When I helped guide a young Christian business associate through a spiritual crisis, little did we know that it would result in a life-altering book. The Weight of Gold brings out the Torah’s universal messages for personal growth and social justice, showing that the Torah is indeed the User’s Guide to the human soul. Follow this blog each week for new insights into this ancient text. The book is now available. Please contact the author.
All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.
– T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom
In this week’s Torah portion Joseph is released from prison and becomes viceroy of Egypt. During his years underground, Joseph has learned the lesson of setting aside his petty hurts, to embrace his mission for the sake of others. By doing so, he saves the world. No small outcome.
Joseph’s interpretation of his cellmates’ dreams two years before was not so much prophetic, as it was clear-eyed. The general amnesty and release from prison in honor of Pharaoh’s birthday were to be anticipated (see last week’s reading, 40:20.) Moreover the royal wine steward and the royal chief baker are not mere servants; they oversaw the production of Egypt’s wine and bread, thus their dreams hold significant meaning. Now when Pharaoh recounts his dreams, it is obvious that no one wants to speak up. It’s not that no one knows how to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. The text says explicitly that no one would interpret his dreams. Indeed, their inauspicious meaning is obvious.
Pharaoh dreams of standing on the banks of the Nile. Egypt is wholly dependent on the Nile; thus the river is both the giver of life and the bringer of death: it embodies the archetypical eternal struggle between order and chaos. It is important to recognize that chaos is, itself, the stuff of creation. It is when we grapple with the chaos of our lives that we are able to make from it creations and structures of profound and lasting meaning.
As to Pharaoh’s dreams, everyone knows there will be bad years in which the river will withhold its bounty. Crops will fail, animals and people will starve. Historically, when bread riots break out, the official in charge of the bread production is led out in public and beheaded. It is a fair bet that the first one to step forward and explain the obvious to Pharaoh will find himself designated as the new head of Egypt’s food supply, with a future death sentence awaiting him. Why does Joseph take the job? Well, it beats a life sentence in the dungeon.
As an internal literary reference, Pharaoh’s dreams also invoke Cain and Abel; the first dream features cows, the second crops. Each dream starts out hopeful and ends in devastation as the promise of plenty is devoured by its twin. Another parallel is with the Jacob story – seven years of plenty, followed by seven years of famine. Jacob gladly works for seven years in anticipation of marrying his beloved Rachel, only to be duped into marrying her sister Leah – after which he despairingly agrees to a further seven years of servitude in order to marry Rachel as well.
Seven fat years followed by seven lean years. Our hopes, our dreams for a bright and lush future. Our confrontation with reality – perhaps we failed because we forgot to check all the boxes, but maybe there wasn’t anything we could have done after all. And so we live, building our future on the ruins of our past. It’s all there in black and white. The story of our lives over and over and over again…Will we be ruled by it, ruined by it? Or will we take charge?
Joseph’s life is a sequence of events for which the readiest response should be anger. Anger at his brothers who tossed him down the pit. Anger at being sold into slavery. Anger at Potiphar’s wife who framed him, at the Royal Wine Steward who forgot him (Though he is the one who finally saves Joseph. It took an extra two years – sometimes we just need to wait for the timing to be right.) And certainly anger at his dysfunctional father Jacob who created this mess.
If ever a man had cause for anger and resentment, it is Joseph. And, if ever a man achieved greatness unaided, it is Joseph. God speaks to Abraham and Isaac, and ultimately even to Jacob. God will speak face-to-face with Moses. But God speaks never a word to Joseph, leaving Joseph to work things out for himself. From a purely human perspective, Joseph is the greatest Biblical figure, achieving greatness on his own with nothing but his own vile existence and his slowly dawning insight to guide him.
The rabbis of the Talmud say that giving in to anger is a form of idol worship. Anger is the reaction when our version of reality turns out to be mistaken. When the world refuses to cooperate with our plans, we become enraged. We reject reality. We scream at God, “How dare you upset my fantasy?!” It is striking that Joseph never expresses anger. Manipulated and abandoned by his father, manhandled and nearly murdered by his brothers, he is at last sold into slavery. He doesn’t even get to maintain his lowly status as a slave, but he is stripped – literally and figuratively – and cast into a dungeon (the Hebrew uses the word bor, a “pit,” just as it uses bor for the well into which his brothers cast him.) When, at last, the tables of power have turned and Joseph’s brothers kneel abjectly before him in the marketplace, his response is not one of wrath nor of revenge. Rather, he turns away from them and weeps.
The Hebrew word for anger literally means “nose.” Think of a snorting bull preparing to charge, or of a fire-breathing dragon shooting flames of ire and wrath. And it is through the nose that we receive life. God fashions the first human from dust from the ground, (Gen. 2:7) “And God blew into his nostrils the breath of life…” For the Kabbalists this is not metaphor: God imparts some actual part of God’s own self into us, the Divine Spark which imbues us with life. When we give in to our own anger, we are blowing God out, spewing God out upon the world. There is no power greater than the power of God, and no force more destructive than the power of God unleashed with wanton rage. No power more destructive to those around us, nor any act more self-destructive.
Joseph has learned that, regardless of our inner turmoil, we must control our behavior. That our every action has an effect – and a consequence. We must act, not in mere reaction to flashes of rage. Not to satisfy our appetites. Each of us lives in service of something far greater than ourselves. If we live as unwitting slaves to our emotions, our actions will be desultory at best, destructive at worst. It is only when we envision, and plan, and craft, and even schedule our own personal destiny that our actions will be fully informed by our learning and knowledge – that our knowledge can transform into wisdom.
Joseph embodies the lesson that there is no such thing as “justifiable” anger, for anger is a purely destructive force. It is the assertion that “I” am more important than anything else. Joseph recognizes that to save himself, and to achieve the transformation the world so sorely needs, we must remove that “I” – that irascible, that self-justifying, that angry and wounded Self – from the equation. This new wisdom enables Joseph to succeed where others have failed.
It is a commonplace that those in high government positions – by no means exclusively in the Middle East! – abuse their position for personal gain. We have noted elsewhere that throughout human history, famine is a political phenomenon. There is always food somewhere. But those in power use food as a weapon to punish the minorities they hate, as a favor to bribe those whose backing they crave, and to enrich themselves beyond measure. At times when grain prices shoot sky-high, expect the Chief of the Royal Granaries to be driving a Lamborghini. The Torah’s detailed description of Joseph’s diligent husbanding of Egypt’s resources shows that he has seen through the base human craving for immediate gain – seen it as a losing game, and seen that if he truly masters the situation, he will gain unprecedented power. Actual power, not based on the momentary granting of favors, but on his control of his environment, as well as on his own effectiveness, in the face of the incompetence of those around him. Joseph has learned to embrace the task for which God sent him into the world.
Joseph has been given ample time and solitude, and he has put it to good use. Not all of us have the misfortune to be thrown into a dungeon. Yet we are all in some fashion imprisoned. Imprisoned by our past especially: by the hurts done us by our parents, by dreams shattered, or by mere random bad luck. The manifold unfairnesses of life. How many of us are angry at the poor outcomes when our own decisions did not work out, still carrying rage at those who could have helped us and did not? And isn’t our own anger so petty, compared to what people have actually lived through? People like Joseph, or like Mandela, or Martin Luther King, Jr., or Vaclav Havel?
Joseph’s prison was one of damp stone, of cold and dark places crawling with scorpions and snakes, yet he emerged wiser for the time spent underground. Will we be so lucky to emerge from our personal dungeons of the heart? There is no end of work to do. May God strengthen our hands.
Yours for a better world.