Parshat Miketz

Torah Reading for Week of December 10-16, 2017

“Dreams As Pointers to Future Action”
By Rabbi Corinne Copnick, ’15

The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.

Miketz, occurring in the Torah portion sequence ten weeks after Simchat Torah, is a hopeful parsha to read at Chanukah. It concerns dreams and their interpretations, and how they impact our lives. It is also a biblical “type scene” of deception, which details an astonishing sequence of dramatic moments, as the parsha balances the Hebrew word shever (usually translated as grain, food) with sever (the dot is on the other side of the letter shin), which stands for hope. [1]From childhood, I have been aware that dream interpretations are sought after because they evoke “the human desire to know the future and the belief that this foreknowledge must somehow be available to us” (Plaut, Essays, 281).[2]  My mother, whose imagination and sensitivity were both super-attenuated, was known to her friends as a great tea leaf reader. They would often gather at our home over tea and delicate pastries and persuade her to “read” their fortunes. In those days, tea bags were not in vogue, and if you wanted a reading, you didn’t use a strainer to keep out the tea leaves when you poured the tempting brew into the tea cup. Then, when you were finished imbibing the amber liquid, you turned the cup upside down in the saucer and let the tea leaves set. After an interval, the “reader” would interpret the pattern formed by the leaves. My mother also interpreted dreams, but only those of her family and close friends. I remember her cautioning me that one must only give positive interpretations.[3]

There is always a caution when it comes to dream interpretation. Divination (for example, predicting the future from sounds made by hissing snakes) has been traditionally frowned on in Jewish thought as representing pagan superstition. Thus dream interpretation in Miketz, suggests Nahum M. Sarna, represents “the first clash recorded in the Bible between pagan magic and the will of God…. [It] constitutes a polemic against paganism.”[4] According to the Sages in the Talmud, “it is an open question as to whether dreams have a validity” (Berachot 55a).

For Joseph, the hero of Miketz, though, recounting his own dreams initially got him into a lot of hot water with his brothers. Understandably, they didn’t like the idea of bowing down to their younger brother, as his dreams suggested. Their jealous ire against him took the extreme form of casting him into a pit, selling him into slavery, and deceiving their aging father that Joseph had been killed. Later, when the enslaved Joseph is relegated to prison in the court of the Pharaoh, he impresses his fellow inmates by interpreting their dreams (much like my mother and the tea leaves), so much so that when the Pharaoh has troubling dreams, the released inmates recommend Joseph to his attention. Eventually, through his visionary interpretations and the practical solutions he suggests, a famine is averted in Egypt.  Joseph rises to become the Pharaoh’s right hand man, dressed in rich robes with ceremonial accessories to accentuate his status.

As Rabbi Gunther W. Plaut points out:

“Joseph was the first Hebrew who lived, so to speak in Diaspora, the galut. He became thoroughly assimilated, adopted the customs of his environment, changed his name, wore Egyptian clothes, swore by Pharaoh’s name (Gen. 45:15), and married an Egyptian wife. In Potiphar’s house and prison, he was still ‘the Hebrew’; as an Egyptian official, he became wholly Egyptian. He entered a new life of affluence and power, and the past seemed far away” [5](280).

But it never really went away. You can only travel so far from who you are. As Rabbi Plaut wrote the above words, he may have been thinking about the increasing assimilation of secular Jews into 20th century North American society. In any case, it is the Diaspora Joseph that his brothers will meet when they travel from a drought-stricken land to Egypt in search of provisions for their family. Although Joseph recognizes his brothers, they do not recognize him, and Joseph struggles with his conflicting feelings of revenge and love, amid concern for his ailing father. “What we achieve in disguise is never the love we sought, “Rabbi Sacks comments. “We don’t need disguises before God.”[6]

He points out that Joseph had three gifts that enabled him to reach such heights: First of all, Joseph dreams dreams himself; indeed, his double dreams are a sign that they are not simply imaginings. A repeated dream, Rabbi Sacks explains, is “a signal sent by God” to suggest that there is something deeper about the human condition.” Secondly, Joseph could interpret dreams, and thirdly — perhaps most important of all — he had the ability to implement dreams, transform them into realistic applications. “It’s easy to see what’s wrong,” adds Rabbi Sacks, referring to societal problems. “A leader has the ability to make it right.” [7]

In order to give this tale of multiple deceits a positive outcome, as the brilliant commentator Nechama Leibowitz explains, Joseph’s brothers eventually evidence a sense of responsibility towards one another. Also, while Joseph’s interactions with his brothers [at first] seem vindictive, he is actually facilitating “their growth and rehabilitation.” In other words, Joseph “forced his brothers to simulate experiences that would help them to confront their dark past and pave the way for a bright future.” [8]

In a D’var Torah that I previously posted on my own website (www.rabbicorinne.com), I wrote about my personal belief that dreams are pointers to the future, and that we should believe in them. In a corroborating passage (Berachot 55a), Rav Hisda tells us that a dream that is not interpreted is like a letter which is not read. Dreams are the unopened letters of the soul. If we have the courage to open them, they point to the paths we need to follow – our soul paths – if only we can find the moral strength to do it. However, dreams, the Talmud also cautions, are only 1/60th of prophecy. That still gives us 59/60ths to fulfill. It takes a lot of hard work!

©Rabbi Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2017. All rights reserved.

[1] Three other episodes in the Bible center on deception: the episode that begins in Isaac’s tent, when Jacob deceives Esau; the deception in regard to Rachel and Leah’s marriage to Jacob; and the deception that takes place between Judah and Tamar (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “The Power of the Dream,” Covenant and Conversation. www.Sacks. Aish.com/tp/i/sacks/233216101.html).

[2] Plaut, Rabbi Gunther W.,  Gen. Ed., “Essays,” The Torah: A Modern Commentary, revised ed. (New York: Union for Reform Judaism, 2006), 281.

[3] In writing this D’var Torah, I first toured interpretations of this parsha in previous years on the AJRCA website (www.ajrca.edu). Dr. Tamar Frankiel also accents the positive in her 2014 essay: “Joseph reads [dreams] so that a positive resolution can be found,” she writes. And in tractate Berachot, the rabbis say that “one should always give the dream a good turn” (Frankiel, Miketz, 2015). In Rabbi Janet Madden’s interpretation of the same parsha, she writes that, according to Berachot b, “realization of all dreams follows the mouth; that is, that the import of a dream depends upon the interpretation given to it” (Miketz, 2014). In addition, Rabbi Elihu Gevirtz notes that the Hebrew letters of lechem (bread) are the same as the letters for dream (chalom); both bread and dreams “sustain us and give us nourishment and satisfaction” (Gevirtz, Miketz, 2010).

[4] Sarna, Nahum M. “Gleanings,” The Torah: A Modern Commentary, revised ed. (New York: Union for Reform Judaism, 2006), 282.

[5] Plaut, Ibid., 280.

[6] Sacks, Ibid.

[7] 102017rights reserved.ngeles, 201719.miketz.htm.iner.ss and Nechama Liebowitzf Jews in contemporary timess”past seemed far away”Ibid.

[8] Nechama Leibowitz, based on study texts of NL written by Stanley Peerless and Aryeh Strikowsky in consultation with Yitzhak Reiner (www.lookstein.org/nechama-parasha19.miketz.htm).