Can God Talk To Us Without Talking?
Can God Talk To Us Without Talking?
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
Rabbi Fohrman's live webinar on October 24, 2017.
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This is David Fohrman and I am back here with you from Aleph Beta Central. Today I want to talk with you about something that's a little bit different than our running webinar on Jacob's Ladder. We are doing a series on Jacob's Ladder. If you haven't seen them yet, I encourage you to go back and see the earlier ones. But this is going to be a one-time stand-alone thing and what I want to do is share with you a story.
This is a story that happened to me. It spans a good deal of my life, this story. The first chapter began about 40 years ago and the last chapter so far just took place about five days ago or so. I want to kind of share with you a personal story and it deals with this issue which I emailed out to you, this question: can God talk to us without talking? Here is what I mean by that kind of oblique thing.
In this past week's parsha Parshat Noach, the Torah portion of Noah, the parsha opens with a statement which is kind of strange and almost self-contradictory. There's this great flood and Noah alone with his family among all the people in the world survive the flood.
A long time ago, I heard a talk by Rabbi Heshy Weinreb who is the executive vice president, emeritus, of the OU, in which he made the argument that Noah's surviving the flood can't really be ascribed to his righteousness as a function of Divine justice because when the entire world is being destroyed in an apocalyptic event, you don't get to survive just because you are a good guy. The Gemara famously says, the Talmud famously says that "mishenitan r'shut l'mashchit" when the destroyer gets permission to destroy "shuv lo mavchin bein rasha l'tzaddik" he doesn't really distinguish between the righteous and the evil. In the Holocaust, for example, everyone dies.
Yet, Noah survives an apocalyptic event, literally the apocalyptic event. The Bible's explanation for why he survives is that "Noach ish tzaddik hayah b'dorotav et ha'Elokim hit'halach Noach." Noah was a righteous man in his generation. He walked with God. And right before it says he walked with God, it actually says that -- the last verse really of the last parsha Parshat Bereishit, we don't always read it, is "Noach matza chein b'einei Hashem" Noah found grace in the eyes of God.
Heshy Weinreb basically said that that's how you have to understand it. It was an issue of grace, which is to say it wasn't so much that Noah deserved to be saved. No one can deserve to be saved. There is something about Noah that charmed God, as it were. That that made God smile. That God said you know what, you're going to come along with me. You're going to survive this.
I want to just piggyback on top of Rabbi Weinreb's argument with you for a moment to make the following speculative suggestion which is that if you look at that verse that Noah was a righteous person, the very next thing it says in that verse is that "tamim hayah b'dorotav" he was whole in his generation "et ha'Elokim hit'halech Noach" that he walked with God. And I wonder if the two are connected, which is to say that if you think about Noah's righteousness, his righteousness was a function of walking with God.
Now I want to kind of meditate with you on what this sort of means. You know, the notion of walking with God, to be mit'haleich with God, to stroll with God really goes all the way back. It's sort of pervasive in the Bible. Abraham gets this command just be whole with me and walk with me and it goes all the way back to the Garden, the Garden of Eden, when we hear famously "kol Hashem Elokim mit'haleich bagan l'ru'ach hayom" the voice of God was, strangely enough, strolling in the Garden in the afternoon.
What's strange about that of course is that God is a voice in the Garden. That's all He is. "Kol Hashem Elokim mit'halech bagan l'ru'ach hayom" the voice of God was strolling in the Garden. This is strange anthropomorphizing a voice. Because God doesn't have a body and God is invisible so God can't be strolling in the Garden in the afternoon. God is not a being within space and time and yet His voice takes the place of Him in the Garden and His voice is strolling in the Garden literally. When you're strolling in the Garden, His Garden, His special place in the world, so God sort of reaches out to mankind and there's an implicit invitation it seems to stroll with God which is what Noah eventually does.
The tragedy, of course, of the Garden, of the beginning of the story of the Garden is that Adam and Eve hide which is that they reject the invitation. And that's sort of the first mournful communication of God to Adam and Eve in the wake of their eating from the Tree of Knowledge is when God says ayekah, where are you, which I think doesn't really translate as where are you, but translates as where did you go? How come you're not here? I was waiting for you. We were supposed to go jogging together. God was kind of asking almost for the companionship of mankind in the Garden, in the form of Adam and Eve, and we didn't do it. We were hiding. The voice of God was scary to us, was awesome and fearful and that's what they say.
They say that Adam and Eve "vayitchabei Adam v'ishto" that Adam and Eve hid in the Garden because they were afraid and they explain that to God and they said that we were afraid and that's why we hid.
Here is Noah who is not afraid and who walks with God and I'm wondering that if you think about this notion of grace, as it were, of chein which really means kind of a free gift that God gives to us, when you try to sort of understand what it is this sort of charm, it's not an issue of justice. It's not an issue of what you deserve. It's not an issue of how many laws you've kept and how many laws you haven't kept and whether you're a righteous man in the conventional sense of the word. It's sort of a different kind of benchmark entirely, it feels like.
The other benchmark, I wonder, is this issue of kind of walking with God. I guess the question I want to put to you is what does it mean to walk with God? What really does that mean? We can sort of think about in our own souls for a moment, in our own personal lives, which is do we perceive ourselves as walking with God? You and me. Forget Adam. Forget Noah. Does it feel like God is with us on a day-to-day level that we're there with him? Do we live life with that kind of consciousness that God could be right with us or is right with us?
What I want to suggest is that maybe that to some extent is a choice that we make. We can't touch God. We can't feel Him, but we could choose to feel that He is with us. And if we do, we're sort of becoming His companion. In a way that's a momentous kind of choice because if I ask me or ask anybody, and I'll just talk personally for a moment -- you know, somebody asked me so Fohrman, do you feel yourself walking with God every day? Is that something that you feel like that when you're alone, you're not really alone, that God's with you? And that as you're walking down the street, God's with you in some kind of way, not spatially, not temporally but He's right there sort of with you.
