An introduction to Parashat Miketz 5781

Struggling with consciousness

These many months of writing about the parasha compels me to read the entire Torah metaphorically. Metaphor is the language suited to tell the story of the sacred history of the Jewish people–and by extension, of humanity. The Torah tells the story of the Jewish people as God hopes we will be, of the sensibilities God hopes we will cultivate, of the choices we have the potential to make. 

The Torah tells the story of people, places and things, the stuff of physical realities. Physical objects are important for our survival. They provide us with materials for building our world. However, they do not contain inherent meanings. This is true of all objects: my desk, the books on my shelves, and my favorite hat. This also includes physical things used as ritual objects, such as a kiddush cup and matzah. Even the land of Israel can be seen as a ritual object–perhaps the most holistic one–which enables the Jewish people to build a society through governance and the exercising of power. I use a kiddush cup of wine to acknowledge the sanctity of creation. I eat matzah to evoke empathy for the oppressed and express outrage at the oppressor. I yearn to live in the land of Israel so that the forces of righteousness, justice and compassion can mediate the dangerously intoxicating effects of power. All of these physical objects enable me to point towards meanings, to imagine those meanings, to feel them, to give birth to them in the moment, to align myself with them. I have to bring an awareness of those meanings to my use of the object. The object serves as a vehicle to touch, feel and make manifest a force inside of me, within the numinous ether of my neshama, where deeper meanings and truths reside. My experience and my relationship with that object serve to align the inner and outer parts of myself, by body and neshama. Indeed, all interactions with a physical object are transformative. Explaining the meaning of such moments reduces its experiential force. However, metaphorical language prepares me for and evokes the experience. The experience is one of alignment, of oneness, of wholeness, within myself, between me and another person, between me and the environment, and with the Creator.

It seems false to associate truth with literal language. Physical truths are literal, but spiritual ones are metaphoric. The etymology of the word, “metaphor,” comes from ancient Greek. “Meta” means, “across,” or, “transfer,” and “phora,” from the verb meaning, “to carry.” Essentially, the word “metaphor” has a meaning similar to the Hebrew word, ivri, “Hebrew,” meaning, “to cross over.” God “transferred Avraham to the other side of the river,”effecting a spiritual revolution against idolatry.  (Joshua 24:2-4) The text there uses the word ‘ever twice, effectively creating the phrase, “Avraham haIvri,” “Avraham, the river-crosser.” Metaphoric language, then, is language that enables us to cross over or carry ourselves from the domain of the physical to the domain of the spiritual, in order to unify or align these dimensions of our humanity. Reading the Torah as metaphor unlocks its transformative impact.   

I came to these thoughts after reading and writing about the parasha, beginning with Vayakhel/pikude in March, 2020, the month the plague of COVID descended upon New York City. I have posted these writings weekly on Face Book and on my blog in the Times of Israel. What has emerged over these months is a narrative increasingly concerned with human choices, interiority, divine expectations of and hopes for humanity, and the easily corrupted nature of people to become idolatrous, i.e., seduced by avarice and self-worship. The Torah’s tale in Bereshit includes the effects of a lust for power, for property, and for money. I read the narratives from the creation story through the life of Yosef as an allegory of human consciousness, with the chance for a redeemed world dependent upon our awareness of powerful forces of desire and creativity inside of us, our yetzer hara, and the choices we can make about how to channel and use that energy. Adam and Chava chose pleasure, Kain chose fratricide, the people of the flood chose sexual abuse, the generation of the tower of Bavel chose materialism, the population of Sdom, xenophobia, Yitzchak, denial, Yaakov, fear and mendacity.  

Yosef’s tale begins the story of the emergence of self-awareness and the requirement that a person’s truth involves constantly looking inward. The more Yosef looked inward, the more aware he became of the possibility of making choices. The more he looked inward, the better able he became to let go of his anger and find compassion and forgiveness. This did not emerge suddenly; it came in glimpses of insight and flashes of awareness, and then receded throughout his interactions with his environment in Egypt and his brothers. 

