Living Our Dreams

December 15th: Miketz and Chanukah
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Both the Torah and the Haftarah speak about dreams. In the Torah portion, Pharaoh has dreams that none of his advisors can interpret. He hears about a Hebrew lad who can interpret dreams, and he invites Joseph from the prison. “I have had a dream,” Pharaoh explains, “But no one can interpret it. Now I have heard of you that for you to hear a dream is to tell its meaning.” Joseph corrects the Pharaoh, “Not I! God will see to Pharaoh’s welfare.” Joseph seems to have matured and developed some humility. He is also aware that his “gift” is from God, and, of course, that God is the one sending both the dreams and the interpretations.

As it turns out, Pharaoh’s dreams come true, and the preparations proposed and supervised by Joseph save the day. Dreams, in other words, involve a message, a situation, and a response.

In the Haftarah for Chanukah, Zechariah 2.14 – 4.7, we also have a kind of dream, the prophetic dream of Zechariah that flawed human beings can do better and live up to the holiness of their rank and position. The prophet also speaks of God’s unblinking attention to their behaviors and the fact that rank does not protect one from the demands of morality or holiness: “‘Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit,’ says the Lord of Hosts.”

The Jewish thinking on Chanukah reflects these stories with a curious tension. On the one hand, we are urged to realize that all of our blessings come from God. We are mere vessels for the Shefa, the Divine Flow of Energy and Blessings. This is expressed in the second Chanukah blessing—the one on the occasion: “Baruch Atah Adonai, Elohaynu Melech ha’olam, she’asah nissim l’avotaynu bayamim hahem baz’man hazeh. / We praise You, O Lord our God, Ruler of All, Who did miracles for our ancestors at this season in those days.”  Note that the blessing speaks of plural miracles—nissim/miracles and not nes/miracle. Yes, we have the story of the miracle of the oil, but there was also the miraculous nature of the Maccabees’ victory over Antiochus and his Greek Syrians. It was an impossible fight, but God gave us the victory.

On the other hand, there was a sense among some Sages that the victory called for praise of the human beings who rose to the occasion and liberated our people from the oppressor. Yes, God gives us blessings, but human agency is necessary. We have to bring our own blessings. I do not know the origin of the dreidel game, but this sensibility seems to be reflected in its catchphrase, Nes gadol hayah sham / A great miracle happened there. Here, it is a single miracle, nes.

 Throughout our history, there has been a tension between waiting for miracles from God and taking care of ourselves. And, in the aftermath of the Destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple (and lots of our people) in 70 CE, and the debacle of Bar Kochba’s Rebellion of 130 CE, the Sages actually militated against militant self-defense. Their attitude was most un-Maccabean, but it reflected their belief that physical resistance was futile—that it would only make the Oppressor more angry. Better, they counseled, to be faithful and patient. God would eventually send the Messiah and things would be glorious. In the meantime, just “hunker down” and be faithful to God and our religion.

This all changed radically in the 19th Century as Jewish Self-Defense groups began in Eastern Europe. Many of these individuals were also Zionists, and they brought this taking care of ourselves approach to the Land of Israel. While some were waiting for the Messiah, these Chalutzim (pioneers) saw the redemption of the Jewish people in the physical restoration of the Land and the defense of the Yishuv (Jewish inhabitants). It was a marked change in the Jewish approach, and it is a philosophy and way of living that has made the modern State of Israel possible and successful.

Theodor Herzl said, “Im tir’tzu, ayn zo agadah,” which is usually translated, “If you will it, it is no dream.” In the case of the modern Zionist movement, the dream came true because the people undertook themselves to make the vision a reality. They willed it, and they backed up their will with action.

Pharaoh’s dream called for action, and Joseph was able to guide the response that enabled Egypt and much of the world to survive. Zechariah’s dream called on the people to improve themselves—to live up to the ideals of holiness, honesty, and righteousness that God makes possible. The Maccabees had their dreams and so did the modern Zionists. In all these cases, the dreams were more than fantasies that come in the night. They were moments of awareness that called for clarity and strategic response.

Our lesson here is both simple and complex. When we have moments of clarity and inspiration—moments where dreams come forth, let us consider the possibilities that these dreams hold for us and endeavor to make them come true with our dedication, our good thinking, and our deeds.