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D’var Torah – How do we grasp the meaning of this day? – by Joe Nalven

December 31, 2016 / 2nd of Tevet, 5777

As I reach out my hand to grasp the meaning of this day, I can see my fingers curl around a multiplicity of ideas and memories:  1) today’s Torah reading of Genesis 41 (Miketz) in which Joseph interprets the Pharaoh’s dreams; and a harkening back to the way in which Joseph had interpreted his own dreams to his brothers; 2) the celebration of the last day of Hannukah and its meaning we impose for the Maccabean resistance to Hellenization; and the meaning of Hannukah today as expressed by the Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations; and 3) about a yahrzeit my wife and I and my family commemorate today.

These fingers curl around memories and ideas that cannot be seen or touched — in fact, if a literalist were to open my hand, there would be an immaterial zero.

So what if we cannot touch or see an idea or a memory?  These ideas and memories are nevertheless the immaterial substances we call the meaning of life.

The first set of ideas are about dream interpretations.  In ancient days, Jews were not known for dream interpretation with some notable exceptions. Jacob dreamt of a ladder that connected earth and heaven.  Then, there was his son Joseph; first, as a young man in Canaan and second, as a captive in Pharaoh’s Egypt.  Of course, in a wider sense, other biblical figures heard the voice of God while asleep or had visions. But here we speak of dreams and dream interpretation in the Torah.

The Egyptians were by far the more practiced dream interpreters (oneiromancy) – even having a written manual, the Ramesside dream-book.  By contrast, Jacob and Joseph were intuitive.

1)  Genesis 41 or Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s Dreams:  The case for assimilation

This week’s Torah parashat is Mikeitz (at the end), Genesis 41.   This is a success story about Joseph, son of Jacob and Rachel, who we remember at the age of 17 was thrown into a pit by his jealous brothers and sold off to the Midianite/Ishmaelite merchants.  Joseph is rescued from his imprisonment (which is another story) by being called to the Pharaoh’s court to interpret the Pharaoh’s two dreams. His success in interpreting the Pharaoh’s dreams resulted in Joseph being appointed Pharaoh’s second-in-command to manage the prosperity and then famine that were to occur in Egypt.

What were these two dreams?

            Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing by the Nile, when out of the Nile seven cows, handsome and sturdy, came up and grazed in the reed grass. But then, seven other cows came up from behind, ugly and gaunt, and stood beside the handsome cows on the bank of the Nile. The ugly gaunt cows ate up the seven handsome sturdy cows. The Pharaoh awoke and then fell back to sleep.

            In the second dream, there were seven ears of grain, solid and healthy, that grew on a single stalk. Close behind them sprouted seven ears, thin and scorched by the wind. The thin ears swallowed up the seven solid and full ears. Then Pharaoh awoke from his dream.

The Pharaoh called upon his magicians to interpret his dreams. But they failed to do so. One can speculate about why the Egyptian magicians failed.   Perhaps the Egyptian dream manual was too limiting. Consider this example of a dream from the dream manual foretelling a good omen:  ‘If a person dreams of drowning in a river, it means purification from all evil.’

That type of dream analysis didn’t work for the Pharaoh and it doesn’t work for me. But, luckily, the Pharaoh was alerted to a Hebrew in prison who had success in foretelling the meaning the Pharaoh’s cupbearer’s dream.  That was Joseph. He was summoned to Pharaoh’s court.

            Genesis 41:  Joseph’s explanation was that God revealed to Pharaoh what He is about to do. Immediately ahead are seven years of great abundance in all the land of Egypt. After the years of abundance will come seven years of famine, and all the abundance in the land of Egypt will be forgotten. As the land is ravaged by famine, no trace of the abundance will be left in the land because of the famine and it will be very severe. As for Pharaoh having had the same dream twice, it means that the matter has been determined by God, and that God will soon carry it out.

For whatever reason, Joseph’s interpretation was accepted by the Pharaoh. His interpretation went beyond prophesizing about one individual’s life and foretold what would happen to the entire nation of Egypt.  The moving force is the result of God’s control over the climate for the next 14 years.

The Pharaoh gave Joseph, now 30 years old, his signet ring as a sign of the power delegated to Joseph; he also gave Joseph the name of Zaphenath-paneah (the one who furnishes the sustenance of the land) and a wife, Asenath, daughter of a gentile priest.

What is of particular interest here are the names of Joseph’s two sons:  Manasseh and Ephraim.  These names bracket Joseph’s transformation, representing what he had forgotten as a youth to what he became in Egypt.  The first-born Manasseh means “God has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home.”  His second son was named Ephraim, which means “God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction.”

