Parshas Mikeitz: Dreams and Ambitions

This week’s Parsha, Mikeitz, begins with Yosef interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams. Following the incident in jail, in which he correctly predicts the butler’s freedom, and the baker’s execution, he is summoned to the royal court, and Pharaoh gives an account of his dreams, which Yosef correctly interprets to be about the plentiful harvest and the famine which will follow.

The Talmud tells us that dreams are subject to the interpreter. The dream itself is essentially devoid of apparent meaning; it’s up to the one interpreting the dream to find the hidden meaning. Only then are dreams worthwhile analysing or dwelling upon, and only then can they form prophecies.

Of course, the rabbis in the Talmud said this in reference to the sort of dreams that we have while we are asleep. But there’s another kind of dream: an ambition. Something we would like to do, something which we daydream about, even. And as I thought about the whole issue of dreams and interpretations, I realised the rabbinical statement applies to this second type of dream, as well.

Once we utilise the powers of interpretation, there is no such thing as an unfulfilled dream. We might dream about doing something, only for it to go wrong, but if we analyse and interpret our dreams- the dreams we have while we’re awake- then we realise that there is meaning and purpose in everything that happens to us.

Perhaps our dream didn’t turn out quite right. Let’s say we dreamed of spending a life with someone, only to find that they’re not the right one. It’s heartbreaking and painful and feels a lot more like a nightmare than a dream- but once we’ve moved past that, we start to realise something. We realise that maybe they treated us badly, or vice versa. Maybe you didn’t get on well together after all. Maybe, due to circumstances and limitations, it wouldn’t have been a fairytale “dream” relationship after all.

When we think this way, we can interpret our dreams. We can realise that even if it initially seems like that particular dream has gone wrong, there are actually hidden blessings in everything. Sometimes they are so hidden that we can’t see a blessing at all- for example in the case of death- but sometimes, it takes just a bit of interpretation to realise that maybe our dream was fulfilled after all- just in a slightly different way than we imagined.

Just as Yosef interpreted prophecies in Pharaoh’s dreams in Parshas Mikeitz, we, too, hold the power to read important messages into the dreams we have while we’re still awake. So next time you find yourself dreami about what you’d like to do- or next time you mourn a dream that ‘went wrong’- stop and think. After all, dreams are in the hands of the interpreter, and perhaps there’s a crucial message here, too.

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Parshas Vayeishev: Good People and Bad Actions

This week’s Parsha, Vayeishev, tells us the famous story of Yosef and his brothers. We learn that Yaakov Avinu loved Yosef more than any of his other sons, and treated him preferentially, giving him a fine coat of many colours. In response, Yosef began to feel superior to his brothers, who hated and envied him for his attitude towards them. We learn from both the texts and the commentaries that Yosef’s brothers had many faults. They hated their fellow Jew- their brother, no less!- in their hearts, plotted against him, and sold him into slavery. They grieved their father, by telling him that his favourite son was dead, and the eldest tried to save Yosef only because he was worried that he would bear the brunt of the punishment. All in all, their behaviour was far from ideal, but when we read the commentaries, we learn that Yosef’s behaviour spoke volumes, too.

It wasn’t just his arrogant behaviour towards his brothers which made Yosef unpopular. He also brought “evil tales” about them to his father. We learn in Pireki d’Rabbeinu haKadosh that “[The Sages said:] Two righteous men were punished on account of the bearing of malevolent reports— Yaakov and Yosef. Because Yosef spoke badly of his brothers, he was incarcerated in prison for 12 years; and because Jacob listened to these reports, the divine spirit departed from him for 22 years. This teaches us that one who speaks negatively of another is punished once, while someone who listens to negative talk about another is twice punished.”

