Torah portion: Silence is golden


In this week’s Torah portion, Joseph has two dreams, both of which indicate that he will rule over his brothers. One of the dreams signals that he will not only rule over his brothers, but also over his parents. Joseph tells his brothers about his dreams, and they resent him for it. They mock him and derisively call him a dreamer. Feeling threatened, the brothers eventually agree that they need to dispose of Joseph, and they band together to sell him as a slave. Joseph pays a very steep price for his dreams.

At the beginning of Jacob’s story, Jacob also has a dream. He dreams of a giant ladder that soars to the heavens. Angels are climbing this ladder in both directions — from Earth up to heaven, and down the ladder to Earth. Jacob’s dream was accompanied by a voiceover from God promising Jacob he would inherit the land. These angels seem to represent the angels who would accompany Jacob and protect him as the true heir to his father, Isaac, and grandfather, Abraham, thus confirming the blessing Jacob received from Isaac granting him dominion over his older brother, Esau. Jacob’s dream sounds very similar to Joseph’s dream.

But there is a stark contrast between how the two patriarchs handle their respective dreams. 

Joseph talks. He taunts his brothers with his dreams of grandeur, irritating his brothers with his aspirations. Eventually, Joseph is banished and excommunicated as a result.

After Jacob’s dreams, he doesn’t say anything. Jacob’s only reaction is to seek God’s blessing that he should succeed in meriting God’s promise. He does not send a note to his brother bragging about his vision, nor does he tell his family. In the end, he overcomes his brother, Esau, who explicitly proclaimed his homicidal intentions. Jacob suffers far less than Joseph.

Perhaps the text of the Torah hints at this distinction when it tells us Jacob’s reaction upon hearing Joseph’s dreams: “V’aviv shamar et hadavar” — and his father (Jacob) kept or watched the thing (Genesis 37:11).

Joseph, on the other hand, didn’t “keep the thing” inside. He talked. He bragged. He taunted. He used his dreams as a cudgel. Revealing his dreams in this manner, Joseph caused a lot of people a lot of pain.

Jacob had dreams, too, but when he dreamed, he “kept the thing” inside. He was silent. He was humble. He used his dreams as internal motivation.

We all have dreams. Not simply the wacky-story dreams that keep us from getting too bored while we are sleeping. We all have “awake” dreams too. We all have aspirations. We all want to do better and improve ourselves. Sometimes we have flashes of inspiration that gift us with brilliant ideas or insights. 

But we have to be careful how we talk about those dreams. The Torah is suggesting that there are times when we should keep our dreams to ourselves. When Joseph shared his dreams, he created strife. Sometimes our dreams should be part of our internal dialogue, our internal struggle — and should remain that way.

There is danger in publicizing our dreams before they are ready to be shared. An internal thought is almost infinite in its potential and possibility. But by attempting to convey the thought, of expressing it in specific words, the thought becomes limited, more finite. And, it is then laid bare for interpretation by those who hear it. Sometimes a dream is an inspiration that is a glimpse beyond our present state; sharing that glimpse can irritate those who hear it — they may sense it is not true to who we are in that moment. Sometimes a dream is an idea that can be stolen by an adversary. Sometimes a friend can discourage us from pursuing a dream if they don’t believe in our dream the way we do. For all these reasons and more, it makes sense to be prudent about when and how we share our dreams.

Oversharing is a modern social problem. It’s so easy to share intimate parts of ourselves on Facebook and Instagram. But I think our default setting for sharing our dreams should be for our eyes only. Dreams are precious and require our protection. 

Blessing, mystery and beauty can flourish internally. When we expose our intimate dreams and aspirations, we expose too much of ourselves. Better to follow the model of our forefather Jacob and “keep the thing” inside. 

Rabbi Eliyahu Fink is an Orthodox rabbi, writer and teacher in Beverly Hills. He is the founder of shulontheinternet.com, where popular culture, Torah and the Internet converge.

Vayeshev: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Stew


This post originally appeared on Neesh Noosh.

