Categories
Sermons

Dreams of Your Future – Re’eh 5782

Some of you know that I was invited to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at the Pirates game against the Red Sox on Jewish Heritage Night at PNC Park on August 16th. I’m happy to say that I did not embarrass myself (or you). However, as I’m sure many of you know, it was a lackluster game – the Red Sox scored four runs in the first inning, and the Pirates never quite recovered.

You might have heard that at one point during the game, Dennis Eckersley, a color analyst for NESN, and hall-of-fame pitcher, described the Pirates’ team as “a hodgepodge of nothingness.”

However, I’m told that when the mic was off, he added, “They should send these guys to rabbinical school.”

***

It was almost two years ago to the day that we called my daughter Hannah to the Torah in this sanctuary, with barely a minyan in the room; everybody else was on Zoom. It was a fearful time, still the depths of the pandemic. We had at that point been in high-anxiety mode for less than half a year; vaccines were still many months away; the murder of George Floyd was still fresh in the American consciousness; anti-Semitic conspiracies were being spread by QAnon. I spoke on that day about facing the future without fear, quoting Rabbi Naḥman of Bratzlav’s most famous quotable: כל העולם כולו גשר צר מאוד, והעיקר לא לפחד כלל / Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar me’od. The whole world is a very narrow bridge, and the most important principle is not to fear at all.

On this day, on which my son was called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah, we are at least in some ways in a different place. Thank God! I am certainly grateful that Divinely-inspired human ingenuity has yielded vaccines which keep us safe. I am certainly grateful that our children have returned to school, that we can safely gather, that we can see one another again in person, if not entirely fearlessly, at least with somewhat reduced anxiety.

Parashat Re’eh, which Zev read from earlier, is, like the rest of Devarim / Deuteronomy, one long soliloquy by Moshe as his final act before he dies. It opens with, 

רְאֵ֗ה אָנֹכִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לִפְנֵיכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם בְּרָכָ֖ה וּקְלָלָֽה׃

See, this day I set before you blessing and curse.

That first word, the imperative רְאֵ֗ה / re’eh, is curious language. It literally means, “see,” from the common Hebrew verb, לראות “lir’ot,” but of course you cannot actually command a person to see. “Look!” or “Behold!” are appropriate imperatives. But “see” is not.

Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno, the 16th century physician and commentator from Italy, reads this as a suggestion regarding the importance of discernment:

ראה הביטה וראה שלא יהיה ענינך על אופן בינוני כמו שהוא המנהג ברוב

Pay good attention so that you will not be like most people who relate to everything half-heartedly, always trying to find middle ground.

You cannot merely look, says Seforno. Rather, you must see. Moshe is telling the Israelites, you have a choice, and it is a choice of extremes: blessing and curse. This is serious. Your discernment is essential. Don’t just have a glance at the future; read the trends now. Understand the consequences of your actions. Take corrective steps now if necessary. 

Now, you may not know this about Zev, but he is something of a seer. That is, he has very vivid dreams, and he likes to tell us about them, at great length, and with a level of detail which I cannot comprehend (I rarely remember dreams, and if I do, only fragments remain). And I must say, we have often been amused and impressed by the high resolution and, well, fantastic nature of Zev’s dreams.

As you know, our tradition takes dreams very seriously. They feature heavily in the tales of our ancestors, particularly those of Ya’aqov and Yosef, who are both dreamers; the Yosef narrative, in particular, turns on his ability to interpret dreams.

The Talmud (Berakhot 55b) actually suggests a certain prayer that should be said if you have a dream that you cannot understand:

