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December 30th, 2009
10:55 am


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Dream Questions and Dysfunctional Families - a dvar torah
When my rabbi is on vacation, I occasionally give a dvar torah (teaching about the weekly torah portion) at our shul. This is the one I gave last Shabbat.

Shabbat Shalom. Today’s Parsha is Vayigash. As is usually the case, the name of the parsha is the first word in it. It means “and he drew near.”

Vayigash covers the end of the Joseph story arc, and nears the end of the Jacob one; Jacob will bless (or in some cases curse) his sons and die in next week’s parsha. This week – not in the part we read today but in the beginning – we pick up the story at the point where Joseph has just demanded that his brothers leave Benjamin with him as his slave, as punishment for Benjamin having stolen Joseph’s silver cup. Of course he didn’t really steal it; it was all a trick. The cup had been surreptitiously placed in Benjamin’s satchel and money in all of the brothers’ bags.

Now, remember that the brothers have no idea who Joseph really is. They know him only as the all-powerful ruler of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh. Judah draws near to this imposing figure in order to try to broker a deal whereby he, Judah, stays as a captive and Benjamin is released. It’s a moment of great courage and sacrifice and brotherly devotion. And things move on from there into a reading replete with meaning.

Vayigash is a parsha that’s chock full of plot, of character, of action, and of spirituality, too. There’s intrigue and mistaken identity and family drama and national drama and promises from G-d. There is so much to talk about that I found it hard to decide what to focus on. So a few days ago I sat down with the parsha and some commentaries and tried to figure out what to do. I felt a little bit overwhelmed.

Then I remembered Carie’s dvar from last week, where she talked about dreams. In particular, I remembered her mentioning the tradition of she’elat halom – a dream question. I’d never heard of she’elat halom before. I was intrigued by the concept and looked into it. As Carie explained, she’elat halom began as a kabalistic practice. It falls in the category of oneirogenic – dream causing – practices. Did you know there was a word for that? Cool word, eh? Oneirogenic. But I digress.

The idea of she’elat halom is that just before going to sleep, one meditates on a particular question, and then G-d (or one’s subconscious, I suppose, depending on how one views the dream state) sends a dream that answers it. So, I thought I’d try it. Just before going to sleep the other night I emptied my mind as well as I could, multiculturally recited a shma and a few om mani padme homs and focused my brain on the question “What should I say in my dvar this Shabbat?” Then I went to sleep. And I dreamed indeed, vividly and affectingly. It was something about spaceships and giant squids and Susan Sarandon. No help. So, back to Square One.

Anyway, after a disastrous attempt at letting my subconscious mind decide the content of this dvar, I decided to let my conscious mind dictate it instead. Looking at the parsha I decided on two topics. I thought I’d continue a bit with the talk of dreams, for a few reasons. It’s an intriguing area to investigate; there’s a significant one that Jacob has in this parsha; and also I didn’t want to let all the investigating into dreams I did go to waste. The other topic I decided to focus on is Jacob, beyond just his dreaming, in large part because I find him a difficult and troubling character and I hoped that in learning and sharing and perhaps talking to you all more over Kiddush about the topic, I might come more to a sense of peace about him.

I have always found Jacob a hard patriarch to love. Let me begin by saying that I really love that our biblical models – be they the patriarchs, the judges, the kings of Israel, the prophets – are generally portrayed as people with flaws. It makes them easier to relate to, since we are all people with flaws, and it makes them feel much more real, much more human. Moses losing his temper, David’s inability to control his sexual desires, Abraham’s cowardice in offering his wife to save himself – all of these flaws make those biblical characters come alive to me. Their shortcomings are overshadowed by their positive characteristics and we end up revering their virtues all the while we accept their human frailty.

But Yakov I find another story. In his dealings with G-d he’s shown to be truly blessed. In this parsha he is promised that he will father a great nation, that he will be reunited with the son he loved so much and lost. A couple of weeks ago we read of the dream of Jacob’s ladder and his wrestling with a divine being. After that episode you’ll remember that in a biblical, spiritual, mystical precursor to the Witness Protection Program, Yakov is given a new name and a new identity and a promise of a new life. It is clear that he is truly among G-d’s favored.