In Vayeshev, Jacob returns to his home to “settle.” But, there is not any internal or external settling for him. Jacob’s sons are upset by the arrogance of his favorite son, Joseph. The brothers strip Joseph of the elaborate tunic Jacob had given him and throw him into a pit. Rather than letting him die, though, Reuben convinces the other brothers instead to sell him into slavery. But, the brothers lie to their father that his beloved Joseph was killed by presenting his bloody tunic.

Why is Jacob unable to have tranquility in his life after everything he’s been through? Yanki Tauber writes, “many are content to live this lie: to forget what happened yesterday, avoid thinking about what will happen tomorrow, ignore the sadness in a neighbor’s eye, the poverty on the other side of town and the bombs in the other time zone.

While one may look at a farm and see a tranquil, lush landscape, agriculture is anything but calm. Rather, it is the epicenter of global fights for human rights, land sovereignty and the survival of family farmers. This Wednesday, December 10, is Slow Food’s Terra Madre Day–a global celebration of local foods. The Terra Madre network in 160 countries supports food sovereignty–local communities control over the growing, production and eating of food. It is also about preserving indigenous food cultures and traditions in the face of threats from international agriculture and food homogenization that eliminates food diversity, hurts small farmers and devastates communities. Part of Terra Madre’s commitment to preserving food diversity is through it’s Ark of Taste which has already 2,000 foods from around the globe that are at risk of disappearing.

It’s also Human Rights Day on December 10. While the family farmers of Terra Madre fight off threats from industrial agriculture, tens of thousands of industrial farmworkers are fighting for their human rights.  The Los Angeles Times has an incredible story about farmworkers in Mexico picking tomatoes at “mega-farms” for the US market. They live in “squalid conditions, trapped for months at a time  [and] camp bosses illegal withhold [of] wages.” 

One worker said, The real truth is that we’re work animals for the fields.

Terra Madre Day and Human Rights Day are both about rights in the face of industrial agriculture. And, this issue affects all of us. As Yael Shy notes about Jacob in Vayeshev, “[he] is trying to create an artificial separation between his own well-being and the well-being of the world.” We are not separate from who or how our food is grown.

We cannot continue with a food system that enslaves workers. We also needfamily farmers who provide food for 70% of humanity. The range of crops grown by family farmers is critical to protecting food diversity, especially with environmental threats of climate change that can easily wipe out a single crop.

Yanki Tauber continues, “there are the righteous: men and women who cannot relish their meal as long as someone, somewhere, remains hungry; who, if there is ignorance in the world, know their own wisdom to be deficient; who, if there is discord anywhere in G‑d’s creation, cannot be at peace with themselves.”

The haughty and arrogant Joseph is transformed when he is a slave in Egypt. Rabbi Brad Artson writes in The Bedside Torah that “only in prison does Joseph learn to accept a fundamental principal of Jewish living: kol Yisrael areivim, zeh ba’zeh. We are all responsible for one another.”

When you buy the ingredients for this week’s dish, try to learn about where it was grown. Is the food from a small family farmer or industrial farm? Where is it located? How was it grown? When you  know your food sources, you can have a relationship–and responsibility–to your farmers and community.

The dish for Vayeshev is made with a rainbow of colors, reflective of Joseph’s ornate tunic. The tomatoes symbolize the blood smeared on the tunic by Joseph’s brothers and a reminder of the inhumane work environment for so many farmworkers. Also, in honor of Human Rights Day, the diversity of colors in the dish are for the myriad of people who grow and pick our food–whether it’s a family farmer harvesting apples in upstate New York, a farmworker planting lettuce at an industrial farm in California’s Central Valley or a child picking tomatoes in Mexico. The variety of ingredients in the stew is also a celebration of Terra Madre and a reminder of our need to protect the global diversity of colors and tastes of foods.