הַאי מַאן דַּחֲזָא חֶלְמָא וְלָא יָדַע מַאי חֲזָא, לִיקוּם קַמֵּי כָּהֲנֵי בְּעִידָּנָא דְּפָרְסִי יְדַיְיהוּ וְלֵימָא הָכִי: ״רִבּוֹנוֹ שֶׁל עוֹלָם, אֲנִי שֶׁלָּךְ וַחֲלוֹמוֹתַי שֶׁלָּךְ, חֲלוֹם חָלַמְתִּי וְאֵינִי יוֹדֵעַ מַה הוּא. בֵּין שֶׁחָלַמְתִּי אֲנִי לְעַצְמִי וּבֵין שֶׁחָלְמוּ לִי חֲבֵירַי וּבֵין שֶׁחָלַמְתִּי עַל אֲחֵרִים, אִם טוֹבִים הֵם — חַזְּקֵם וְאַמְּצֵם כַּחֲלוֹמוֹתָיו שֶׁל יוֹסֵף. וְאִם צְרִיכִים רְפוּאָה — רְפָאֵם כְּמֵי מָרָה עַל יְדֵי מֹשֶׁה רַבֵּינוּ, וּכְמִרְיָם מִצָּרַעְתָּהּ, וּכְחִזְקִיָּה מֵחׇלְיוֹ, וּכְמֵי יְרִיחוֹ עַל יְדֵי אֱלִישָׁע. וּכְשֵׁם שֶׁהָפַכְתָּ קִלְלַת בִּלְעָם הָרָשָׁע לִבְרָכָה, כֵּן הֲפוֹךְ כׇּל חֲלוֹמוֹתַי עָלַי לְטוֹבָה״. וּמְסַיֵּים בַּהֲדֵי כָּהֲנֵי דְּעָנֵי צִבּוּרָא ״אָמֵן״ 

One who had a dream and does not know what he saw should stand before the priests when they lift their hands during the Priestly Blessing and say the following:

Master of the Universe, I am Yours and my dreams are Yours, I dreamed a dream and I do not know what it is. Whether I have dreamed of myself, whether my friends have dreamed of me or whether I have dreamed of others, if the dreams are good, strengthen them and reinforce them like the dreams of Yosef.

And if the dreams require healing, heal them like the bitter waters of Mara by Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our teacher, and like Miriam from her leprosy … [and then there are a few more examples of healing from the Tanakh]

The gemara then goes on to add that if you cannot say that whole thing, you should say merely:

וְאִי לָא, לֵימָא הָכִי: ״אַדִּיר בַּמָּרוֹם, שׁוֹכֵן בִּגְבוּרָה, אַתָּה שָׁלוֹם וְשִׁמְךָ שָׁלוֹם. יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֶיךָ שֶׁתָּשִׂים עָלֵינוּ שָׁלוֹם״ 

Majestic One on high, Who dwells in power,
You are peace and Your name is peace.
May it be Your will that You bestow upon us peace.
That is, we should all see our dreams as entreaties to peace.

If we were to dream about our future right now, what would we see? If we pause for a moment to think seriously now about the blessings and curses which face us, what might our trend lines indicate?

Do we see a future in which people care about their neighbors, in which we understand that the only way we can successfully navigate the challenges that face our society is by working together for the common good?

Do we accept that it is our responsibility, as Zev read for us from the Torah this morning, to ensure that the needy people around us have food and shelter? כִּֽי־פָתֹ֧חַ תִּפְתַּ֛ח אֶת־יָדְךָ֖ ל֑וֹ וְהַעֲבֵט֙ תַּעֲבִיטֶ֔נּוּ דֵּ֚י מַחְסֹר֔וֹ אֲשֶׁ֥ר יֶחְסַ֖ר לֽוֹ׃. Rather, you must open your hand and lend whatever is sufficient to meet the need.

Do we see a world in which democracy continues to flourish and guarantee freedoms – freedom of speech, freedom of religion, of movement, of belief – for Americans and people around the world?

Do we see a future where all people have enough to eat? Where resources are equitably distributed? Where our wise use of God’s Creation leads not to environmental destruction, but rather to sustainability in holy partnership?

Do we see a world in which discrimination of all types is a thing of the past? In which nobody will feel targeted for their religion, their race, their gender? In which the anti-Semites have returned, cowering, to their holes of hatred?

Can we discern that the future will feature shared truths, or will we all be in our own individual “fact” bubbles, in which the only actual truth is the one that I alone perceive? Or will we acknowledge and maintain the reality that sometimes there are undebatable truths, which cannot be obscured with spin?

Do we see a future in which the digital tools we have created with our God-given ingenuity are used only for the betterment of humanity, and not to harm?

When I stand here, before all of you, before God, and most importantly before my son, who has been called to the Torah today in the context of his family and friends as a bar mitzvah, can I see a future for Zev in which all his dreams lead to peace?

We can create that future by seeing, and not merely looking.

By beholding the people around us. ALL the people around us, and particularly the ones with whom we disagree. By not treating everybody else like a faceless, personality-less other. By not lending ourselves to the tyranny of the majority, the minority, or any sort of orthodoxy. 

By understanding that the true curse of society comes when we look, but do not see. 

“Rabbi” Robert Zimmerman, the 20th century poet and philosopher from Minnesota, had something to say about looking vis-a-vis seeing:

How many times can a man look up, before he can see the sky?
Yes, and how many ears must one man have, before he can hear people cry?