But why? In dealing with other people, he doesn’t seem at all praiseworthy. I find him almost preternaturally self-centered. For example, he steals his brother’s birthright, deceives his father. I think one of the most poignant moments in the book of Breshit is when Esau and Isaac find out that Jacob tricked Isaac into giving Jacob his blessing and asks his father haloh atzalta li bracha: “Have you no blessings left for me?”

Yakov’s treatment of his father and brother are followed by truly abysmal behavior towards the family he forms, as well. He favors one wife over the other, to such a great extent that G-d takes pity on Leah for being unloved and gives her children. She gives her first child a name with a meaning of “now my husband will love me” - but he doesn’t. And in addition to favoring one wife, he favors one child, Joseph, over the others, prompting the seething resentment that sets the sale of Joseph into slavery in motion. Joseph’s brothers are responsible for their own actions, but it’s their father’s actions that lead them to want to get rid of him and Jacob is never shown as having any concern for or even awareness of his role in enmity between the brothers or any regret for the favoritism he shows.

In another indication of Jacob’s self-absorption, we see his reaction when Dinah’s brothers avenge her rape through killing all the men of Shechem. He is appalled at what they did, but it is not horror that they slaughtered innocents as well as the perpetrator that motivates him. It’s a worry that what they did will make him – Jacob – look bad to the neighbors.

Later on he sends his sons to Egypt to buy food. In spite of their harrowing experience where one of them is kept a prisoner – bound before their eyes – and then they realize when they open their bags that they have apparently been framed as thieves, he still wants them to go back. And he balks at sending Benjamin with them, even though the sons explain they are in great danger if they don’t bring him. What does Jacob say to them when they recount this truly frightening experience, the loss of their brother and the need to bring the other brother in order to free him? Does he express sympathy? Does he try to help them, through fatherly advice and wisdom, to resolve the situation? Does he even pray to G-d – who has shown such love and protection to Jacob – to extend this protection to his sons while they try to free Shimon and bring back the grain he’s asked them to procure for him? Does he show any concern for his sons? No. What he says is “Why do these things always happen to me?” To me? Can you imagine? What do you give a guy like that on Father’s Day? Is it clear why I find him a troubling figure?

Okay, I’m going to come back to Jacob and also to his dreams, but I want to say a little more about Joseph, since he’s central to this story and since dreams and Joseph are so intertwined, as he is both a dreamer and an interpreter of dreams. Now Joseph basically psychologically tortures his brothers, in this parsha and in the previous one. He twice frames them as thieves. He keeps Shimon as a hostage and then threatens to keep Benjamin. They have no idea who he is and they are rightly intimidated by this powerful foreign ruler. You can hear Judah’s fear in the beginning of the parsha as he pleads in a very subservient way with this man who is to him a stranger – and you can hear his courage in offering to take Benjamin’s place.

I have to say I find Joseph’s mistreatment of his brothers a lot more sympathetic than Jacob’s mistreatment of his wife and sons. He does after all have some justification. I mean, siblings harbor resentment with much less reason than having been sold into slavery by one’s brothers. And beyond the fact that he is sympathetic for having good reason for his hostile actions, I find him sympathetic because he can’t keep the hostility going. He is so moved by Judah’s brave offer – and by the love that it indicates – that he starts crying and astonishes his brothers by revealing his true identity. And he forgives them and even rationalizes their betrayal of him as part of G-d’s plan. The tender reunion scene is extraordinarily moving, I find, even though he continues the family practice of favoritism by giving his full brother, Benjamin, five times what he gives the others.

Which brings me to dreams and the large role that dreaming plays in this part of the bible. Of course it’s Joseph’s dreams as much as his ketonet pasim, that made his brothers jealous and keenly aware of their father’s favoritism towards him. About that ketonet pasim, we don’t really know what it was. We know it’s a garment and that Jacob made it for Joseph and his other sons resented the favoritism it implied. It’s the Septuagint translation that makes it into a “coat of many colors”. Rashi said that that what was distinctive about it was the fabric – that it was made of a very fine wool. And, of course, it’s Andrew Lloyd Weber who made it a Technicolor dreamcoat. Which brings us back to dreams. Joseph’s dreams are prophetic, and over time he also shows the ability to interpret the prophetic dreams of others, leading him to be released from prison and leading to the conservation effort that gives Egypt grain when the area is in famine.