Despite the harshness of the decree against Yosef and Yaakov, I actually find that this story is incredibly uplifting. Why? Because although Yosef and Yaakov both acted “badly” in this instance, they were still good people. They were still tzadikkim. And, yes, they did wrong and were punished but it didn’t mean that they were “evildoers” or bad people. And for someone who struggles a lot with Frumkeit and Yiddishkeit, to see that two of the greatest men in the Torah erred and made mistakes and still came out the other side as highly respected individuals is extremely inspiring.

Of course, this is no excuse for us to speak loshon horo or behave badly, just because Yaakov and Yosef did so, and were eventually forgiven after they had been punished. But it also means that there’s no excuse to give up on oneself just because one has made a huge mistake and treated another wrongly. There’s always time to turn our lives around, right our wrongs, apologise to those we’ve hurt, and lead lives as righteous people- just as Yaakov and Yosef did.

Parshas Vayishloch: The Woman Who Had No Voice

Every year, when I read Parsha Vayishloch, I am left at a loss for words. I’m not referring to the reconciliation between Yaakov and Esov, nor am I talking about Rochel’s death. I’m talking about Dinah. Dinah, who was raped, and ultimately failed- not by her brothers who slaughtered an entire village for her, but by the rabbonim who spent the centuries which followed blaming Dinah for what happened.

It starts with Rashi. Rashi, the trustworthy, respected rabbi, and writer of perhaps the most widely used Torah commentary, who casually drops the following statement; “[Dinah was known as the daughter of Leah, and not the daughter of Yaakov], because of her going out… since she (Leah) too was in the habit of going out, as it is said: ‘and Leah came forth toward him'”. We learn from this, apparently, that Leah’s habit of going out was “immodest” and unbecoming for a Jewish woman. She should have stayed in the tent, like Sarah Imeinu, and it’s heavily implied that had Dinah not gone out so often- and, indeed, had Leah not set this immodest example- she wouldn’t have been raped.

The blame falls on Dinah, and on her mother. Shechem, her rapist, gets his just desserts, when he and his village are killed by Dinah’s brothers, but they defend their decision by saying, “We could not let our sister be like a harlot”, a comparison which to me, in the 21st century, seems completely repulsive. The dismissal of rape victims as promiscuous women is a troubling trend which continues to this very day, and no matter what excuses I hear about it being the attitude of the time, it nonetheless leaves me speechless. The Torah is eternal. It is supposed to be unchangeable. So how can we excuse these statements by simply saying “that’s how things were at the time”?

And then, looking at modern articles and chiddushim on Parshas Vayishloch, the horrifying attitude towards Dinah’s rape continues. One Facebook page dedicated to modesty declares sincerely that Dinah’s rape was due to the fact that she showed her forearm, sending the message that it was her fault for tempting Shechem. If this is the message being sent to our young women, how can we expect them to feel at home in Orhodox Judaism? How can we expect them to feel empowered by their religion and ancestry when messages such as these are commonplace?

And so, after years of being at a loss for words, I’m speaking out.

I can’t change the Torah. None of us can. As an Orthodox Jew, I believe that the Torah is emes. It is the truth, and, for better or worse, we humans can’t take parts out, or add things in, or whitewash over the bits which trouble us. What we can do, however, is tackle these things head on; examine them in great detail, from every angle, until we understand them. Additionally, we need to take a look at the messages being sent out by contemporary rabbonim. Quite often, these messages are far from the truth. The “chiddush” about Dinah being raped because she wore short sleeves finds its basis in the words of Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman, the first to suggest it, but could- and should- have been dismissed long since then. Instead, we find it used as an example of why tznius is important.

I am a huge advocate for tznius, but not in the context of preventing rape. This year, when we read Parshas Vayishloch, we need to look at it with a fresh pair of eyes, unaffected by the centuries of misogynistic victim-blaming which surrounds it. We need to put aside what Dinah wore, and how often she went out, and look at what we can do for the millions of Dinahs- rape victims- who have found themselves blamed and criminalised for what happened to them. The women without voices. The women who read these things in Jewish schools or on social media and blame themselves for what happens to them. The women who we, as a community, have failed.

