Saturday, December 13, 2014

Dreaming again... and making dreams real - D'var Torah - Parashat Vayeishev (Genesis 37) - December 12, 2014

 Arriving somewhere late
Missing a sock or a shoe – or both – when I really need them
Being unable to get out of a building
Jamming with Paul McCartney
Getting along with people I don’t usually get along with

These are some of the impressions that I carry around
From my dreams
Some of us remember dreams frequently and vividly
Some can recall dreams just every so often
And maybe there are those of us
who never can describe a dream in any sort of detail.

We often hear that dreams speak to us
About who we are
About the order or chaos in our lives
Even though the dreams seem to portray
Events in a state of disarray.
While we sleep, dreams likely help us
shape the seemingly random aspects of the world
Into categories that will make better sense to us
While we are awake.

Of course, we also use the word “dream” to refer
To aspirations, hopes, and visions of improving our society
Or of creating something new. 
One of the greatest speeches of the 20th Century
bore the refrain “I Have a Dream.”
The common translation of Theodor Herzl’s fundamental
Declaration, IM TIRTZU, EIN ZO AGADAH, is not
“If you want it, it is no legend,”
but, “If you will it, it is no dream.” 
Perhaps the dreams that come to us while we sleep
Enable us to further develop our plans and thoughts
For the future so that they will come to fruition. 

The ladder at Beth-El came to Jacob in a dream
After he had fled his home due to the fear
That his brother might take revenge on him immediately
For replacing him as the blessed first-born son.  
The dream of God and a ladder to heaven
elevated a supplanter and deceiver
To a higher level of understanding about his life.  
Jacob finally realized that God was with him,
and that God’s presence mattered
giving him, perhaps, at least a small dose of humility.

And then there was his son Joseph.  Jacob’s favorite.
The one to whom he gave an ornamented tunic,
a KTONET PASIM, which was worn by special young women,
and, perhaps, special young men of his time.  
But there was more to Joseph that no one recognized as unique.
Joseph was truly Jacob’s son, a dreamer,
but Jacob couldn’t even see it as he tried to keep peace in his family.  
Jacob saw only his immediate problem:
he didn’t need this precocious,
narcissistic young man bringing “evil reports,”
gossip, about his brothers,
creating yet another generation of pointed sibling rivalry.
But the dreams – no one, not even Joseph could see
that they were pointing to crucial future events
Which would lead to their survival.  

What caused Joseph to tell his brothers these dreams
that had such potential to inflame their jealousy?
Jewish commentators noted that Joseph was
Too young and naïve to realize the consequences
Of his dream-sharing. 
Perhaps he thought they would respect him more
If he revealed that he was the one to whom others would bow.
Or, was it that he realized that he had been given a message from God
that he had to share? 
Or, in Aviva Gottleib Zornberg’s words, was this just
Joseph the teenager behaving with
“a dangerous unawareness of the feelings of others”? 

In the stories of Joseph, one dream points to a possibility,
and two dreams predict that something will truly come to pass. 
Joseph was right, but he didn’t know
how he was right. 
So he may have shared his dreams
Asking for an answer.  
He received an answer in the form of an envy so deeply held
that his brothers sold him to go to Egypt
And told their father that Joseph was dead
So they would be rid of their annoying, self-centered, bothersome brother. 
What the brothers didn’t realize
is that they were doing exactly
what needed to be done,
which Joseph only would comprehend
once he became the overseer
managing the famine in Egypt
who would witness his brothers bow down before him
just like in the dreams of his youth.
Had the brothers not acted out of their anger and hurt,
Joseph wouldn’t have ended up where he needed to be
to save the life of his entire family. 
How ironic it was that Joseph’s apparent dreams of grandeur
pointed not so much to him having
a position of power
but one of responsibility.  
He eventually understood
exactly why he was where he was by the end.
It is the same with us.
 Our actual paths in life
sometimes look more like disorderly dreams,
even when our aspirations for something great
are based in real talents that we have demonstrated
over and over again. 
Every act and every decision has a consequence,
and the results that we see at first
may not appear to lead  to where we hope to go.  
It may be only when we near our final destination
that the meaning of dreams, visions, and aspirations
that first occurred to us will come clear.  
It is important to express those hopes
at the beginning  with humility, for sure,
but it is even more important to understand
the higher purpose they may represent.  
So may we keep our eyes, ears, minds and hearts
open to those dreams that can drive us to greatness
and fill our lives with meaning.  