Yosef’s life was filled with pain and suffering. His anger held him tightly. He was in its grip. However, he was also Yaakov’s son, and therefore could wrestle with that pain and not allow it to overwhelm him. This took many years. He needed to realize that remaining passive and enabling his anger to hold on to him caused more pain and suffering.  That suffering was ameliorated by realizing that the alternative to living in the grip of his anger and hatred was releasing it, letting it go.

Holding on to anything as if it were sacred, including anger, turns that phenomenon into an idol. The object gains a hold on the person. Now the word “object” means anything that holds a person in its power, in its allure. This includes anger and hatred. Once some-thing gains that level of influence over a person, they have transformed something, some phenomenon, some feeling or idea or drive, into an object of worship. 

This, the Torah teaches, leads to sin. The most heinous sin throughout the Torah is the sin of idolatry, avodah zara, which is worshipping anything that a person transforms into an idol. Examples include an object, a thought, a desire, or the accomplishment and work of one’s own hands. Once a person objectifies an entity as sacred in their life, they have succumbed to idolatry. When a person becomes aware of their state, however, and wrestles with the allure, and then releases its grip, they regain their humanity, their dignity and ability to embrace their true self. This requires self awareness and a “letting go,” particularly of one’s own ego, (bittul hayesh). Then a person can make psychic room for love, compassion, kindness, and forgiveness. These are the human responses God hopes for humanity.  

These thoughts led me to conclude that the Torah is one large metaphor for one’s inner journey towards a deeper self-understanding. (In Ramban’s terms, the entire Torah is the name of God, written in the form of narratives and history and laws so that it can be read in a human language.) That journey has twists and turns. Physical and emotional states of being change constantly. Choices are constantly being made, often unconsciously. I sensed over these months while reading and writing on the parshiot , that the Torah is telling a tale, in all of its genres, about change and one’s inner life. The world is infused with dynamic, living, pulsating energies, and those forces are all touching my neshama simultaneously. Although I will never penetrate the mystery of the neshama, still metaphoric language is the best rhetorical instrument for sensing its rhythms and yearnings. The seventy meanings of the Torah are all true, simultaneously.

In their book, The Metaphors We Live By,  George Lakoff and Mark Johnson talk about the “objectivist” and “subjectivist”  “myths” that have been operative in western society, and propose a third:

Within the myth of objectivism, the concern for truth grows out of a concern for successful functioning. Given a view of humanity as separate from our environment, successful functioning is conceived of as mastery over the environment. Hence, the objectivist metaphors KNOWLEDGE IS POWER and SCIENCE PROVIDES CONTROL OVER NATURE. The principal theme of the myth of subjectivism is the attempt to overcome alienation that results from viewing people as separate from our environment and from other people. This involves an embracing of the self–of individuality and reliance upon personal feelings, intuition and values….The experientialist myth takes the perspective of humanity as part of the environment, not as separate from it. It focuses on constant interaction with the physical environment and with other people. It views this interaction with the environment as involving mutual change. You cannot function within the environment without changing it or being changed by it. (pp. 229-230)

The implications of this quote help me understand the Torah’s language better. From this perspective, the Torah provides metaphorical language for keeping me constantly aware of relationships in my life: my relationship with myself, with other people, with the environments I inhabit, and with the Creator of the universe. Each of these relationships creates worlds. How I inhabit them, and how they live inside of me, depend upon the choices I make. The Torah’s language provides a metaphoric guide for navigating those worlds and expanding the possibilities of the choices to be made. Now I will write about parashat miketz, with these thoughts in mind. May your Chanukkah be filled with the inner lights of miracle.   Dov

About the Author
Rabbi Dov Lerea is currently the Head of Judaic Studies at the Shefa School in NYC. He has served as the Dean and Mashgiach Ruchani at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, as the Director of Kivunim in Jerusalem, as the Dean of Judaic Studies of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York, and as the Director of Education at Camp Yavneh in Northwood, New Hampshire. Rabbi Dov has semicha from both JTS and YU. He is married and is blessed with sons, daughters-in-law, and wonderful grandchildren. He loves cooking, biking, and trying to fix things by puttering around with tools.
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