December 18, 2020
This week’s d’var Torah on parashat Miketz.
This week’s Torah portion, Miketz, is the stuff of dreams, nightmares, and Andrew Lloyd Weber musicals. It isn’t typically a narrative with which we identify personally. But reading it at the end of a difficult year, anticipating the arrival of a new administration, and cautiously celebrating the first distributions of the COVID-19 vaccine, this story reveals a universal human desire: to know what the future holds.
At the beginning of the parasha, Pharaoh has two frightening but essentially parallel dreams. Walking by the Nile, he sees seven fat cows devoured by seven thin ones, who remain just as emaciated as before. Then, he sees seven good ears of grain devoured by seven scorched ears of grain, which remain just as dry and shriveled as they had been before (Genesis 41: 1-7, 17-24).
None of the soothsayers in Pharaoh’s court can explain these dreams, though my armchair interpretation is that they are obviously anxiety dreams, in which I am somewhat of an expert.
Looking backwards, Joseph’s childhood dreams also come in pairs, one about stars and one about sheaves of grain, and they also share one meaning: that Joseph will one day rise to greatness, and that his brothers will bow down to him. It’s been a bumpy ride since those dreams: Joseph’s brothers, not so thrilled with his visions, have sold him into slavery. His master’s wife then frames him for assault and has him thrown in jail. But everywhere he goes, and everything he does, he works hard, aims to please, and manages, even if only temporarily, to rise to the top. And this is his big moment.
Joseph has earned a reputation for divination by interpreting dreams for his fellow prisoners. When Pharaoh learns of this, Joseph is summoned to interpret the king’s dreams. From the imagery of thin cows devouring fat cows and dry ears of grain devouring lush ones, Joseph predicts that there will be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, and that the Egyptians will need to prepare themselves for both the upcoming surplus and the subsequent disaster.
Pharaoh is so impressed with Joseph’s interpretive skills that he makes him second in command, putting him in charge of collecting grain during the surplus, and distributing it during the famine.
Joseph’s foresight empowers the Egyptians to save their resources now, and ration them later. They don’t do this in Canaan, leading Joseph’s brothers to come to Egypt for rations. This ultimately results in their being reunited with their long-lost brother.
All of this occurs only because Joseph turns out to be right. No one, including Joseph and the Pharaoh, had any way of knowing that that would be the case. Joseph had to have faith in God, whom he believed was helping him to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. He also had to believe in the power of dreams as a means of telling the future, and not just a manifestation of the subconscious. Pharaoh, for his part, had to believe that this imprisoned Hebrew slave knew what he was talking about, and that he would be able to apply his skill-set to managing a nation-wide social welfare program.
So, in addition to this parasha being about dreams and prophecy, famine and surplus, it is also about having faith, or emunah: in God, in one’s fellow human beings, and ultimately, in oneself.
I read a lot of books, Jewish and secular, about how to live a good life. Right now I’m reading both The Mussar Torah Commentary and a book on happiness by psychologist Jennifer Taitz. This has been one of those strange weeks when, like the dual dreams of Joseph and Pharaoh, both my Jewish and secular reading materials communicated the same message: We cannot control the outcome of our actions or our external circumstances. We can only control whether the actions we take are in alignment with what we value.
Dr. Taitz writes that, in order to live a meaningful life, “We all need a clear sense of purpose, one that comes from our values, not our goals. … With a goal, we win or lose, get it or not. With values, if we’re acting (not just thinking) consistently with our aims, we can cherish a sense of mastery, independent of the end result. Values aren’t measured by what we get but by what we give” (Taitz p. 80).
While both Pharaoh and Joseph have faith in the divine origin of dreams, they don’t know for certain that there will be a surplus OR a famine. But they know that, regardless of what is coming, their highest value is caring for the people of Egypt. Thus the actions they take must prepare them to do so in all circumstances. More so than the dream, the interpretation, or even the surplus and famine themselves, the actions Joseph and Pharaoh undertake ensure Egypt’s survival.
This week, we celebrated the first administrations of the COVID-19 vaccine. We are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel: but it promises to be a long tunnel. We are going to need to dig deep for every last ounce of patience. So much is still uncertain, making it difficult to plan for the future. We need to make decisions not knowing every possible outcome of every possible scenario. But we can be guided by our emunah: faith in God, faith in our community, and faith in ourselves.
This is not a passive faith, believing that things will turn out for the best, no matter what. Rather, it is the courage to take actions that align with our values, even when the outcome is uncertain.
Personally, I know I’m going to be one of the last people to receive the vaccine. I don’t know when I’m going to be able to travel, or see loved ones without a mask, or return to work in person. But I know that when I do, I want to be more strong, wise, and kind than when the lockdown started. I want to use this time to practice gratitude and generosity, strengthen my relationships and nurture this community. I cannot control when my life will return to “normal,” but I can take actions that help me gain wisdom, learn new skills, and create beauty and meaning during this time.
So much of this time has been about survival and crisis management, and if most days that is all we can handle, dayenu. But I want us to consider, as 2020 thankfully draws to a close: Whom do we want to be when we emerge from this crisis? What values might we practice in the meantime in order to get us there? What actions, even small ones, might we take in alignment with those values? And if we don’t have it within us to take on something new, how might our values influence our approach to what we are already doing?
Rabbi Lisa Grant writes: “Faith may not help if material gain is our end goal. Still, if we are seeking to lead a good life, to make good choices, and do what is right and just in the eyes of our loved ones, our community, and God, then faith can play a determining role. Cultivating faith can lead to greater patience, courage in facing hardship and the unknown, and acceptance that so much in life is beyond our control” (The Mussar Torah Commentary, p. 66).
Rabbi Grant invites us to practice emunah by asking ourselves these questions: “How is the divine manifest in me, through me, with me, in this moment?”…. or, for those less comfortable with the phrase “divine manifest in me”: “How can I respond to this moment with trust and integrity?” (The Mussar Torah Commentary, pp. 66-67).
None of us could have anticipated the moment we are living through right now. And none of us can know what exactly the next year will hold. But each of us, all of us, have it within us to respond to this moment with courage, creativity, and compassion. We don’t know whether the coming weeks will bring feast or famine. But like Joseph, we can choose to act in a way that fills our storehouses for years to come.