I would like to cull out this part of Joseph’s story as one theme in the Jewish experience – Joseph’s story begins within the context of tradition (of life with his father Jacob and with his brothers) and then, by way of the immigration experience (which in this instance was forced, but for others it is voluntary), to becoming successful as an assimilated Jew.

We should note that Joseph’s earlier dreams, those that he shared with his brothers and then with his father projected a future event in which he towered over other family members. No particular skill set was needed to see what Joseph’s dreams meant.  The dreams were transparent. But the later dreams provided by the Pharaoh required a specialized skillset and the guidance of God. Joseph’s brothers sought to prevent that future foretold by Joseph’s dreams while the Pharaoh accepted Joseph’s interpretation and incorporated them into the management of his nation.

In this case, we can interpret the assimilation experience as rewarding.  Joseph speaks Egyptian; he has an Egyptian wife and children; he dresses in Egyptian fashion such that his brothers do not recognize him when they meet him again; but his exceptional talent is inborn, and not the result of assimilation.  Here, his talent is recognized and incorporated into a position of power within Egyptian culture. His native talent and its rewards are tied to his assimilation.


2)  (a) Hanukkah and the rebellion against Hellenism:  The case against assimilation

Today, we celebrate the eighth day of Hanukkah. The word Hanukkah signifies the re-dedication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

The story of Hanukkah and the festival of lights is described in the First and Second Book of Maccabees. These books are canonized in the Catholic and Orthodox Christian Old Testament, but not in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), nor in most Protestant bibles. It is referred to in Mishnah and the Talmud.

The significance of the celebration is rooted in the rebellion led by Judah the Macabbee against the Seleucids (Syrian-Greeks) in the second century BCE. The rebellion was against the imposition of Greek culture and beliefs on the people of Israel over their practice of mitzvah observance and belief in God.

Of course, the history of land — and particularly Judea — had been part of Egypt before Antiochus III the Great of Syria invaded it and took control of it. This King Antiochus had guaranteed the Jewish subjects the right to live according to their ancestral customs. Then, his son reneged at the behest of the Hellenizing Jews.

I mention this since this piece of land, Judea, is still at issue today as we will see a little further on.

But first, let us consider how this minor festival, Hanukkah, connects with Genesis 41, with Miketz, and with the story of the assimilating Jew, Joseph.

Arnold Eisen, Professor of Jewish Thought, at the Jewish Theological Seminary, provides us with this connection about Joseph and the meaning of Hanukkah.  This is about the spectrum of the Jewish experience, historically, and for us today:  Too much assimilation at one end of the spectrum and too much isolation at the other end.

“The lesson of Hannukkah, then, or of the Joseph story, or of countless episodes in the long history of Jewish encounter with gentile ways, is that if Jews assimilate completely to those ways, we lose our own way, and Jewish continuity is lost with it, but if we don’t wish to ‘ghettoize’ ourselves, or allow Judaism to become ‘fossilized,’ we will need ‘to assimilate—at least to some extent.’ (quoting Gerson Cohen) That has meant learning to speak new languages, and to have Torah speak in those languages. We have adapted customs and laws to new circumstances and found latent meanings in classical texts that previous generations had not seen there. We continue to draw lines that are at times squiggly or blurred, and at other times razor-sharp—and to argue with one another about which kind of boundary is required, and how to maintain it. And thanks to the cycle of weekly Torah readings, Joseph is here with us each year to guide us through the complexities of this holiday season.”

2)  (b) Hanukkah undone at the United Nations

            And, now, we see that this spectrum — of too much assimilation versus too much isolation — manifesting itself in the physical land of Israel and the problem of keeping a nation intact and against surrounding forces that seek to eliminate the very presence of the Jewish nation.  Here is the echo of Judea that we encountered earlier in the Maccabean rebellion.

No, I am not hallucinating.  The Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations makes this very connection in light of the recent United Nations Resolution 2334, stating that Israel’s boundaries are those before the 1967 was against Israel.

Danny Danon, Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations, draws attention to the connection between the UN resolution and Hanukkah:

“Tomorrow night, Israel and the entire Jewish community around the world will celebrate the holiday of Hanukkah. Over 2,000 years ago King Antiochus [IV] banished the Jewish people from our temple in Jerusalem and issued decrees trying to sever us from religion and our heritage, but we prevailed. The Jewish people fought back. We regained our independence and relight the menorah candles in the temple.  .  .  .