You know that would be kind of a difficult question to sort of put me on the spot about because yeah, I'd say, well, you know, I certainly believe that that's true and intellectually I hope it's true and religiously it's a nice ideal to believe. And yet if somebody said to me you know, Fohrman, that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about, like, viscerally. Is that actually something you believe? Is that something you feel? You know, I'd be embarrassed to admit probably not a lot of the time. When I'm alone, I feel alone. I'm not that spiritual level that I feel enveloped by God in that kind of way.
Then if someone would ask why? Why is that? Why is it that you feel that God's not walking with you if that's an intellectual feeling you have? Why not? And I guess I would say well God's got a lot of things on His mind. I mean God's in charge of -- if He's walking with me, He's walking with everybody. Why am I special? There's the whole of Woodmere over here and the Five Towns and Teaneck and Israel and Australia and, heck, China. I mean there's 4.5 billion people in the world and God is the Master of the Universe. I mean God is in charge of the Andromeda Galaxy so, you know, God's got a lot on his mind. Who's little old me? It's almost arrogant to believe that God should be accompanying me around. What's sort of gall do you have, Fohrman, in thinking that you rate to think that God would be with you? That's the, sort of, part of you that sort of rejects this idea.
Except, what if there was a moment that you could point to where that wasn't true? What if you could point to a moment where you were sure that God was with you then? At least then. That could be a life changing moment. If you knew that there was at least one moment in your life that God was kind of paying attention to you, that would be life changing because sort of destroys the argument, doesn't it? Because then you can't really say that I don't rate, that I don't matter, that God's got better things on His mind and I'm just irrelevant. In a visceral kind of way if you know God was with you then, then how do you know He's not always with you? It sort of punctures that argument.
Getting back to walking with God, being in companion with God, a life lived that way, a life lived in which you feel that God is actually walking with you, is a different kind of life than a life lived when you feel all alone. It's a life that perhaps inspires a sense of chein, a sense of love on the part of God because we're just responding to that age-old question, that invitation to walk with Him, to accompany Him and we're choosing to do that.
I want to sort of meditate on that with you just for a moment today, sort of a personal meditation, and I want to sort of synthesize a few things that I talked about on other Aleph Beta videos and sort of update them with some personal stories that go along with it. Some of this will be familiar to you if you've been around the block with me and watched some of our videos and other pieces will feel new to you because they're new and I haven't really divulged them before. So I guess what I want to do is tell you a story and I guess the story is my own struggle with this in my own life and some moments that I've kind of felt that I was walking with God in a strange kind of way.
I say this really for your own kind of reflection about what it would mean for you. So let me kind of begin my story with you. If you want to comment, you can do that on Facebook Live in the comment section. You can do it on Zoom also. Let me just see our questions on Zoom. We've got a few of you guys on Zoom and also on Facebook Live and let me see if I can find our chat over here. There's our chat. Let me jump right in.
This story begins -- I guess a good place to begin it is nine years ago, 2008. In 2008 I began to figure out something. I was researching the Joseph story and I begin to figure out something which I later on developed into a series of four videos in Aleph Beta which was our second year parsha videos, if you want to kind of look them up, on the story of Joseph and his brothers. Those parsha videos span Vayeishev all the way to Va'y'chi. So you can look those up if you want to see the fullness of the theory. What I want to do is sort of tell you the story of how I developed the theory of those parsha videos.
I've been studying the Joseph story. What I'm going to do here is kind of share my screen with you and bring you into Sefaria to show you what it is that I saw and how I discovered it nine years ago. So follow along with me here and let me show you what I kind of saw. Over here I'm looking at the Joseph story and I noticed a pattern, a pattern that was quite striking. I didn't know quite what to make of the pattern though. Pattern begins in Genesis Chapter 41, Verse 14 and again some of you may have seen these videos so I'm going kind of run through it a little bit quickly here and again if you miss something I'm talking about with you, feel free to consult the original Aleph Beta videos on this back in Genesis.
"Vayishlach Par'o vayikra et Yosef va'y'ritzuhu min habor." Here is how I saw this pattern. So Pharaoh goes and he calls to Joseph and this is of course the moment where Joseph's been in prison this whole time and he is about to get out of prison for the very first time. His life has been a wreck ever since Mechirat Yosef, ever since the Sale of Joseph it's just been one long disappointment really except for the punctuated success in Potiphar's household and now finally Joseph gets a break. And he's standing before Pharaoh, a king that wants to help him, wants him to interpret his dreams.
"Vayishlach Par'o vayikra et Yosef" so Pharaoh calls and -- he sends and he calls for Joseph "va'y'ritzuhu min habor" and he pulls him out of a bor. Now that word bor here is a strange word because he's not actually in a bor. A bor means a pit and of course at this point in his life he's in prison and the Hebrew word for prison is beit hasohar. So he's not being pulled out of the beit hasohar where he is, he's being pulled out of a bor where he's not. But the interesting thing is was Joseph ever in a bor? And the answer is yeah, he was in a bor, just not now. He was in a bor 13 years earlier when he was 17 years old and he was in this pit.
It's almost as if the Torah is intentionally conflating the story of Joseph now with the story of Joseph then. The story of Joseph now being pulled out of prison. It's almost like there's this déjà vu moment for Joseph that as he's being pulled out of prison, it feels to him like he's reliving an event from 13 years ago. It feels to him like he's being pulled out of the bor, like he's being pulled out of this pit. That's the first-of-all piece.
Now if you just saw that you might say well that's interesting, Fohrman. It looks kind of interesting but I'm not convinced. It just could be a coincidental kind of thing. It doesn't really mean that that's what Joseph felt and that's what Joseph saw. But then I saw something else which is right after it says "va'y'ritzuhu min habor" that he was pulled out of the pit, you get this idea that after he takes a haircut "va'y'chaleif simlotav" he gets a nice new change of clothes. And if you think about that, you say, one second if you go back to Genesis 37 in the Joseph and the pit story -- so in Genesis 37 right before he got thrown in the pit, he actually got stripped of his nice new clothes. And now after he gets pulled out of the pit, he gets nice new clothes. That doesn't seem coincidental.