Gut Shabbes! (Vayeitzei)

This week’s Parsha, Vayeitzei, begins by telling us of Yaakov’s journey from Beersheba to Charan, where he ends up working for the deceitful Laban, and marrying the matriarchs Rochel and Leah. The journey he went on was undeniably life affirming, as he dreamed of a ladder connecting the Heavens and earth, encountered G-d, and met and married the mothers of the tribes of Israel. But the journey did not stem from a desire for exploration, or an attempt to find G-d. In fact, he journeyed to get away from his brother Esov who wanted to kill him- proving that difficult situations can be turned into huge opportunities.

Vayeitzei is full of inspiring messages which we can apply to our daily lives in the 21st century. Although Yaakov did not originally want to travel from Beersheba, when he was forced to he made the best of the situation and ended up better off for it. He had not merely fled from Esov, but in doing so he had discovered himself and changed his own destiny for the better. When we are presented with difficult and painful situations, we have a number of options. We can bury our heads in the sand and refuse to acknowledge what is happening; we can blame others, or G-d, for the unfairness of the world; we can wallow in our misery; or we can grab the bull by the horns and decide to make the best of what we have, as Yaakov did. Perhaps the challenges we are facing now will turn into revealed blessings later down the line. May we all be zoche to see only revealed blessings and opportunities for self-improvement!

This week, Shabbes candles should be lit at 3:42 PM in London, and Shabbes ends at 4:55 PM tomorrow. When lighting your candles, please keep in mind Chaim Elozor ben Baila, Moshe ben Genya, Moshe ben Hadasa, Shmuel Yossef ben Soroh Malka, Chashachana bas Bryna and Rivka Miriam bas Tsivia Bina. Thank you, and gut Shabbes!

Yaakov’s Prayers

It took a long time for me to start davening regularly. Until I got my own siddur, my prayer routine was restricted to Shabbes- but that all changed when I discovered the beauty of Ma’ariv, the evening prayer service, and started davening every evening, a habit which has continued to this day. For a long time, I wondered why I found myself so drawn to it. Before I even started saying the Modeh Ani every morning, or the Shema last thing at night, I was fascinated by Ma’ariv, seemingly inexplicably. Why did it speak to me in such an extraordinary way?

This week, as we read Parshas Vayeitzei, we learn that Yaakov prayed after he fled to Charan, escaping his brother Esov’s wrath. It was through this that he instituted the Ma’ariv prayers, just as Avrohom and Yitzchok had done before him with Shachoris and Mincha respectively. The Rebbe explains the meaning behind this, saying, “There is a great difference between praying during the day and praying at night. During the day, the sun is shining. The light and brightness of the physical setting is representative of its spiritual backdrop. Day refers to times and situations where G‑dliness is apparent. That’s when Avrohom and Yitzchok prayed. Yaakov, by contrast, prayed at night, metaphorically, when G‑dliness is hidden and one must combat darkness“.

Suddenly, my own attraction to Ma’ariv made sense. When I began davening at home, after I was gifted my first Siddur, I was in a place of darkness. Not just physically, as the nights became longer, but emotionally, as I dealt with various upheavals and traumas in my own personal life. And during that difficult time, it was especially hard to face the cold winter nights, when I felt especially alone and unloved by the world in general. Opening my siddur brought me comfort when I was most desperate for it, and it was as I davened Ma’ariv that I would pour my heart out to Hashem, begging Him to help me find happiness, leaving me convinced that things would change for the better.

I have never underestimated the power of a little bit of light during a time of darkness. And today, as I read the Rebbe’s explanation for Yaakov’s prayers, I realised why Ma’ariv was so important to me, when I was dealing with both metaphorical and physical darkness.