“We overcame those decrees during the time of the Maccabees, and we will overcome this evil decree today.  .  .  .
We might ask how significant this United Nations resolution is today — especially if we can disconnect the Hanukkah symbolism from the contemporary Jewish experience.

Here are several comments on the meaning of the United Nations resolution 2334 to Israel:

Simon Wiesenthal Center:  “UN Anti-Israel Security Council Resolution Tops Ten Worst 2016 Anti-Israel/Anti-Semitic Incidents”

But the very opposite view is held by J Street.

J Street:  “J Street welcomes the decision today by the Obama administration to abstain from voting on a United Nations Security Council resolution, which reaffirms the need for a two-state solution and calls for a halt to actions by both sides that serve to undermine the prospects for peace.”

How is it possible for something to be both A and not A?  Both anti-semitic and a welcome action?  This is not possible in an Aristotelian logic; but, then, we are not dealing with logic. We are dealing with partisanship, we are dealing with competing values and a different construction of social reality, of warfare, and of peace itself.

Here is yet another view — one from a scholar and rabbi who has become part of several of Congregation Beth Israel’s study programs. (For example, last year, CBI and other congregations sponsored an iEngage series about values in light of discussing Israel.)

Rabbi Donniel Hartman of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Israel expresses a view about this strange logic. While Hartman expresses disagreement about Israel’s settlement practice, he describes the United Nations 2334 resolution as follows:

“[Here is my] list of well-deserved condemnations of the recent UN Security Council Resolution 2334. Friends don’t bring friends up for censure by the Security Council. The resolution rejects the rights of the Jewish people to Jerusalem and our people’s holiest site — the Kotel. The United Nations, which stands idly by the massacre of a half-million Syrians, has identified Israeli settlement policy as the hindrance to Middle East peace. Israel, and not the Palestinians, is once again identified as the primary cause for the stagnation in the peace process. The resolution was an ambush and a last chance to extract revenge against Israel.”


Clearly, there is a divide over the intent and consequences of United Nations Resolution 2334.

One can also understand approval and acquiescence to this resolution as a way to force Israel into a peace process, and thus echoing the contours of what we celebrate as Hanukkah.

3)   Yarhzeit for Gladys Baba, z”l, may her memory be a blessing (zikhronah livrakha)

Today has yet another meaning for my dvar.

We remember Gladys Baba today, as a mother, grandmother and my mother-in-law. Born in Iraq and a Mizrahi Jew, she emigrated to Chicago first and then San Diego. A great cook, generous and intensely involved with family and life. She was a volunteer of the year at Congregation Beth Israel in 1987.

Gladys Baba represents the immigration success story.  Assimilation and adoption of American culture, co-managing an import-export store with her husband in downtown Chicago, and then in San Diego. But, as many assimilating immigrants experience, there is continuity with Jewish life — of celebrating Shabbat, of going to synagogue, and raising her children Jewish.  Her experience is the tension of assimilation and of tradition — of continuity of Judaism in a new country.

She did well and is remembered by us.


Such is the grasp I have about the meaning of today.  I can close my hand into a fist to hold onto that meaning or I can release my grip and open my hand.

Let me release my grip and let go of the fear of losing that set of meanings and ideas I have just described.

I find an openness and a sign of a blessing and hope and an amulet to ward off evil.

Chag Hanukkah Sameach!  And a Happy New Year!



Congregation Beth Israel, iEngage (2015)

Congregation Beth Israel, Volunteers of the Year (1987)

Arnold Eisen, Joseph, Hanukah and the dilemmas of assimilation (2008)

Genesis 41, Miketz, translation JPS Tanakh.

J Street, J street welcomes US abstention UN Security Council resolution #2334 (2016)

Rabbi Donniel Hartman, Let the debate around settlements begin (2016)

Brent Nagtegaal and Kieren Underwood, America’s ‘Shameful Ambush’ of Israel at the UN, (2016)

Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld, Judaism and Dreams: The significance of dreams in Jewish thought

­­Thomas Schneider, Ancient Egypt Investigated, Chapter 43, What did the ancient Egyptians dream and  how were dreams interpreted?

Simon Wiesenthal Center, UN Anti-Israel Security Council Resolution Tops Ten Worst 2016 Anti-Israel/Anti-Semitic Incidents (2016)

Masha Turner, The Dreams in Joseph’s Story, Parshat “Vayeshev” No. 110, Bar-Ilan University

Wikipedia, Hamsa

Wikipedia, Hanukkah

Wikipedia, Joseph (Genesis)

Wikipedia, Oneiromancy

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the D’var Torah articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Beth Israel.

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