Now you're beginning to see that there might actually be the beginning of a pattern over here. If the pattern holds, the pattern would be a pattern of backwards reverses. Because the events that are seemingly taking place now in Genesis 41 when Joseph is about to meet Pharaoh, actually seem to mirror the events of 13 years ago in a backwards reverse fashion which is to say that the events are taking place in reverse chronological order. Back then, 13 years ago, first he was stripped of his clothes and then he was thrown into the pit and now first he's taken out of the pit and then he is given new clothes. So chronologically it's the reverse, but also the significance of the events are reverse because back then he lost his clothes and back then he was thrown into a pit but now he is taken out of the pit and now he is getting new clothes.
You say, that's kind of interesting but I'm still not convinced that there's really a pattern here. To show me that there's a pattern, to really prove to me that there's a pattern, I need to see more. Does the pattern continue? Well, I'm glad you ask because look at the very next thing that happens.
"Vayavo el Par'o" the next thing that happens is that Joseph comes to Pharaoh, Joseph goes to a man, a mentor kind of figure, a wonderful figure, a person that will give him a job, a person who will give him a wife, a person who will really take care of him. And you think about it well what's the reverse of that? The reverse of going to a man like that would be being sent away from a man like that. Well, is Joseph sent away from a man like that in reverse chronological order before? In other words, might it be the case -- is it in fact true that when Joseph is thrown into the pit that before Joseph is thrown into the pit and before he loses his nice new clothes that he's sent away from a man like that?
Of course the answer is yes. He's sent away from his father. It's almost as if father and Pharaoh are lining up as being the same kind of person and Pharaoh of course does have this father-like relationship with Joseph. He cares for him. He pulls him out of the pit. He takes care of him. He does all these wonderful things. And so it really seems like there's a pattern here. Just in case you didn't sort of see the pattern, if we would expect the pattern to continue further, the patterns of reverses going further, so then you would imagine that the very next event in the series after Pharaoh pulls him out of the pit, after Pharaoh gives him new clothes, after Pharaoh brings him to him, the next event in that sequence, the fourth event, should be the reverse of an event that happened 13 years ago before Joseph is pulled out of the pit, before he loses his clothes and before he's sent away from father, which is in fact the case because look at the next event.
"Vayomer Par'o el Yosef" the very next thing that happens is that Pharaoh says to Joseph "chalom chalamti" I had this dream "upoter ein oto" but the dream is inscrutable. I can't figure out what it means. It's impossible to interpret. Now let's just do the math over here. What would be the opposite of father figure telling son I had this dream? It would be son telling father I had this dream. What's the opposite of a dream that's impossible to interpret? A dream whose interpretation is obvious, is self-evident, doesn't even need to be said. Well, back 13 years ago did son tell father I had this dream and did everybody think the dream was self-evident?
The answer is absolutely. If you look at Genesis 37 that's exactly what happens because right before Joseph is thrown into the pit, and right before he loses his clothes, and right before he's sent away from father, right before that Joseph turns to his father and says I had this dream and everyone thinks the dream is obvious what it means. It's a sun and a moon and 11 eleven stars and everyone knows what a sun and a moon and 11 stars is. It's father and mother and the 11 brothers of Joseph and they're all bowing to him and they all say are you going to come -- are we all going to come before you and are we all going to bow before you? Sounds crazy, but the pattern seems to hold.
Just in case you weren't sure of this backward reverse pattern, over here "Vayomer Par'o el Yosef chalom chalamti" Pharaoh says to Joseph chalom chalamti I had this dream, 13 years ago the language is when Joseph talks to father "chalamti chalom" backwards. So it really seems like a pattern.
Now the question is, what does the pattern mean? Here's the funny thing about patterns. It's one thing to recognize a pattern; it's another thing to know what it means. It's one thing to see that God is saying something here; it's another thing to have some sort of understanding of what it means. What does it mean?
At the time I first discovered this, I had no idea what this meant, but it seemed to me that it at least meant that the events that occurred 13 years before which were terrible catastrophic events in Joseph's life, were somehow being redeemed. Things are getting better for Joseph. He was thrown into a pit, but now he's being taken out of the pit. He was cast away from father, but now there's another kind of father figure bringing him close. The original father got angry at him with his dreams, but this new father just says tell me your dream and it's almost like this new Pharaoh is vicariously redeeming for Joseph any of the latent anger he might have had toward his original father for sending him away in that dangerous situation. Maybe it meant that and maybe there was more. Maybe it meant more.
A few days after I found this, I gave a talk about it. A few days after that, I got a call from a friend of mine in Israel, a fellow by the name of Rabbi Schwartz in Karmiel. Anyway so I'm talking with Rabbi Schwartz on the phone and Rabbi Schwartz says there's more to the pattern. You didn't see the whole thing. So I said I'm all ears. I'm driving on the Van Wyck Expressway. Tell me more.
He says look at the next verses. The next verse is that Pharaoh is going to start talking about his dream and in his dream he's going to say I was there standing by the river and out of the river came seven cows and look at how the cows are described, Rabbi Schwartz says. Y'fot to'ar, they're described as beautiful cows, but those words y'fot to'ar what would that mean for Joseph?
Of course what that would mean for Joseph is something significant. It's like Pharaoh's talking about those cows in a way that reminds him suspiciously of his mother. It sounds crazy but Rachel cows? That's how Rachel is described "y'fat to'ar v'y'fat mar'eh." That's kind of weird these Rachel cows.
Then Rabbi Schwartz says to me well, what do you think this means? Vatir'enah ba'achu so you can see in English that they're translating it that the cows were grazing in the weed grass or in a swamp. And indeed if you look nowadays in Israel, they will actually say that an achu is a swamp and ro'eh there means to graze. But ro'eh only means to graze when the subject is cows not when the subject is people. When the subject is people it means to shepherd and what do you think the word achu means? Well Aleph-Chet-Vav sounds suspiciously, Rabbi Schwartz says, like echav, like brothers, which is exactly how Unkelus, an earlier commentator even than Rashi, translates it. Unkelus in Aramaic translates it as "vatir'enah ba'achvah" that they grazed together in brotherhood i.e. that these beautiful cows, because there was another seven cows, the ugly cows, that they were like brother cows the ugly cows and the beautiful cows.