And to echo another one of our 20th-century “rabbis,” “Rabbi” Martin Luther King, Jr., I too, have a dream today. I dream that the world that my son enters as an adult at this moment regains its ability to see, to discern blessing from curse, to understand the consequences of our actions. 

I dream that we do not merely look at the others in our midst, but see them. I dream that the peace of which the Talmud speaks, the peace we invoke at the conclusion of every Amidah, of nearly every recitation of the Qaddish in pleading Oseh Shalom bimromav – May the One who makes peace on high bring some peace to all of us down here on Earth – be fulfilled. I dream that that peace will become a reality, not just in Ukraine and Myanmar, in Yemen and Syria and Afghanistan, on the bullet-riddled streets of America and of course in Israel. 

And I dream further that we find peace in our own hearts, and in those of our neighbors; that we find a way out of the culture wars that continue to rattle us all; that we seek to understand and not merely revile those with whom we disagree.

And I give this dream to you, my son, as you enter Jewish adulthood and inherit this ancient framework of mitzvot. As you have shared with me your dreams, I share this one with you.

Do not merely look, or regard the future with indifference. Rather, you must see. And work toward reaching the fabled blessings of which our Torah speaks.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 8/27/2022.)

Categories
Kavvanot

The Dreamers Among Us – Vayyeshev 5776

“You may say I’m a dreamer / But I’m not the only one”

Embedded in John Lennon’s idealistic song is a little dig at dreamers: the line suggests that to call somebody a dreamer is a put-down. Those who pursue dreams, who chase after a seemingly impossible vision, are unrealistic. They are fools.

Bereshit / Genesis features several dreams: a few are Jacob’s, a few more are courtesy of his son Joseph, and still more belong to Joseph’s jailed companions. These dreams all move the narrative forward, and in the case of Joseph, his own dreams (and his boasting thereof) cause such aggravation that his brothers plot to kill him, resulting in a tale so sublime that it found its way to the Broadway stage.

As the brothers are conspiring against Joseph, they declare (Gen. 37:19), “Hinneh ba’al ha-halomot halazeh ba.” “Here comes that dreamer!” You can hear in the Hebrew how they are almost spitting these words out with rage. “Venihyeh ma yihyu halomotav!” “We’ll see what comes of his dreams.”

Rashi tells us that the latter statement is a challenge: We’ll see whose dreams come true, yours or ours! If they had succeeded in killing Joseph, of course, his dreams would not have come true. (Spoiler alert: the brothers’ attempts to foil Joseph fail; the latter’s dreams are eventually fulfilled.)

But in general, dreaming is neither solely fantasy nor reality. In an extended passage in Massekhet Berakhot (55a), the Talmud sees dreams as containing both some reality and some meaninglessness. “Neither a good dream nor a bad dream is wholly fulfilled,” says Rav Hisda. And so too for us today: we all dream, and we often look to our dreams for fulfillment.

Of course, there are dreams and there are “dreams.” We often speak in clichéd terms of “hopes and dreams,” although really those are only our conscious hopes. The “dreamer” put-down in Lennon’s Imagine refers to one whose hopes are unrealistic: those who picture an end to all war, a comprehensive solution to world hunger and poverty, universal access to clean water and decent education, and so forth.  

But I would posit that those are the people among us, the “dreamers,” who ultimately move us forward as a society. They are the optimists, and I count myself among them. When it comes to the future, I would rather not succumb to the fear and hopelessness in which many trade; I prefer to keep dreaming.

I prefer to dream that tomorrow will be better than today; that terrorists will lay down their knives and suicide vests, that we learn to manage our natural resources so that we preserve God’s Creation, that racism and anti-Semitism and hatred of all kinds will disappear from our world, that no child will go to bed hungry, that no family will need to seek refuge from warring factions in Syria. And so forth.

There are no easy solutions to these problems. But if we cease to dream, if we manage only the symptoms and not the causes, if we are so distracted by cat videos and media circuses that we fail to confront the most pressing challenges of our time, then I am certain that nothing will change for the better. And those of us who look toward the better world of the future will lead us there.

Speedily, in our day. Even as Rav Hisda’s tempered words of caution continue to resonate, we cannot give up those dreams. Joseph’s dreams came true; let us hope that ours will too.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(A version of this devar Torah appeared in the Dec. 4, 2015 edition of The Jewish Chronicle.)