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Parashat Vayeshev – 12/11/2009

Weekly Torah portion:
Vayeshev – 12/11/2009
submitted by Robert Rabinoff

We begin the saga of Joseph and Israel’s descent to Egypt with this week’s Parashah. The Hebrew word for Egypt is mitzrayim which comes from a root meaning bounded or constricted, and in fact the descent from the Land of Israel to Egypt is a descent from a situation of freedom and spiritual growth to one of slavery, both physical and spiritual. In the same way, Joseph’s personal story begins in our Parashah with dreams – those of his own and those of others – which we can see are actually prophetic visions of the future. Joseph’s story concludes with his reigning over all of the civilized world, concretely providing sustenance for his family and indeed for all the nations of the world. In short, Joseph’s story is a manifestation of the move from abstract and spiritual to concrete and material. The return journey, from the concrete back to its abstract basis, will begin with the phenomenon (and Book) of Exodus.

There are two incidents in our Parashah that encapsulate this process of concretization. The first comes at the beginning of the Parashah, with Joseph’s first dream. Joseph dreams of his brothers’ 11 sheaves of grain bowing down to his sheaf. His brothers’ reaction is “Will you indeed rule over us?!” The Torah goes on to relate that they “hated him for his dreams and for his words.” The question arises, why the repetition in the expression? The Brisker Rav (The Torah of Brisk, p.314ff) explains based on a Rabbinic dictum: “The outcome of every dream depends on its interpretation.” When the brothers exclaimed “Will you indeed rule over us?!” they in effect interpreted the dream, and therefore set its fulfillment in motion in the particular direction that they had spoken out. Therefore they hated him not only for the dream, but for telling it to them in a way, they felt, would goad them into interpreting it to Joseph’s benefit and to their own detriment.

The second situation arises after Joseph is sold to Potiphar, the Egyptian official. Instead of being sent to the fields to do hard physical labor, Joseph is assigned to work around the house, where his managerial and leadership skills can be noticed. Torah tells us that “Gd blessed Potiphar’s household because of Joseph “to the point that Potiphar” … didn’t know anything about [what was in Joseph’s charge] except for the bread he ate.” Again, citing a Rabbinic dictum, the Brisker Rav’s son, R. Meshullam Dovid Soloveitchik (The Torah of Brisk, p.336), suggests that Potiphar intentionally didn’t oversee Joseph’s activities because “only that which is hidden to the eye can be blessed [by Gd].”

In both these cases we find a situation where something moves from the abstract level to the concrete level. In the first case, whatever is presented in the dream is still ethereal – as a wise man once said, “The gun of waking state cannot kill the tiger of dream state.” Once the dream is interpreted, this particular angle on the dream now becomes actualized in physical existence. In the second case we have a similar phenomenon. As long as our awareness is not engaged in counting or measuring what we have, it is, as it were, abstract, and Gd is as it were “free” to manipulate it for our benefit. Once we nail down a definite amount, it is nailed down – it won’t increase or decrease. We have taken something that is free and flexible and, as it were, subjected it to the rigid laws of nature, the laws of a definitive instantiation.

There is a phenomenon in modern science that throws light on these pieces of Rabbinic wisdom. In classical mechanics we look at physical matter as concrete, constrained and confined to a particular place at a particular time. Experiments on the atomic and subatomic levels have confirmed that this conception is of only limited validity. On the level of the very small, “objects” are actually concretizations of underlying waves. Just as a wave is spread out, and in fact is nothing more than an activity of an underlying, unbounded field (think of waves on the ocean – although they appear substantial, we know they are nothing more than the movement of the ocean from within itself), so objects, below the surface level of perception, are actually everywhere at once. It is only when we ask nature to specify the position of the object that she grudgingly responds with a specific value. I say grudgingly because if we ask the question many times (i.e. repeat the experiment many times) we will get different answers each time; we can only calculate the statistical probability that we will get any one answer, but for any one run of the experiment we cannot tell which answer will come up. It is only in the interaction of the phenomenon with the act of measurement, which itself is an extension of human awareness, that the unbounded, abstract field which is the real nature of the object, becomes concrete.

In the same way, a dream, which intrinsically may have many different, coexisting levels of interpretation, all of which may be correct, only becomes a concrete prophecy when we express one of those interpretations verbally. Also, the produce of the field can be blessed by Gd and increase almost without measure, but when we do go to measure it, we “force” Gd as it were to specify a particular amount. By specifying the amount, Gd is so to speak “constrained” to abide by the measurement. Even in the case of a miracle, such as Elisha and the widow and her two sons, where a single cruse of oil was poured out into many, many empty jugs, the widow had to go into her house and close all the doors and windows, in keeping with the saying that “only that which is hidden to the eye can be blessed.”

In all these situations we have an underlying reality that is unbounded, and a surface reality that is bounded. Trying to shoehorn the unbounded into boundaries is possible, but painful, as it does violence so to speak to the essential nature of the phenomenon. In the same way, Israel, which leads a life of unbounded spirituality in the Land of Israel, must now constrain itself in the boundaries of mitrayim. We cannot read Gd’s mind, so we cannot really answer the question why this must be, but we do know that out of that experience comes the incredible Revelation at Mt. Sinai, the ultimate reversal of the movement from the unbounded into boundaries.

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