If you now put it all together ro'eh for Joseph what would that mean a time when he was ro'eh echav, right? There was a time when these Joseph cows, were they ever shepherding together with brother cows? That language of shepherding evokes actually the very first verse of the Joseph story and if you continue the reverse pattern even further, it goes back even further before he was thrown into the pit, before he got his clothes taken from him, before he was sent away from father and even before the dreams, before all of that, the very first verse of the Joseph story is Joseph was 17 years old "hayah ro'eh et echav" there are these words "vatir'enah ba'achu" "ro'eh et echav batzon" he was not grazing because he's a person, then it means shepherding. He was shepherding with his brothers the sheep. Vatir'enah ba'achu.
It's almost as if the dream of Pharaoh is mapping onto Joseph's own experience which would mean that if Joseph is the children of Rachel, the y'fat to'ar cows, it means there are other cows also which would mean that the brother cows would have to be the children of Leah cows. Well are they the children of Leah cows? Well it sounds like they are. "V'hinei sheva parot acheirot olot achareihen" just check them out these ugly cows and what about these ugly cows? They were rakot basar, but that language of rakot rak thin and lean, that language actually shows up as a homonym, spelled differently, in the story of Rachel and Leah. Rachel is described as y'fat to'ar, but Leah is described as rakot "Einei Leah rakot." It really sounds like gee these are Leah cows. It's crazy. That's what Joseph sees. So the pattern continues how Pharaoh's dream is mapping onto Joseph's life.
That's what Rabbi Schwartz saw and then he hung up the phone. I was thinking about it and the pattern was too juicy to be disregarded. It was meaningful, but what did it mean? Why is it that Pharaoh's dream is mapping onto Joseph's own life 13 years ago?
That's the question that was puzzling around in my brain. A week or two later, I gave a talk about this in synagogue on Saturday afternoon. I propounded a theory to explain this all. And the theory was wrong. I took an interpretive leap based upon this evidence and came up with some sort of theory. I don't even remember anymore what the theory was, but I do remember this. When I gave this theory over to all these people, the evidence that seemed to be supporting it in terms of all of these correspondences which I've shown you, was very, very strong, but the last argument I made of what it meant was a little bit weaker. It had a fatal flaw in it, but nobody noticed it because the evidence leading up to it was so striking that everyone just kind of swallowed the whole thing hook, line and sinker.
I'm walking home from synagogue and I ask my wife, I say to her so what do you think of this talk? What did you think of the talk I gave? So she says to me it was okay except for the end. I said what do you mean it was okay except for the end? She says that's not it. You didn't get the ending, but maybe one day, but not today. She says don't worry, one day you'll get it. I remember I'm walking home from synagogue with her and it's, like what do you mean? I was miffed. I couldn't concentrate the whole rest of the afternoon. My wife doesn't like this talk. It was a perfectly fine talk. You're nit-picking. I was upset about it, kind of underneath the surface.
The next day I'm traveling to Baltimore to give a talk. On the train on the way to Baltimore, I'm thinking about this and I'm supposed to be preparing the talk that I'm supposed to give in Baltimore but I can't get my mind off the fact that my wife thought I was wrong and I said, you know, I'm going to go and research this thing and try to find the proof that I'm right so to speak.
I stand up and I get up on the train and I fish out my Tanach out of my backpack up there on the overhead compartment and I'm going to research it. I'm going to figure it out. So what am I going to do? I'm going to open up the Tanach to Genesis 41. I open it up to Genesis 41 and I put one hand over there and then I flip over to Genesis 37 which is Joseph's earlier life 13 years before that we've been seeing these correspondences to. I'm going to read these verses carefully until I find the proof that I was right.
Now here's the thing. If I have looked in Genesis 37 and Genesis 41 and studied that, I could study until the cows come home, pardon the pun, but I never would have figured it out because the key to the puzzle, the missing key to the puzzle didn't exist in either Genesis 41 or Genesis 37. It existed somewhere else. It existed in Genesis 29, but I didn't know that at the time.
Here I am. I am, and yes Danielle, my wife, eizer k'negdo, absolutely -- so there I am on the train. I got my Tanach in hand Chapter 37 and Chapter 41 and I'm about to sit down when all of the sudden the train lurches around this curve and I find myself completely spilling over into the seat of this guy and my papers are flying all over the place and my Tanach is flying all over the place and ends up in the lap of his girlfriend and it's very embarrassing. I gather myself together and I grab my papers and I grab my Tanach. My Tanach is no longer open to Genesis 37 and it's no longer open to Genesis 41. I sit down in front of me and it's open to Genesis 29.
My eyes look at Genesis 29. I want to show you the verse that I looked at. But before I show you the verse that I looked at, let me just sort of give you the background to the meaning of what I saw and why it clicked for me so powerfully.
One of the outstanding questions that you sort of had to ask reading the story of Genesis 41, the story of how Joseph -- is really the question of how it is that Joseph interprets Pharaoh's dream because here's the thing. Throughout all of Genesis, almost all of Genesis, the various people who exist in Genesis have a relationship with God which includes direct communication. God somehow speaks to them. God speaks to Adam and that's prophecy. God speaks to Noah and that's prophecy. God speaks to Abraham and that's prophecy. God speaks to Isaac.
The only generation which you don't have it, at least for a certain point of time is the generation of Joseph and his brothers after the Sale of Joseph. Somehow the Sale of Joseph ushered in a moment in the nascent family of Israel that was so dark, that was so terrible that God simply stopped communicating to us in that time.