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Kindling the ongoing lights of faith - article for the Temple Beth-El Las Cruces Adelante Newsletter for December 2014

     At this writing, I am about to lead the Shabbat service that features the Torah reading VAYEITZEI, which opens with the patriarch Jacob’s dream at Beth-El. This passage is often on our minds and right before our eyes when we attend services. The Neir Tamid in our Sanctuary places the ladder/stairway in front of us every week, uniting the symbolism of light with a connection between heaven and earth.
     The rabbis imagined Jacob to be somewhat hesitant to step onto the ladder because of the risk of failing to rise to the top. In one midrash, God showed Jacob how the great powers of the world (represented by the angels going up and down the ladder) would rise and fall, while the children of Jacob would not suffer the same fate. In those rabbinic interpretations, we never see Jacob taking the step onto the ladder, at least not at that point. In Genesis Chapter 28, Jacob essentially declared that if God took care of all of his needs and saw him through his coming challenges and ad
ventures, then Jacob would fully believe in God. Such a conditional approach has bothered some commentators, but it demonstrates Jacob’s humanity. Even making such a pledge was still a commitment to a future relationship, which only would be fulfilled if Jacob continued on his journey to find a wife and to create and raise a family. We know, from the end of the story, that Jacob did act out of his own initiative without waiting for God to do everything for him.
     Worship in most any context is a lot like Jacob’s relationship with God. The words, the melodies, and the possibility of community are always there, waiting for us to take an active participatory step to make prayers and expressions of belief, commitment, joy, and hope come alive. The generations before us provided us rituals, symbols and an order of a service that reminds us of the wonder of creation, the gift of wisdom, and the trust that can lead us to a sense of security and optimism as members of the Jewish community and of the family of humanity. The Siddur/prayerbook expresses gratitude to our ancestors for establishing a foundation for our community and to God for sharing with us the strength to reach out to others to provide them with freedom, care and support. We focus on aspects of life that are holy and unique that we might consider to be miracles even when we have created them with our own knowledge and insight. We say “thank you” for everything we have and we pray that peace will finally come to our world and encompass all of humanity and all of creation.
     The ways in which we express ourselves vary from week to week on Friday night and Saturday morning. On the first Friday of the month, our 6:00 pm Family Service features the central prayers of our liturgy in a relaxed family setting that is open to members of all ages. A potluck Shabbat dinner follows that brings the generations together in Shabbat joy. The second service on the first Friday is an equally relaxed service that gives congregants a chance to take part in a discussion on an aspect of the weekly Torah portion with the goal of finding lessons for modern life. The “middle Fridays” of the month usually feature a Torah reading with a brief D’var Torah that expresses my current thoughts on the meaning we can derive from the ancient text. On the last Shabbat of the month, the “Shabbat Service for Renewal of Spirit” brings readings and music together to create a context that gives us a sense of peace and healing that can continue to guide us in the coming days. This service will again be preceded by a time for meditation each month.
Shabbat morning services are our most informal, with an opportunity for those present to share “miracles” in our lives, to engage in an in-depth discussion of the Torah portion for the week, and to sing and read prayers that we might not hear on Friday evening. When we reach our minyan of 10, we read Torah and still engage in a lively conversation about the text that has been handed down to us over the centuries.
     We are now looking forward to our celebration of Chanukah, which begins on Tuesday, December 16. We know well that the Chanukiah/Menorah does not light itself. It needs us to put in the candles and kindle each light so that the glow will inspire us to new acts of preserving freedom and justice for all people. Think of our Shabbat worship like a Chanukiah. When we are here, together, the light from our souls will shine brightly and there will be a special spirit emanating from our Sanctuary, creating a stair-way/ladder to lofty places. Each of us can be like Jacob, making it possible to see that “God was in this place, and I, I did not know it.”
    Best wishes for a happy Chanukah, with a hope that we will all find the light that is at the core of our lives and our souls.