Rabbi Rachel Timoner – Shabbat Mikeitz 5783
We find ourselves this week in the midst of the high drama of the Joseph story. The parasha opens with Joseph down in Egypt, having been sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. After being falsely accused by his master’s wife, he finds himself in prison, where through his gift at dream interpretation, he eventually is released and called to Pharaoh’s side to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. When Pharaoh describes two dreams in vivid detail, Joseph is able to see in the symbolism a message from God about the future of Egypt. He foretells a fourteen year story of abundance followed by famine and advises Pharaoh to save up all of the grain for the next seven years so that Egypt can survive the seven lean years that are coming after. Stunned by his talent, vision, and relationship to God, Pharaoh appoints Joseph as his vizier over all the land, enabling Joseph to save not only all of Egypt but his own family as well, who soon come from Canaan seeking sustenance.
This is one of my favorite narratives in all of Torah, and over the years I’ve interpreted it in many ways. But this year, it occurred to me that this story and the redemption that it both includes and portends, might be impossible in our time, and not for the reasons you think. It’s true that many people today don’t tend to believe that God is speaking to us through dreams. But more fundamentally, Pharaoh and Joseph demonstrate capacities that are harder to come by these days. In fact, we seem to be losing some of the mental faculties that are on display in the story, and it is worrisome.
What am I talking about? First of all, Joseph’s skill at dream interpretation developed from his own dreams in childhood, and then in practice with Pharaoh’s cupbearer and baker down in the dungeon, and finally with Pharaoh himself. That means that all four of these people dreamed vivid dreams and remembered them to tell them in detail in the morning. By necessity, therefore, at a most basic level, they all had adequate REM sleep, something that can’t be taken for granted anymore. Between a third and a half of all Americans have insufficient REM sleep on a regular basis. Sales of melatonin increased 500% from 2003 to 2014, and over the counter sleep aid sales have doubled over the last decade, and scientists are finding that drugged sleep does not produce the same quality or quantity of REM sleep. Almost half of all Americans say they feel sleepy 4-7 days per week. According to the National Institutes of Health, sleep deficiency is linked to many chronic health problems, including heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, obesity, and depression. Sleep deficiency is also linked to a higher chance of injury in adults, teens, and children, as well as impaired memory and dementia. According to World Sleep Day Statistics as reported by CNN, the health of 45% of the world population is jeopardized by insufficient sleep. As someone who has struggled with sleep ever since my children were born, I hate these statistics because they just make me more anxious which is not good for sleep, but we need to reckon with them. Something is going on and it’s not good for our bodies, our mental health, our memory, or our cognition.
There are many theories about why we are not sleeping enough, but one of them is that we are overstimulated. And that’s a problem not just at night but also during the day. I’m reading Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention by Johann Hari. In it he chronicles how we’ve arrived at a time in which billions of people are interrupted by notifications, communications, and distractions every few moments of every day. He explores how we’ve become addicted to the devices that are stealing our ability to focus. He documents how multitasking is actually not a real function of the brain and therefore all attempts to pay attention to more than one thing at a time reduce our ability to think deeply, creatively, and effectively. He demonstrates that workplace errors have increased exponentially from a combination of lack of sleep and distraction. He makes the case, quite convincingly, that we are all walking around impaired, with only a fraction of our cognitive capabilities in effect. None of us are thinking right and we don’t even know it. And the people who design the devices and the apps that are addicting us to fragmenting our minds are aware that this is happening and their business model depends on it.
In our parasha, Joseph discerns that a crisis is coming, and he presents a feasible solution to that crisis, averting it for the entire region. This requires insight, interpretation of metaphor, problem solving skills, long-term planning, and effective communication. Pharaoh determines that Joseph’s predictions should be heeded and then puts him in charge. This requires discernment, decisiveness, and effective delegation. How compromised would Joseph be if he lived in our time. Imagine an alternative story line in which Joseph fails at any of these functions – unable to interpret the dreams, unable to translate the interpretation into a plan, unable to communicate that plan effectively. Imagine if Pharaoh was distracted by too many inputs and failed to act. We see all around us in our time a collective inability to make good decisions about the future. To look beyond the news cycle, to plan appropriately, to prioritize among competing needs, to communicate in a way that engenders understanding, to focus on any problem long enough to get creative about solutions, to listen to those who are suggesting solutions with enough attention to follow through and make decisions instead of flitting from topic to topic, to read beneath the click bait headlines deeply enough to take in the complexity of the world around us. Obviously we are in a time when we cannot afford to be impaired like this. When the world is as complex as ever and the problems are existential.
When Joseph is rushed up from the dungeon, Pharaoh says to him: שָׁמַ֤עְתִּי עָלֶ֙יךָ֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר תִּשְׁמַ֥ע חֲל֖וֹם לִפְתֹּ֥ר אֹתֽוֹ “I have heard about you that for you to hear a dream is to tell its meaning.” Rashi is quick to point out that tishma halom, “hear a dream” doesn’t mean hear as in a function of the ear but hear as in pay heed to, pay attention to, understand. Just like when we say the Shema, Hear O Israel, Adonai our God Adonai is One, we’re not talking about our ears, we’re talking about our minds. We’re talking about using our minds to pay attention to something subtle and not obvious so as to understand it. Our understanding depends upon our capacity to pay attention. Our interpretation of events and our ability to act effectively in response to those events, depend on our ability to pay attention, which is interrelated with our ability to sleep.
I’ve also been reading and listening to Tricia Hersey of the Nap Ministry. Hersey is a Black woman theologian, writer, performance artist, and activist, who links sleep deprivation with capitalism and white supremacy. Her new book, Rest is Resistance, is out now. She says that the capitalism that comes out of chattel slavery is “the same system that is driving the entire globe to exhaustion and a deep disconnection with our bodies and minds today.” She also says, “Rest pushes back and disrupts a system that views human bodies as a tool for production and labor. It is a counter narrative. We know that we are not machines. We are divine.”
And this brings us to Shabbat and to Chanukah. Here we are on the seventh day. Our people knew from the very beginning, God knew from the very beginning, that rest was necessary for life, so necessary that it was built into creation itself. We have built our lives, our tradition, our religion around that idea and that rhythm, setting aside one in every seven days to remind ourselves of our own exhaustion and need to put down the tools of production, to remember what is most important and most conducive to life. If any people are set up to succeed at rest, with the structures and practices already laid out, it’s us. We don’t have to invent anything. We just have to follow the wisdom of our ancestors and our God. We could use this day every week to break our addiction to distraction and overstimulation, to sleep, and to recover who we really are.
And in the spirit of Chanukah, breaking our addiction to sleep deprivation, overstimulation, and distraction would be an act of resistance on par with the Maccabees. The dominant culture is harming us. It is actually killing us. In fact, in our time this may be the form of resistance that would be most significant to our quality of life, to our health, to social justice, and to the possibility of making decisions that give our grandchildren a future. Everything depends upon our ability to think.
So let’s reimagine Shabbat as a day of resistance, when we take back our God-given right to rest and build the power to break our addiction to distraction and overstimulation. And when we light our candles for the last two nights of Chanukah, that is something worth our dedication.