The question is God isn't talking so along comes Joseph and Joseph tells Pharaoh that "Elokim ya'aneh et shlom Par'o" that God is going to answer you, but God's never spoken to Joseph before. And it's after the Sale of Joseph. God hasn't spoken to Jacob recently. God hasn't spoken to anyone recently. So is God really going to speak to him? It never, in fact, says that God then spoke to Joseph and tells him what the dream meant. Joseph just interpreted the dream. He says I know what the dream means. The dream there's these seven cows and the seven good cows are seven good years and seven bad cows are seven bad years. When the seven bad cows swallow alive the seven good years, so it means the seven good years are going to be swallowed alive by the seven bad years. That's basically his interpretation of the dream.
How did Joseph know that? Did God tell him? The text doesn't say that God told him. Did he just figure it out on his own? He says God is going to help me figure it out. It must be that God somehow helped him figure it out without talking to him and hence the title of this webinar which is "Can God Talk To You Without Talking?"
God talked to Joseph without talking. Somehow somebody talked. It was Pharaoh and somehow in the way that Pharaoh talked to him, Joseph understood the meaning of his dream. As we begun to see, the events of this moment in Joseph's life are powerfully resonating with his own life 13 years ago and maybe that is a kind of slate that God can use in which to talk to you.
Nobody else in the room knows what Joseph knows. No one else in the room has access to Joseph's life. Because the meaning of the dream really is sort of inscrutable. How would you ever know what cows mean? Along comes Joseph and says something astounding. All of the astrologers they come up with all sorts of wrong answers as to what the dream might possibly mean. The seven beautiful cows are seven beautiful daughters. The seven beautiful cows are seven types of crops or seven cities. No one knows what it means. Along comes Joseph and says something counterintuitive.
The reason why the astrologers they all think that the cows might mean people, crops or daughters or whatever it is, is because the common denominator between people, crops and daughters and cows are that they are all things. You would think that cows are a thing and that the cows represent some other thing. But along comes Joseph and says it's not true. The cows they represent time. They don't represent anything. The unit of time they represent are years. But how did he know that?
What I saw in Genesis 29 was the key to that puzzle. Let me take you into Genesis 29 and show you what I saw. Here I am. I'm looking at my Tanach which just happened to open to this page and here's the verse that I looked at. I'm staring at this verse right here. "V'einei Leah rakot v'Rachel ha'y'tah y'fat to'ar v'y'fat mar'eh" and the eyes of Leah were soft or weak and Rachel she was beautiful -- v'y'fat mar'eh she was beautiful in form and beautiful of visage. It struck me that one second these are the words which show up later in Pharaoh's dream rakot right over here and y'fat to'ar. Then something occurred to me which I never really sort of understood which is that these two phrases which show up in Pharaoh's dream rakot and y'fat to'ar that are descriptions of Rachel and Leah, they aren't just any old descriptions of Rachel and Leah, they are the only descriptions of Rachel and Leah that we ever get and they come together in one verse.
This verse right over here that I'm looking at, Genesis 29:17, this is the keystone verse to understanding Pharaoh's dream. The whole dream is a projection of this verse. Then my eyes wandered to the very next verse. The very next verse solved the puzzle.
You see if Joseph -- put yourself in Joseph's shoes. In Joseph's shoes -- you're wondering, like, first of all how does Joseph ever come up with this idea that cows equal years? Well imagine that Joseph saw what we saw that as he's being pulled out of the prison, it felt like this déjà vu event that, oh my gosh, it feels like I'm being pulled out of the pit. Then as he's being given new clothes it's, like, oh my gosh, it feels like my loss of new clothes and now I'm getting these beautiful new clothes. As I'm going close to Pharaoh it's, like, oh my gosh, it's the opposite of being sent away from my father. As I'm hearing the dream, I hear about these Rachel cows and I hear about how they're shepherding together with these Leah cows and it reminds me of an even earlier event in my life when I was shepherding with my brothers. There is only one problem with my emerging theory that Pharaoh's dream is talking about my life, which is that the numbers are all wrong. The numbers are all wrong.
If it's really true that the Rachel cows in Pharaoh's dream represent me, the child of Rachel, then how come there's seven of them? There weren't seven children of Rachel. There are only two. If it's really true that the dream is portraying me as shepherding with my six Leah brothers, how come there are seven of them and not six? The numbers are all wrong. That must've been bothering Joseph as he's staring Pharaoh in the face as Pharaoh is waiting for the answer for the interpretation of his dream. But then it's almost as if God gives him an insight.
The insight that I was staring at right now on that train going to Baltimore right after looking at Genesis 29, Verse 17. "V'einei Leah rakot v'Rachel ha'y'tah y'fat to'ar v'y'fat mar'eh." And the eyes of Leah were soft, were rakot. Right after that verse which is the keystone to the dream, look at the very next verse. "Vaye'ehav Ya'akov et Rachel" and Jacob loved Rachel "vayomer" and he said e'evadcha sheva shanim b'Rachel bit'cha haktanah" and I will work for seven years for Rachel and those seven years end up being seven years for Leah.
That's when Joseph gets it. Of course. The cows are years. You see when your dream Pharaoh -- it's as if he's thinking to himself, when Pharaoh's dream portrays me and my brothers shepherding with each other in the fields, the reason why there's seven of us is because it's not like the cows actually directly represent us, the cows are portraying us in terms of the years that our father worked for our respective mothers. Because when me and my brothers were shepherding in the field we were the fruits of those years. Those years are where he got his children from. He worked for seven long years for Rachel and those years gave birth to fruits. It's as if the fruits of those years weren't just all the wheat that he collected in the fields, but were the children that he had by virtue of those years.
In fact if you think about cows, it's interesting that cows would be representative of the fruits of those years because what else does Pei-Reish-Hei mean other than cow? Parah also means fruits of. To multiply. Pru u'r'vu. Or the children of those years. It's as if when me and my bothers, we were shepherding in the field, it's really like the seven long years that my father worked for Rachel were shepherding with the seven long years that my father worked for Leah. Therefore, when the seven beautiful cows are devoured alive by the seven ugly cows, it's as if the seven beautiful years are being destroyed, as if my father worked for nothing, as if I was good and gone. "V'lo noda ki ba'u el kirbenah" it's as if no one ever knew about me anymore. I disappeared.
