Here’s the d’var Torah I offered yesterday at my shul. (Crossposted to Velveteen Rabbi.)
At the beginning of today’s Torah portion, Pharaoh dreams two dreams. First, seven handsome cows arise, and seven lean cows devour them. Then seven fat ears of corn arise, and seven lean ears devour them. None of Pharaoh’s soothsayers can interpret these troubling visions. Fortunately, Pharaoh’s cupbearer remembers that when he was in jail a few years back, he met an Israelite named Joseph.
Pharaoh summons Joseph and says, I hear you can interpret dreams. But Joseph demurs. “Not I, but God.” Joseph doesn’t have the answers; God does. But Joseph can serve as a channel, opening himself to allow God’s insight to flow through.
It’s December in the modern world, and the commercials with which we are deluged remind me of Pharaoh’s dreams. Every time my television tells me that if I really loved my spouse I would surprise him on Christmas morning with an expensive car, or diamonds, or electronics, or new clothes, I think of Pharaoh’s sleek fattened cows. Richness. Abundance. That’s the dream the television is selling.
But in showering our loved ones with lavish affection, it’s easy to overspend our budgets and wind up with painfully lean wallets come January. In the Biblical model, that’s the seven emaciated cows who devoured the seven fat ones. We fear that scarcity will follow abundance, good fortune dissipating like the smoke left behind when the Chanukah candles gutter.
Joseph opens himself to God’s guidance, and recognizes Pharaoh’s dreams as divine communication. He suggests that Pharaoh appoint someone discerning and wise to steward the land’s resources during the seven years of plenty, so that during the years of famine the people will not starve. Pharaoh, who sees that Joseph is himself discerning and wise — “someone with the spirit of God in him” — chooses Joseph.
Torah can be read as a reflection of our own internal realities. Each of us is Pharaoh, dreaming anxious dreams about abundance and the scarcity which we fear will follow. Each of us is Joseph, the immature kid whose pride gets him into trouble; Joseph, who descends into the pit, descends into slavery, descends into Egypt, descends into Pharaoh’s jail.
But if each of us is Joseph, then each of us can tap into the humble wisdom he develops as he matures, and as he comes to see that each descent is for the sake of a greater ascent. I’m not the one who interprets dreams, he tells Pharaoh: only God can interpret. But I can open myself up to God and see what comes through.
What are your dreams this Chanukah? What abundance do you dream of enjoying, of bestowing on those around you? When you dream big about the future of your hopes, what do you dream?
What are your fears this Chanukah? What anxieties niggle at the back of your consciousness, what fears plague you when you try to fall asleep? Do you worry that you’re overextended, emotionally overtaxed, fiscally or spiritually overspent?
What would it feel like to open yourself, as Joseph does, to guidance from beyond? To trust that even when things seem darkest, you are cared-for by divine providence, you are loved by an unending love? How can you steward your internal resources, so that you can weather both abundance and scarcity with grace?