The World Could Not Exist Without You

Yesterday, I wrote about how this week’s Parsha teaches us an important lesson through the matriarchs Rochel and Leah, and as I looked deeper into the text, I realised that much of Vayeitzei centres around individuality, and, specifically, individual importance. Not only does it tell us about how Leah- the older, less “popular” sister- was destined for greatness, but it also introduces the 12 Tribes of Israel through the birth of Yaakov’s sons. And the twelve tribes, whom we read about later in the Torah, are another example of how each and every one of us play an important role and are equally valued by G-d.

There’s a saying from Rabbi Nachman of Breslov which goes, “The day you were born is the day that G-d decided the world could not exist without you”. I always loved that quote. Reading it made me feel special. Important. Wanted, even. And as I read this week’s Sedra I realised that that’s because I am. I often struggle with feeling unwanted, in a fast-moving world where popularity and looks determine how “interesting” you are, and Vayeitzei provides me- and everyone else who feels the same way- with a wake up call. We are important. We are valued. And even if, like Leah, we feel hated, it doesn’t mean that Hashem has ‘given up’ on us (G-d forbid!).

So in the middle of a difficult week, I’m going to look to the Parsha and carry on. I know that I’m on this journey for a reason, and that Hashem is going to make it all worthwhile.

Parshas Vayeitzei: Learning From Leah

This week’s Sedra tells the story of two sisters. It’s an oft-repeated tale; one of the sisters is younger, more beautiful, and loved by everyone, while the older daughter is less attractive and less popular, a fact which contributes to the turbulence of their relationship, which is marked by rivalry and jealousy. Needless to say, it’s the younger sister- Rochel, in this case- who attracts male admiration, and ends up with a marriage proposal from none other than Yaakov Avinu, who works for their father for seven years so that he can marry her. But then something happens, and when Yaakov wakes up the morning after the wedding, he realises that he is married to Leah, the younger sister, and that their father- the deceitful Laban- has tricked him.

Needless to say, Yaakov is not especially pleased by his discovery, and confronts Laban. But in the end, he promises to work for another seven years to marry the younger sister- so great is his love for the beautiful Rochel. Of course, it’s touching to hear of his dedication to her, but one is left feeling rather sorry for Leah. One can imagine just how hard it is to be the older, less attractive sister, who can only get married by accident, and then finds herself “hated” as a result.

I think that all of us have been Leah at one time or another. Growing up, the story of sibling rivalry certainly spoke to me, as I found myself feeling insignificant in comparison to my brother, who was better looking, more intelligent, and- I felt- better liked. As I grew older, I began to realise that he had his own problems, and his life wasn’t nearly as perfect as I had imagined. Once I realised this, our relationship improved and we became inseparable, but I still connect deeply with Leah on a personal level, as I struggle with feeling like the least attractive, least intelligent, and- above all- least interesting friend in my peer group.

But despite her unfortunate predicament, Leah’s story is one of brilliance. It takes time, but Leah has seven children- six sons, and a daughter- and we learn that her sons’ names allude to the fact that she was also a prophetess, as she predicted their futures. As if this wasn’t enough, we learn that Yaakov eventually admits that Leah is his “chief” wife, and the mother of the majority of his children. There’s also something unique about Leah: she is the first person to praise Hashem. After the birth of her children, she turns to Him and thanks Him for all he has given her, perhaps thinking of her transformation from the unloved woman who was sneered at to the mother of multitudes.

We can’t deny that Leah had a difficult life. But we learn from her that perhaps, it’s not being young, popular and attractive which matters the most in life. Although she encountered difficulties and opposition, and felt inferior to her younger sister, Hashem answered her prayers and gave her the children she so desperately longed for. What Leah lacked in popularity, she made up for in faith; her tears ascended to heaven and her prayers reached Hashem’s ears, and she made sure to set a precedent of thankfulness. It turns out that these things were more important after all; so if, like Leah, you’re feeling insignificant, remember the story of her life, and how Hashem blessed her.