In my dream, Joseph thinks to himself, everyone bowed to me, but in Pharaoh's dream, Pharaoh's dream was the truth. The ugly cows swallow alive the beautiful cows. They threw me in a pit. "V'lo noda ki ba'u el kirbenah" you can't even tell looking at the ugly cows that they ever swallowed the beautiful cows. It was the perfect crime. It's as if I'm erased from the family. And it's as if I am no more.
The dream is shattering, but the dream does give Joseph the key piece that he needs to understand. C equals Y. Cows equal years. Because once you understand that cows equal years, the rest of the dream makes sense. That's the only question. What do the cows equal? Of course, once cows equal years, then I know seven good cows is going to be seven good years. Seven bad cows is going to equal seven bad years. It all makes perfect sense.
The dream means something to you. The dream means something to me and it means something to you. There's two dreams Pharaoh has. There's a dream about cows. There's a dream about wheat. The dream about cows is really a dream about Joseph, as we've seen, because in the dream about cows you have all these allusions to the Joseph story. But the dream about wheat, that's a dream about years of wheat and good wheat and bad wheat and years of famine, years about the GNP, the gross national product of Egypt. God is communicating to Pharaoh with dreams of wheat, but the cipher to be able to understand it, the code, that's in the overlay dream, the dream of the cows. The dream of the cows overlays with Joseph's life and that's how Joseph knows C equals Y.
Once C equals Y in Pharaoh's dream with the cows, they're the same dreams. C equals Y in the dream of the sheaves of wheat too. And then Joseph has his answer and Pharaoh accepts the answer. That is Chapter 1 of the story, this little tap-on-the-shoulder moment, almost weird, just strange. It was a little tap-on-the-shoulder moment. Part two of the story -- I just have a few more minutes with you, but stay with me for a minute. Part two of the story happened several years later.
Several years later, I am lecturing about this topic in Detroit. I talked about this in Aleph Beta videos and I disguised the city because I didn't want to embarrass who it was, but I'll just tell you. I won't tell you who it was, but the city was actually Detroit, not Cleveland. Anyway, I'm talking about this and as I'm talking about the story I kind of ended off with the following idea. I said that the story of Joseph and Pharaoh's dreams might be a model of how God can talk to us without talking, how God can overlay events that are occurring in our life with other events, in such that we can recognize the pattern and God can actually convey information to us. God can speak to us.
Again, we may not always understand directly what's said. We may know God's really talking to us then. It's almost like you can see the pattern, but then you've got to interpret it and then you might have not the interpretation. You might never get to the interpretation.
I suggested that it might be a way of communicating to us even in the absence of prophecy. We don't have prophecy anymore, but maybe there's a way for God to talk to us without prophecy. Maybe there's a slate that God has with all of us, this subjective mode of communication, our lives. No one knows what's in my life except for me and God. God can use that as a communication tool for us when events in our lives in a déjà vu kind of way just seem to remind us of something, seem to be overlaying on another event and all of sudden, it's eerie. It's this tap-on-the-shoulder moment when God is talking to us.
Sometimes we can interpret it like Joseph and sometimes we may never be able to interpret it, but I ended that lecture by saying that even if we're never able to interpret it, the events that are happening are still meaningful to us. Because if you have that moment if you have that tap on the shoulder moment, a life lived with the tap on the shoulder from God is different than a life not lived with the tap on the shoulder from God. I gave that analogy I gave to you at the beginning of this webinar, which is do you feel God is walking with you? If God walked with you once, if you knew He was there once, when He told you C equals Y, then you knew he was always there.
I didn't tell that story about the train in Detroit. It hadn't really occurred to me that it was such a big deal at the time. I just talked about the meaning of Joseph's dream and I just was talking about Joseph. Then what happened was somebody in the back of the room raised their and somebody said, so Rabbi Fohrman. Could I ask you? Have you ever had these tap-on-the-shoulder moments yourself, this moment where you felt this resonance in your life that God was talking to you? I was caught off guard. It was a very personal question and I hadn't been prepared to answer that question. I was a little flummoxed by it and I evaded the question. I evaded it expertly. I managed to evade it in such a way that no one even realized I was evading the question, but I did evade the question.
The way I did it was I told a personal story, and I'll tell you the story that I told everybody. I said, well, I'll tell you my interest in this topic. I'll tell you why I'm interested in this whole thing of can God talk to us without talking. How these taps on the shoulder work.
I said, back when I was a kid -- this was the 40 years ago part of the story. Back when I was a kid, I was living in Berkeley, California and my father alav hashalom (may peace be upon him) was struggling with cancer at the time and he was quite certain that there were these taps on the shoulder in his own life. He had these dreams and in one dream, I suddenly remember, there was this -- it felt like the dreams were telling him something.
He was in remission from cancer and he had this dream about these two monsters that were fighting each other. In the background of the fight, there were all these different scenes from his life until the final scene, which was our front yard in Berkeley, California, and in that front yard, one monster killed another monster. The last thing he saw was just the face of a clock that flashed the time, a digital clock that flashed the time, 5:51 a.m. The dream was over and he looked up at the clock and in fact, it was 5:51 a.m.
He said this is kind of spooky. Maybe my cancer is back. Maybe this is going to be the final battle when one monster kills another and I should consult my oncologist, which he did, and the cancer was back. This is just one example of a number of these tap-on-the-shoulder moments that he thought he had. He shared this with me at the time. I was just like 10 or 11 years old. I remember that, at the time, when he shared this to me, it felt it very heavy as you can imagine, as a little 10 or 11-year-old kid and I wanted to talk it over with somebody. So who I am going to talk about it with? My sixth-grade rebbi (rabbi/teacher) from Berkeley, California.
So I talked about it with him and I didn't really give him the context for it. I just said hey, you know, do you think God could talk to people with dreams? I must've sounded crazy to him and he must've thought it was his job to save the crazy kid from Berkeley, from whatever crazy drugs were floating around. He said, look, let me sit you down. It's all nonsense. God doesn't talk to people this way. There's no such thing as these taps on the shoulder. It's not the way it works. He was quite convincing and that's what he said.
