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Vayechi: A Tap On The Shoulder
This week wraps up a four part series. If you haven’t seen the last couple of weeks Parsha videos, I recommend you go back and take a look.
I just want to come back with you and discuss a couple of the loose ends here, in the story of Joseph and Pharaoh’s dream and I also want to talk personally with you in terms of what this might mean for us, if any of this theory is in fact true.
So first I want to just get one thing out of the way right now and it is this – in looking back when everything we said about Pharaoh and Joseph’s dream, you need to distinguish between what it is that we hear as a reader of the Torah and what it is that Joseph heard in encountering Pharaoh. The term is written in Hebrew. Pharaoh and Joseph probably weren’t talking in Hebrew, they probably were talking in Egyptian. The exact language that we see in our text is probably a paraphrase and if so, you might say well, if you didn’t use the words yifat toar, then doesn’t match up with Rachel, right?
The Torah is using these connections to speak to you as a reader. It is a literary device that God is employing in the Torah as a way of communicating to you. What it was like for Joseph to listen to these dreams and in other words, the Torah uses the word bor, pit, to describe the prison. It is a literary device that gives you a sense that as Joseph was being pulled out of prison, there was this some sense of Deja Vu, that it just feels like I have been pulled out of the pit. And as I am getting these new clothes, it just feels like that moment that the clothes were taken off of me 13 years ago and now I have been brought to this person and then later, you know there is something about the way that Pharaoh is describing these cows, they just reminds me of my mother. The Torah is clueing you in, the reader through the use of these words that help you make the connections. The connections are going on in Joseph’s mind because the events just seem so uncannily similar.
What does all of these mean in our own personal lives, I mean does this ever happen to any of us that we get these kinds of taps on the shoulder like what would it look like to see these patterns in your own life and what are the implications of these? Am I supposed to go around in my life searching for this patterns and trying to interpret its meaning? And what if I get it wrong? A while ago I spent a day in Cleveland and I was actually just giving this talk about Pharaoh and Joseph’s dream to a group of about 16 people and at the very end of the talk, somebody raises hand, have you, Rabbi Fohrman in your own personal life ever received one of these taps on the shoulder, the kind of the thing that you are talking about? And I have to admit, I was kind of taken aback by the question, I wasn’t really prepared for it. I said, let me tell you something about my own interest in this topic. It goes back when I was about 10 or 11 years old. My father was struggling with cancer and in his struggle with cancer, he was pretty convinced that he had these kinds of taps on the shoulder a lot. I will give you an example. He was in remission from cancer about two years and then one night he had this dream. He saw these two monsters, these were like dinosaurs that were battling each other and in the background of the dream there were these scenes from places that he’d lived, San Francisco, Miranda and other places and the last scene was the house in Berkley, California where we are living right then and in that scene one monster killed the other monster. The last thing he saw was the time, 5:31 and then he woke up and then looked at his watch and it was 5:31 in the morning. He thought maybe this dream is telling me something, that this is the last act, either I am going to win it or it is going to win me right here and then maybe it is time to go to my doctor and see what’s going on.
He went to his doctor and found that in fact cancer was back and these sorts of things happens a lot, these kinds of taps on the shoulder and I really felt that I needed to talk with somebody about it, I mean then my father was just grasping at straws and maybe was kind of desperate, certainly reality did this and what does it really mean. I was in 5th grade and so I approached my 5th grade Rabbi and talked with him about it. So I asked him, I said, you know these dreams, is it really possible, could there be any meaning in this kind of stuff and he said to me, dreams don’t mean anything. We don’t believe in any of these stuff and he quoted me some suitable Jewish sources to back up the thought and I went back to my father and said, you know, I was talking to my Rabbi and he says this is all is kind of nonsense, you know God can’t speak to people in ways like these. And my father just smiled and said, you know, he is not going through what I am going through, right now. I wouldn’t expect him to say anything different but you know, I can’t deny my experience, this is my experience, and a few years later, my father, olav hashalom, died.
I guess it has always been something that preoccupied me. I mean was this real, was my father like grasping at straws because he was desperate and wanting to see something when really, nothing was there. I always thought it was an unresolved issue for me. Were these taps on the shoulder real, could they be real and then I concluded to my audience in Cleveland, I said I guess that kind of explains my interest in this subject. It was why it was personally meaningful to me, to find after all of these years this Joseph story and in which the Torah seems to be saying yeah, God can talk non-prophetically to you.
These kinds of taps on the shoulder could be real and then I left and I went in the car to my last talk of the day and as I got into the car, it struck me that I actually evaded this fellows question. He asked me do you feel these taps on your own life and I haven’t talked about my own life, I talked about my father’s life. I wonder why it was that I have done that. Why did I evade his question? Was it because I was too embarrassed to admit that I didn’t really feel any of these kinds of taps on shoulder in my own life? Whatever the case was, I was off to my next talk and my next talk wasn’t in front of 16 people, it was like 300 people and I was late. I was supposed to talk about something else but I was too exhausted, I thought let me talk about Joseph and Pharaoh’s dream again. Anyways I am getting into the hall, I am late, I am trying to get my computer to hook up to the projector because my PowerPoint isn’t showing. Everyone is waiting for the talk to begin and you know, in these kinds of situations, there is always somebody there, hey Rabbi Fohrman, do you remembered me and so, there is this guy who says this, I am thinking, no just leave me alone but he says it again, hey Rabbi Fohrman, do you remember me and I look at him, I say, one second, I do remember you. You are my 5th grade Rabbi from Berkley, California.
