religious or ethnic majority? From birth order? From other kinds of privilege? 

Now consider the stories that you use to explain your own successes—to yourself, and also to others.  How honest are your stories? Do they acknowledge the role of privilege as well as personal initiative? Do your stories provide room for other people to succeed too? 

Do your stories build other people up or tear them down?

Imagine, for a moment, if Joseph had dreamed a different dream and told his brothers a different story. Say it was a story that instead of aggrandizing his own success, showed how he was connected with his brothers. That acknowledged his privilege, but showed how he could use it to elevate all of them. Perhaps:

I dreamed that twelve sheaves of wheat stood in a circle, side by side. One sheaf was taller since those stalks had received a lot more water. Its height attracted the notice of the king’s steward, who bought all twelve sheaves for a very high price and had them milled into flour for the most exquisite cakes—cakes whose recipes have been passed down through 4000 years of history.

With such a story, Joseph might not have ended up in a pit. He and his siblings might have been a family of Maccabees after all. 

Shabbat shalom.