Friday, December 14, 2012

Living Joseph's Lessons in Waterville: Parashat Miketz

            Last night was one of the most significant and humbling experiences in my rabbinate. Four generations of Beth Israel congregants and Colby students went to the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter for a hanukkah concert and mini party. The most important preparation I did with the Hebrew school students was not memorizing every word of Ma Otzur (Rock of Ages) or learning the appropriate way to light a menorah. It was guiding the several conversations we had about what to expect at the shelter. In the weeks leading up to our program, parents and I needed to field many important and frank questions: "What will they look like?" "Do they dress like us?", "How will they act?" "Should we be scared?", "Why are they homeless?" These discussions, I believe, were some of the most crucial in preparing them for Jewish adulthood. The conclusion that we came to together was that this: the greatest gifts that we can give to those in need are to act normally, be kind and attentive, and afford dignity to everyone we encounter, especially when others fail to do so.
          In parashat miketz, Joseph also encounters a world he does not know well, but succeeds in bringing light, understanding, and comfort to Pharaoh.  The Torah and our greatest commentators provide us with several hints as to why Joseph succeeds in bringing peace to Pharaoh when the greatest magicians in Egypt fail.  In Genesis 41:11, the cup bearer tells Pharaoh why Joseph was such a renowned and respected interpreter in prison: Joseph provided an interpretation that was specific and related to each individual dream.  Joseph did not come in with preconceived notions of what each dream would be, or use the same tired tools to explain each dream in a generic fashion.  He encountered each individual anew and without prejudice.  With the help of God, a clear mind, and good listening skills, he could provide true peace to those who struggled with spiritual pain.
         This theme is repeated in Genesis 41:15 when Pharaoh pulls Joseph out of jail to interpret his dream:

15. And Pharaoh said to Joseph, "I have dreamed a dream, and there is no interpreter for it, but I have heard it said of you [that] you understand a dream, to interpret it."

This is how Rashi interprets this verse:
טו. וַיֹּאמֶר פַּרְעֹה אֶל יוֹסֵף חֲלוֹם חָלַמְתִּי וּפֹתֵר אֵין אֹתוֹ וַאֲנִי שָׁמַעְתִּי עָלֶיךָ לֵאמֹר תִּשְׁמַע חֲלוֹם לִפְתֹּר אֹתוֹ:
you understand a dream, to interpret it: Heb. תִּשְׁמַע. You listen to and understand a dream, to interpret it.תשמע חלום לפתור אותו: תאזין ותבין חלום 

The Hebrew word tishma is often mistranslated into English as "you understand," but in fact means, "you listen."  Whether it was due to hubris, fear, or lack of practice, the Egyptian magicians failed to listen.  Certainly God's help and Joseph's talent played a part in his success, but the most important factor in Joseph's ability to help was his commitment to listening.  Not magic, not preconceived notions of what ailed others, not a false certainty about how to help.  It was Joseph's listening that distinguished him and made him useful to others.
        Finally, the Kli Yakar gives us some powerful and unique insight into Joseph's success.  In Genesis 41:8, if we read the verse carefully, it tells us something significant about the magicians.  It says that they did not interpret the dream for pharaoh. According to the Kli Yakar, they did know what the dream meant, but, "they did not want to deliver this bad news.  That is why it says "for pharaoh" -- they did not share the truth with him, but they did with each other."  The magicians were not willing to be real and honest with pharaoh because they perceived him as "other" and someone to fear.  They delivered niceties and false versions of themselves instead of interacting with him as a real person in spiritual distress.  Even though Joseph was a lowly Hebrew prisoner, or maybe even because of it, he chose to treat Pharaoh like any other man struggling with nightmares.  He brought the wisdom and direction of God to their encounter, and delivered the message with courage and clarity.  Joseph afforded Pharaoh true dignity by presenting an honest, truthful, and authentic version of himself.
        The greatest moments last night did not occur while we were singing mi yimalel, or dancing to sivivon, or passing out doughnuts.  They transpired when the presentation was over and all of the Beth Israel Hebrew school kids, their parents, and a couple of Colby students got down on the floor to play dreidel with the kids at the homeless shelter. They happened during the spontaneous conversations that we had with the families about the meaning of hanukkah, what life was like at the shelter, and listening to their stories.  What truly brought light to that night was a group of folks in Waterville being real with one another, and sharing a few moments of authentic, natural joy.

This Hanukkah let us remember the legacy of our father Joseph, and the wise words of A.D. Gordon, "There will never be a victory of light over darkness as long as we don't express the simple truth. We cannot fight the darkness. Rather it is incumbent upon us to increase the light." 

Chag Sameach.