It was 25 years later, I haven’t seen this man in ages and there he is. After I gave the talk and an hour later, I sat with him, I said, here you were evading questions about taps on the shoulder and it is almost like God is saying to you, why - because you think you haven’t have enough taps lately? So, I will give you a tap on the shoulder. The guy who says there is no such thing as taps, he is going to be the one to tap you on the shoulder. What does it mean, what it the grand significance of that moment in my life? I don’t know but even if I don’t understand the meaning of that, the fact that I felt that just couldn’t deny that God was right there in my life, that mean something to me. You know, if you ask somebody do you have a sense in your everyday life, that God is right there with you. I think most of us, if we have to answer honestly that question, I mean like now, you know, I go about my everyday life, carpools, this and that and I think part of the reason why we feel that way is when we think about God it is like God has so many better things to do than worry about little old me, I mean who am I, I am one person in the city of million people and in the galaxy with a hundred billion stars, who knows how many planets and like God is going to take care of the whole thing. I am just such a small, little piece who really think that the master of the universe is going to be taking his time, walking with me in my life. It seems so remote but what would happen if at least one moment in your life, you knew it was true? God really was walking with you. The evidence was just stacking up, it just seemed too remote to be a coincidence, and it was like there was God. It seems to be that can be a life changing moment. If I am mattered in that moment then the theory that I don’t count because I am too small just doesn’t hold water anymore. Maybe God is always walking with me but that’s just the moment I happened to glimpsed it to be true. The life in which you feel accompanied is very different than a life in which you feel all alone.
And now, I just want to conclude this series with you by considering the other side of the coin here. I think that these taps on the shoulder are significant in so far as they suggest to us, God’s presence in our lives but not necessarily significant in so far as they demand from us the kind of interpretation because that effort to interpret especially when not all of the facts are on the table can be very, very dangerous and can lead you into great trouble and for this I want to come back with you one last time to the Joseph and Pharaoh story.
Pharaoh had two dreams, not just one. All of the resonances that we have seen that take Joseph back to his own life, those are all in the dreams about the 7 beautiful cows and the 7 ugly cows but he has another dream that we haven’t treated at all, that there is none of these resonances in it and that’s the dream with the 7 sheaves of wheat, 7 beautiful sheaves and 7 ugly sheaves. Why does Pharaoh have two dreams, why does only one of them resonate with Joseph’s life?
So I am going to share with you a fascinating theory developed by my friend Jonathan Grossman. Jonathan remarked me, said, you know if you are Pharaoh and you are going to have a dream that was going to talk to you about the gross domestic product of Egypt, could it be more logical to express that in terms of sheaves of wheat or in terms of cows? Egypt was an agrarian society, the Nile overflow each year, was the only place in the arid middle east where you can reliably plant crops. They eat wheat, they didn’t eat cows. They worshiped cows. So the dream about cows would have been a strange dream for Pharaoh to have and now, remember it was the dream about cows that holds the resonance with Joseph’s own life. Perhaps that would have confirmed to Joseph, looking at that dream, you know one second, when Pharaoh was dreaming about sheaves of wheat, he was dreaming about him but the cows? I am the cattle rancher around him, my family was involved with herds and cattle and in that dream there is all these resonances to my own life. The dream about the cows that was a dream about me. That dream about me provided a key so that I can help interpret the dream about him but then if that’s true, Joseph must look back on his own life and said, one second when I was 17 years old, I also had two dreams. Now one of those dreams was about the sun, the moon and the eleven stars but I had another dream about sheaves of wheat. I had all these sheaves of wheat, my brothers had all these sheaves of wheat and then their sheaves were bowing down to my sheaves, why was I dreaming about wheat, I am a cattle-rancher, I am not a wheat farmer. Pharaoh is the wheat farmer. And then perhaps that lead Joseph straight to the following conclusion. One second, when Pharaoh was dreaming about cows, he was dreaming about my past, right? Maybe when I was dreaming about wheat, I was dreaming about Pharaoh’s future. It never meant that I was supposed to rule over my brothers back then when I was 17 years old. It was talking about the future, one day my brothers would be desperate and I would be in charge of all the wheat. They would come bowing to me, desperate for food but then, I also had another dream too. The dream whose meaning seemed so self-evident, the sun, the moon and the eleven stars, they all come bowing to me, we all thought we knew what that meant. The sun – my father, the moon - my mother and the eleven stars – obviously my brothers, they are all going to come bowing to me but maybe we were all wrong. Maybe the self-evidentiary wasn’t so self-evident because what did Pharaoh’s dream teach me – that things don’t always represent things like cows, they can represent time and the units of time, they can represent or years. What if I take that lesson and now apply it to my own dream, how many heavenly bodies were there in my dream? The sun and the moon and the eleven stars, that’s 13. How old was I when I had that dream? I was 17 years old but the text tells us Joseph was 30 years old when he stood before Pharaoh. Both dreams mean the same thing. In 13 years the entire universe is going to come bowing to you, you are going to be in charge of all the wheat of the world. It took Pharaoh’s dream 13 years later to be able to have the key to understand in retrospect with Joseph’s own dreams really meant. In the end, Joseph and his whole family made an error. They were correct that Joseph’s dreams weren’t coincidence, they were product of the divine but then they made a leap, when they didn’t really have all the facts. And that leap is too tempting, if God is talking to me, why is he talking to me? Clearly to communicate a message, I have to understand the message and if I don’t have all the facts, let’s see what do I think the message is? That’s a dangerous game to play. You don’t always know what it means. Yes, in retrospect, later sometimes you figure it out, sometimes you never do. Sometimes all you know is that you got a tap on the shoulder and that’s okay and you have to have the humility to say I don’t understand but what I do know is that I am not alone and because of that my life is profoundly different.
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