Being the tactless, little 11-year-old kid that I was, I went back to my father, may peace be upon him, and I said, Dad, my rabbi thinks this is all nonsense. My father just kind of smiled and said, well, he's not living through what I'm living through right now. I wouldn't expect him to see it any differently, but this is my experience and I'm sharing my experience with you.
Then my father, may peace be upon him, ultimately died and it always puzzled me. It always was -- let me just see if I can open up this. It always puzzled and it kind of was like this lingering doubt. Like, who was really right there? I mean, my father's things, they felt very fascinating, those things that were happening to him, but maybe I was just -- maybe my father was just grasping at straws. Maybe he was sick and he wanted to see what he could see. I said it's interesting for me 30, 35 years later to encounter a story, the Joseph story, where God seems to confirm that no, no, no, God does actually talk to people, with those resonances in your life. There is such a thing as non-prophetic communication. That's why I'm interested in this.
Then I got into the car and I went off to one more talk that I was giving in Detroit. As I got into the car, it kind of vaguely dawned on me that I had evaded the question. Because the question -- even though I'd shared a personal story, the question wasn't did I know anyone who had taps on the shoulder. The question was did I have any of those taps on the shoulder. Why did I evade that question?
I don't know if I really figured it out that time, but the truth sort of is that I evaded the question because the answer probably would have been embarrassing. It didn't really strike me that I had had those taps on the shoulder. It's funny you can have those moments and not even notice them because I had had a moment like that. That moment on the train that I discovered what I discovered in this very talk was a tap-on-the-shoulder moment, but it just blew right by me. I just didn't even realize it at the moment. I was probably just embarrassed to say, I don't know. I don't feel that God ever talked to me in that kind of way. It's kind of embarrassing to give a talk about this and then just say, well, it doesn't apply to me. So I just evaded the question and talked about something else.
The next talk that I was giving in Detroit was to 250 people, a much larger audience. I was exhausted. I had been up until three in the morning. I was supposed to talk about some other topic, but I figured I'm just going to talk about this thing, the same idea again. I get to this new place, I plug in my computer monitor and I show this PowerPoint. As I do that, I'm kind of kneeling on the ground and it's not working out. The connections aren't connecting and I can't get anything up on the screen and it's all very frustrating. Everyone is kind of grumbling because it's late.
Just then some guy wants to play Jewish geography and is like, hey, Rabbi Fohrman, do you remember who I am? I don't even look up. No, I don't remember who you are. Could you please leave me alone? It's always the worst time when you get this, that's what I'm thinking to myself. It's like, he won't leave me alone. It's like, Rabbi Fohrman, do you remember who I am? Finally, I get up and I look at him. It's like, I do remember who you are. You're my rabbi from Berkeley, California 25 years ago. It was him.
Again, I didn't even realize it at that time. What had just happened? It took me until after the talk when it's very quiet and still -- it's just like, do you realize what just happened there? That was your rabbi who told you there was no such thing as taps on the shoulder. You haven't seen him in years. In Detroit, not even Berkeley. It's like, what is this? It was like, why did I evade that question 15 minutes ago? It's like God was coming out of the clouds and saying, so, Fohrman, not enough taps on the shoulder for you? So we'll give you taps on the shoulder and who shall we find to give you a tap? Oh yeah, the guy who says there's no such thing as taps. He's going to be your tap on the shoulder. It's this amazing thing. It's like God's sense of humor. The irony of it all. You almost get an insight into God's sense of humor. It's like that's hilarious. That's Chapter 2.
I'm just about out of time with you, so let me just finish with one final chapter. The final chapter of the story, thus far at least, happens about a week and a half ago. It's actually two chapters, one about a week ago and one about a week and a half ago. It's over Chol HaMoed Sukkos. I'm in California and I get an e-mail from Jeremy England. Jeremy England is a professor of theoretical biophysics at MIT. I met him in Boston briefly. He's friends with Ezra Zuckerman Sivan, another professor at MIT that I happen to know. Jeremy writes me this e-mail. Jeremy happens to be an Aleph Beta fan and he had been watching Aleph Beta videos.
Now, the background to this is he had watched this video on -- I'll even read this e-mail to you. Let me see if I can pull it up on this screen here and I'll share the screen with you. You're probably not going to be able to see the font, but I'll share it with you just in case you can. Anyways, the background is Jeremy had seen the Aleph Beta video like a week and a half before that, on Rosh Hashanah. Basically, I made the argument about Malchuyot (kingship), Zichronot (remembrance) and Shofarot (blasts of the shofar). You can find this video on Aleph Beta. It's called Is Judgment Day Supposed to be Joyful.
Anyway, on this video, I made the following argument. I said that the reason why Rosh Hashanah has the character of a day of judgment is because zichron teruah (memory of a blast), which is the way the Torah describes Rosh Hashanah, means that it's a day of memory, of the time when we all collectively heard the sound of the shofar, which was Sinai. It's a memory of Sinai day and Sinai day was the day in which we accepted the kingship of God, a day in which it was obvious that God was the lawgiver and we accepted that, which means we accepted the kingship of God.
Once you understand that, then Remembrance, the next phase of Rosh Hashanah ideas, seems to come into play. Because Kingship, I suggested in that video, provokes a kind of crisis, which is that if I really, really live through revelation -- revelation is like this massive, incredible crazy thing. The Master of the Universe is coming into the world and I'm there? I feel like nothing. I feel like my story is nothing. So the appeal to Remembrance is -- Remembrance, memory is the way that God stitches together discrete events that seem disconnected to make a larger story. The way anyone stitches together events is through memory. We appeal to God and we say, God, you're a storyteller. You have a memory; you can stitch together these events. Include me in your story. I want to be part of this story in a larger way.
I gave an analogy. The analogy I gave was to imagine a porter in King's Cross station -- and yes, Ollie, you are making a good point and I'll get to your point in just a moment. Imagine you're a porter in King's Cross station -- by the way, if you want you guys can comment either on Zoom or you can comment on Facebook live and I'll try to respond to your comments in the little time we have left.