Technicolor Stew

Ingredients:

  • 1 yellow onion, finely chopped
  • 1 red pepper, chopped into small pieces
  • 3-4 garlic cloves, chopped, finely chopped
  • 2 yellow zucchini, chopped into small chunks
  • 1-2 green zucchini, chopped into small chunks
  • 1 basket cherry tomatoes
  • 1 purple yam (if not available, substitute an eggplant), sliced
  • 1 handful torn or chopped basil
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste

Preparation

1. Wash and chop vegetables.
2. Over medium heat, add 1 tbsp olive oil to pan and add onion and garlic. Cook until soft, about 5 minutes.
3. Add zucchinis and yam. Simmer with lid for about 15-20 minutes until soft. You might need to add some water to ensure it doesn’t stick.
4. Add tomatoes and pepper. Cook for another 10-15 minutes until soft.
5. Remove from heat. Add salt and pepper to taste, a few drops of olive oil and freshly chopped basil.

 

B’tayavon!

Power of words: Parashat Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1-40:23)


In our age of Facebook and Twitter, we know all too well how fast words can spread. When I was a kid, we played the game telephone, passing a word or phrase around the circle by whispering it into each other’s ear, knowing that by the time it went all the way around, it would probably be transformed into something completely different — that was funny! 

Words are some of the most powerful tools we have in our human arsenal, and they can be used for incredible good or immense evil. Speaking into the microphone of today’s hyper-connected world enables us to both spread positive energy into the universe, and, sadly more often, spread negative energy, sometimes leading to violence. Both are known as going viral, and both are as ancient as the creation of the world and the essence of this week’s parashah.

Vayeshev begins the Joseph cycle, which will carry through for the rest of Genesis. Words are central to this parashah, as they are to the Jewish people as a whole. Our liturgy reminds us every morning, “Baruch she’amar v’haya ha’olam” (Blessed is the one who spoke and the world came into being). In Vayeshev, words are crucial to the plot as Joseph “brings evil reports of his brothers” to his father (Genesis 37:2), and shares his dreams with his brothers and family, vocalizing private thoughts out loud without necessarily thinking about the consequences. Jacob, continuing the family tradition, expresses favoritism for Joseph in both words and actions, giving him the famous cloak of many colors, thereby driving his brothers to hate him so much that “they could not speak a friendly word to him” (Genesis 37:4). Emotions are heated and the sibling rivalry is quite extreme. The Hebrew text in this parashah is replete with the words deebah (word), daber (speak), yaged (tell) and, sadly, sinah (hate). All of the words that Joseph and his brothers exchange only lead to more and more hate, eventually driving them to do the unthinkable: throw Joseph in a pit, sell him down to Egypt, and lie to their father by saying he died, ironically using the cloak of many colors, drenched in blood, as their alibi. Words, language, the very power God used to create our world, are thrown around in this parashah in such a negative way that the consequences are legendary. However, in the one place that words could have saved the situation, the text reports silence. Jacob has a chance to reprimand Joseph and the brothers, after the dreams, and the text says Jacob “shamar et ha’davar” (he guarded the matter). Rashi interprets this to mean, “He waited to see what would happen.” Precisely when words were needed to save the family unit, Jacob waited and was silent. It is not the only time this happens in Jacob’s life. 

The lessons of this parashah, to me, are: When do we speak and when do we hold our tongue? When do we share what we are feeling and when do we keep it to ourselves? Words, the precious gift that God gave us humans to communicate, can change the world, as in the great oratory of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the writings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, or they can destroy worlds, as in hate speech or bullying a kid at school. I see this parashah as calling us to teach our children how and when to speak, and how and when to keep quiet. Standing up for someone in need demands the courage of words; knowing when to ignore someone with silence or keeping our negative thoughts to ourselves demands wisdom. Joseph learns well, as the very dream-work that gets him into trouble at the beginning of the parashah is what saves his life in the dungeon of Pharaoh.

Kohelet said it best: “There is a time for speech and a time for silence.” May the Torah this week, and the lessons learned from some of the painful experiences we read about, teach us what to do before we speak, write or hit the reply/send button on our computers. Blessed is the one Who spoke and the world came into being: This is a great personal meditation before uttering, or choosing not to utter, our words. Shabbat shalom!