Dreams foretelling the future – provided you know how to interpret them – are one kind of dream that we see in sacred text. Another is the dream that gives a window into divine experience – as in Jacob’s dream of angels going up and down a ladder that we read about recently. And the third is the sort of dream that shows up in this week’s parsha – where G-d speaks to an individual in a dream. As Jacob is traveling to join his son Joseph in Egypt, G-d gives him a reassuring dream in the night along the way, saying, "I am G-d, the G-d of your father; fear not to go down into Egypt; for I will make you there into a great nation. I myself will go down with you to Egypt; and I myself will also bring you back; and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes.”

That’s a great example of the biblical view of dreams, that – they are of divine origin. They are divinely (say it with me) oneirogenic. Of course that’s not the only method of interpreting dreams. There’s the Freudian view of dreams as wish fulfillment, which was very popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries. There’s also the Jungian view of dreams as representation of archetypes. My own belief is that the true understanding of dreams is contained in none of those, but rather in that masterpiece of modern literature: The Berenstain Bears and the Bad Dream. For any of you who are not conversant with this great oeuvre of our time, I’ll summarize. Brother and Sister Bear both have nightmares after a frightening movie and come to Momma Bear for explanation and consolation. Comforting them, Momma explains that dreams reflect what your mind experiences while awake. But, she says, it doesn’t happen in a straight forward way. Dreams - and here I quote from the text - “take the things you were thinking or were nervous about during the day and put them together all jumbled like a mixed-up jigsaw puzzle.”

Whether your view of dreams is biblical or Freudian or Jungian or even Berenstainian, I think this last dream of Jacob’s, the one in Vayigash, is worth considering carefully. It’s a moment where even I can feel sympathy for this not-easy-to-love patriarch. In a dream where G-d tells him not to be afraid, the text reveals that Jacob is frightened. Reunion with the much loved son who is now a powerful ruler is not a purely joyful experience in anticipation. He needs to know that he will go and come back, and that Joseph will care for him, even at his death. In his vulnerability we see a more appealing side of him, someone who craves love and fears loneliness. Ultimately the selfishness, the favoritism, the dysfunction that characterizes the parent/child relationships and the sibling relationships in our patriarch’s family diminish their capacity for closeness, but there is still love.

It would have been really satisfying to see Jacob and his sons learning from their family’s dysfunction and overcoming it, but that’s not what happened in the story, and that’s not what happens in many families in the here and now. And there’s something so touching and so much more real about seeing Joseph and his brothers loving and forgiving, even without being totally able to change their ways. Ultimately whatever we believe dreams mean, they are illusory. We may dream of a perfect family, but the families we have only get perfected in small ways, as we draw near to one another.

Shabbat shalom.

I welcome any comments and questions, below or in email.

(6 comments | Leave a comment)

[User Picture]
Date:December 30th, 2009 04:57 pm (UTC)
I really enjoyed this! And in a strange quirk of fate, the first dvar torah I was ever asked to write was for this portion. Here's the link: Joseph. It's no deep piece of introspection; the rabbi challenged me to link it to "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat"...so I did.
[User Picture]
Date:December 31st, 2009 04:22 am (UTC)
Nice commentary! I enjoyed it. Thanks for sharing.
Date:December 30th, 2009 07:35 pm (UTC)
The Joseph story is one of my very favourites. I hadn't heard about Jacob's dream on the road to Egypt, and it's complex and very interesting to me for what it reveals about him (as you say). Thank you very much for mentioning it! Now I have something fun to investigate later.

I hope this sparked some interesting conversations at your shul -- it certainly looks like it would have. Thank you for posting it here as well.
[User Picture]
Date:December 31st, 2009 04:23 am (UTC)
Thanks for reading it! And yes, it started some good conversations at shul and afterwards.
Date:December 30th, 2009 08:34 pm (UTC)
[User Picture]
Date:December 31st, 2009 04:23 am (UTC)
I'm happy I made you smile!
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