Imagine you're a porter in King's Cross station. You're just doing your thing and you haul people's bags around. You have your life and you have your garden. You have your car. You have your kids. You have your things that you do. You're reading Harry Potter on the side. Then one day, this kid bumps into you in King's Cross station and he's got this owl and he has a scar on his forehead and he says excuse me. Do you know the way to platform 9 3/4? You say, oh, it's right over there or there is no such thing as platform 9 3/4. As he turns away, it dawns on you that that kid is Harry Potter. If that kid is Harry Potter, it means the book I'm reading isn't fiction. It means I'm living in this book. The book is real and there's an author.
Then you start to feel oh, my gosh, what is my life really about? Is my life really about being a porter in King's Cross station or is there a much larger story here? There's Voldemort in the story. There are all sorts of quests and things to do. You want to appeal to the author, to God; include me in your story. Make me a part of this grand story. I'm here and I want to be part of that and that's the experience of Rosh Hashanah. That's the appeal we make to God in Remembrance.
So Jeremy had seen this video and Jeremy writes me this e-mail. Let me share you this screen. I'll show it to you. I'll just read it to you because it's kind of hard to read that font.
"Dear Rabbi Fohrman, moadim l'simchah. This is Jeremy England, the MIT professor who is friends with Ezra Zuckerman Sivan. I don't want to take a lot of your time, but I do have a story to tell you that I imagine you'll find amusing, and perhaps even a little striking, that has to do with one of your shiurim (lessons). I study theoretical biophysics and some of my research, for better or for worse, has gotten some sensational attention in the past having to do with the origins of life."
That's true, by the way. Jeremy England has become rather famous. There have been articles about him in the New York Times and elsewhere. He has discovered a possible missing link in Darwinian Evolution that would account for nonliving particles sort of spontaneously organizing themselves into rudimentary life. If he's right, you know, there might be a Nobel Prize in store for him. It's big stuff. It is a great moment. Anyways, he says his research has gotten some sensational attention in the past having to do with origins of life.
"A month and a half ago, I listened to your shiur on Kingship, Remembrance, Shofar Blasts in the morning over breakfast, which I thought was quite thought-provoking and really excellent. That same day that I had listened to that talk that I just described to you, that talk with Harry Potter and that whole thing, that same day, I had lunch with Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code, because he had asked me to meet with him without explaining why. I had no idea what it was going to be about. Over lunch, he told me that he'd just written a new book titled Origin, in which he decided to include a character named Jeremy England who was a religious, Jewish physicist studying the origins of life."
"Then the book came out on shelves in 52 countries a week ago. Interestingly, it's now clear that Dan Brown's goal with this book is to convince people that there is no God, in part by centrally featuring my research on the spontaneous emergence of lifelike behavior from simple physical laws."
Again, just to be clear, Jeremy England believes in God. He's an orthodox Jew, but Dan Brown is using him and has made him a character in his book. So he says, "so just to recap, on the same day that I listened to a lesson in which you talked about the disorientation one experiences by coming close to the imminence of God and suddenly feeling that one is a character in someone else's novel, in your example it was J.K. Rowling's, I found out that I had been made into a character in someone else's silly novel about how there is no God, the very opposite of the imminence of God. On the spectrum of possible taps on the shoulder from Hakadosh Baruch Hu that one can experience, this has felt to me like being kicked by a donkey." This was Jeremy England's e-mail. I responded to him and we've kind of started up a conversation from then.
Another kind of weird tap-on-the-shoulder moment, almost as if God was saying, Dan Brown, you think Jeremy England is a character in your book; you're all a character in my book. You have no idea what Jeremy England watched earlier today, minutes before meeting with you for lunch.
The final chapter in this little story is that I'm in the airport a couple days later after Sukkos and we have a few minutes to kill. We're in Hudson News and my wife happens to see the book, Origin, by Dan Brown on the shelves and hands it to me. The story begins with the moment where my wife doubted my theory correctly and a book opened to a certain page. The story ends with my wife handing me a book and opening to a certain page.
So she hands the book and I say, oh, that's interesting and I just open the book to any old page, but the page that I opened to -- I e-mailed this to Jeremy and I can show you a picture of it because I took a picture of it at the time -- is right over here, the beginning of Chapter 93, Page 396, in the story. It is the book that introduces -- the very first lines, "The young man who now appeared on the display was none other than the physicist Jeremy England." It is the introduction of Jeremy England to the audience, towards the end of this book. It just felt like another moment where the book opens there. It's just, what does it mean?
Here, I get to Ollie's point. The tricky thing is that with taps on the shoulder, there's a distinction between knowing that the tap is real and knowing what it means, and you can't always know what it means. You asked me, what does this mean? I don't know what it means.
The truth is if you over-interpret and you're wrong, that can get you thrown into a pit. That's what happened with Joseph and his dreams. Everyone thought they knew what the dreams mean. Were they right? Their jumping to conclusions about what Joseph's dreams meant actually got Joseph thrown into a pit. I saw the pattern of all the things in Genesis 41 and I jumped to a conclusion because I thought the pattern had to mean something, and I was wrong. That's the great yetzer hara (evil inclination) of that moment, to come to a conclusion about the meaning of what you've seen that the facts don't warrant.
The tap on the shoulder doesn't always mean you should try to come to a conclusion. Sometimes you have to be patient; you have to live with the uncertainty. Then you say well, if you live with the uncertainty, then why did I see this? Maybe the answer is because God just wants you to know He's there. At least that. Because even if it's only that, it's meaningful. It means the Master of the Universe is around and that we do walk with Him. If we do walk with Him, then life is meaningful in a whole new kind of way, even if we don't know what it means. But we know one thing and that is we're not really alone, even when we think we're alone. I think that's a comforting thing and a transformative thing.
I want to leave you off with those thoughts and invite you to e-mail me with thoughts of your own, email@example.com. I'd love to hear your reactions to this. Certainly, put your comments on Facebook live; I'll continue to monitor them. For now, I'll be signing off and wishing you good night here on the East Coast. Thanks for joining me. Bye-bye.