VAYESHEV, Genesis 37:1-40:23
I wish I could begin by quoting Rambam or Rabbi Soloveitchick – though separated by seven centuries, they remain two of our pre-eminent relationship experts. That is to say, they teach Jews how to relate to sacred texts and to the challenges of living Jewishly even today. But allow me to quote a different relationship expert, "Hitch" (as in, the movie). In a memorable line, he advises, "Wake up today as if you did it on purpose."
We encounter a word this week that is rather prominent and ubiquitous – in fact, it and its various forms and declensions appear in our parashah no less than 22 times. Listen to the verse, and without necessarily reaching for the Ben-Yehuda dictionary, you can feel the word. Vayachalom Yosef chalom – "and Joseph dreamed a dream." The salient word which liltingly lifts itself off the page is the word, chalom, "dream."
Joseph was distrusted because of his dreams; worse yet, Joseph was despised because of his dreams. And yet.
Even though he suffered the disparagement and resentment of his brothers, the Torah continues with perhaps one of the heroic aspects of being a person with a dream: Vayachalom od chalom – "and he (Joseph) dreamed another dream." The ability to dream is a sign of leadership, and the ability to dream again and again – even when things don't quickly materialize – is nothing short of heroic.
The Midrash offers us a stark realization. None of Joseph's dreams came to fruition for 22 years. And yet. (Is the Torah alluding to this by mentioning the word chalom 22 times? I don't know, but it's curious.)
I recall reading an anecdote about Thomas Edison's invention of the electric light bulb. He failed innumerable times in his quest. Years later, after finally succeeding, he was asked how he coped during these disappointing times of failure. The questioner reminded him that he had failed in more than 2,000 experiments. Yet Edison replied, "I didn't fail even once. Simply put, the creation of the electric light bulb was a 2,000-step process!" This is a guy who knows how to dream.
A good many of our dreams are knocked, many delayed, still others indefinitely deferred. But our ability to dream – our desire to make what ought to be into what should be – sets us apart.
It's interesting to note that although Jacob was the first one in the Bible to have a dream – no one else around him did. Now think of Joseph. He dreams, dreams again, talks to his brothers about his dreams, speaks to his father about his dreams and now, it seems, everyone around him is also dreaming.
Consider the two servants of Pharaoh imprisoned with him. They dream, and Joseph interprets their dreams accurately. Even Pharaoh himself dreams, and it is ultimately Joseph who becomes arbiter of these dreams. Dreams are obviously infectious.
The tradition asks the question: Why is a dream in Hebrew called a chalom? The answer offered is that the same Hebrew word for dream also means "to be strengthened" or "to be restored to health." Somehow, our tradition is making clear that in our ability to dream, we rejuvenate ourselves – body and soul. The tradition's also making clear that in our ability to dream Jewish dreams, we not just nourish ourselves, but have the chance to rejuvenate ourselves.
At this juncture, we need to add a desideratum. There is only one way to make a dream come true and that is … you've got to wake up. For Jews, waking up on purpose, living our dreams consciously, is our way of life.
Seeing the world as it is and dreaming about what it should, or could, be is not something that we do during the REM part of sleep. It is what we do while fully conscious and awake – awake to the needs of others and awake to the possibilities of exalting and ennobling this life.
Rabbi David Gutterman is executive director of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.