Rabbi Rachel Timoner – Shabbat Mikeitz 5781 Nechemta
We need dreams. Hanukkah ended yesterday, and the longest night of winter is still ahead. Vaccinations began this week, thank God, but it will be many months until we can enjoy their protection. Dreams will be what carry us through the long, dark winter. Dreams are our light in the dark.
Harper, you taught us that this week’s parasha centers on dreams. You’re right. In fact, the entire Torah narrative hinges on Joseph’s dreams, on his ability to interpret his own dreams and the dreams of others, and on his capacity to turn dreams into reality. Think of it. If Joseph’s family doesn’t end up in Egypt, well, our people will never be enslaved by Pharaoh, and if we’re never enslaved, we’ll never be freed by God and Moses, and if we never go free, forget about Passover, but also we’ll never wander in the wilderness, we’ll never receive the Torah at Mt Sinai, we’ll never be led to the Promised Land. All of the action, our entire story, depends upon Joseph’s dreams.
Joseph’s dreams of his brothers bowing down to him foreshadow the scene in our parasha, and his interpretation of those dreams is what enables him to see his role in history. This is where your point comes in, Ben. Joseph’s compassion for his brothers becomes possible because his dreams gave him the insight to contextualize their cruel actions within a larger story. He understands from his dreams that God sent him to Egypt through the actions of his brothers, and that by being sent to Egypt he has been given the opportunity to save thousands of lives. This perspective gives him the ability to be compassionate to his brothers, and ultimately to forgive them.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, zichrono livracha, points out that not only does Joseph dream dreams and interpret dreams with great wisdom, he also implements dreams. He takes decisive action in this parasha and in the next to make his dreams and the dreams of others into reality. We see this with Pharaoh’s dreams. Joseph understands from Pharaoh’s dreams that there will be seven years of plenty and then a famine lasting seven years, and that all of the produce of Egypt must be saved up for the lean years. And then he does so.
When Joseph sees his brothers bowing down to him, he understands that they and their father need to move down to Egypt to live in comfort and plenty or, as you argued, Harper, with wisdom he understands that they need to be his equals. Rabbi Sacks suggests that these three talents– dreaming dreams, interpreting dreams wisely, and implementing dreams—are leadership qualities that we all can apply in our own lives. They don’t have to be messages from God for this to be true. They can be our deepest wishes and longings. Our willingness to dream, our ability to interpret our own dreams and the dreams of others, and our courage to implement them, to turn our dreams into reality, together are what enable us to transform the given conditions of our world into an alternate reality. And if there ever was a time when we needed these qualities, it is now.
I asked you at the beginning of the service to articulate some dreams you have for the future. I would venture to guess that we all have a dream that someday soon we will be able to embrace each other, to sing together in person, to laugh together without masks on, to share dinners in each other’s homes, to have sleepovers and parties and vacations and time with our extended families. It is essential that we allow those sweet and fervent dreams to unfurl themselves in our minds’ eye this winter. To see them in all of their light and color. It can be painful to do this, we ache when we let ourselves really dream, because we feel our longing in its fullness.
Dreaming is also dangerous because we make ourselves vulnerable to disappointment, and disappointment can be crushing. As the poet Langston Hughes warns: “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? ….Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?” In many ways it’s easier not to dream. It’s easier to grow numb to what we’re lacking and longing for, to give up on our dreams, to accommodate ourselves to whatever is and to forget about what we wish our lives or our world would be.
One of the most important essays I ever read describes Judaism as a tenacious hold on a dream. In the essay, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg argues that Judaism is based on a dream articulated in the first chapter of Genesis. There, we see the Garden of Eden, a vision of the world in its perfect state. All life interrelated and intertwined, humanity living in harmony with the earth, and each human possessing the “ultimate dignity” of being created in the image of God. The Rabbis understood this to mean that every human being is “unique, equal [to every other], and of infinite value.” Greenberg says that this image of Eden became for the Jewish people our Messianic dream. Judaism insists that the world is moving toward this vision: toward harmony, dignity, equality, and the honoring of all life.
Some religions put out a dream like that and then tell us that the dream is more real than the world we live in. That we just have to see through the illusion of this world or to endure life in the world until we die and experience the dream in heaven. But Judaism doesn’t do this. Judaism also asks us to immerse ourselves in reality, while holding onto the dream. To grapple with the world as it is, in its rank inequality, its obscene poverty, its cruel oppression, its wanton despoilment of the natural world, and its routine degradation of human life. We are not to look away, we are not to pretend that this is an illusion, and we are not to wait it out for our time in heaven. We are to enter the muck of this world, all of its pain and all of its heartbreak and all of its brokenness, while still holding onto the dream. We are never ever to give up on our vision of a world with true equality and human dignity and harmony among all life.
That is extremely difficult to do. Just like it’s painful right now to allow ourselves to dream of what our life will be like when this pandemic is over, while we’re in the midst of a long, dark winter of separation. Living between the dream and the reality is really hard. But it also keeps us going.
Jews live, Greenberg says, in a dialectic. We are both loyal to the dream, refusing to give it up, and also immersed in and responsible for the reality of our world. We live pulled by these two poles. Always critical of the world as it is, of all the ways this world falls short of the ideal, and always hoping and acting for a greater wholeness, for healing, for equality and dignity and justice and peace. This is the lot and the commitment of the Jewish people, Greenberg says, holding both the world that should be and the world that is.
So how do we sustain ourselves when the world isn’t how we want it to be? That’s the question of this winter. And, Yitz Greenberg reminds us, this is old Jewish wisdom. This is the function of Shabbat. Six days a week we live in the world, absorbed in what is bleak, fixing what is broken. But one day a week, this day, we live as if the dream is now, as if the world is as it should be. For one day every week we immerse ourselves in our dreams. We let them explode in their brilliance and vibrancy. We live in them as if they were real. And in this way, Shabbat removes all of our frustration pent up from waiting, waiting, waiting for the dream, for we live on this day as if it is here and now. This is the day when we imagine what life will be like when all of our greatest longings come true. That is why Shabbat is full of so much joy. We look at the world and we see our dreams fulfilled in it.
Only when we can imagine an alternate reality can we make it happen. And here is why that’s so relevant this winter. Dreams emerge most freely in the dark. Darkness can feel frightening and lonely, but darkness is also fertile. It is the sanctuary where we delve deep. It is in the realm of the subconscious where we know beyond knowing. So, in this dark winter, give yourself space and time to dream. Use the long nights, use Shabbat. Dream bright, brilliant dreams. May it be that our dreams sustain us, and may it be that our dreams give us direction for the dawn.