Joseph the dreamer dreamt, illuminated, and fulfilled dreams. He did so in an almost unimaginable way with such a rags to riches story. From the jail cell of a נַ֣עַר עִבְרִ֗י עֶ֚בֶד לְשַׂ֣ר הַטַּבָּחִ֔ים – this Hebrew youth, a servant of the chief steward; to the highest office in the land. Joseph seems to be put into power to save his family and ends up completely altering the geopolitical course of the ancient world (more about that next week).
The story of Joseph embodies the essence of being a loyal servant and a prestigious leader to his host country while maintaining his primordial identity as a Hebrew. He was a dreamer, but more than that he was opportunistic and seized the moment to create the future that he envisioned. It is clear from the reading of Genesis 41 and 42 that Joseph saw an opportunity and ran with it. He could have explained Pharaoh’s dream(s) (both dreams are really the same dream Gen. 41:25) in any way he wanted to and chose to do so in a way that would pave the path for his own elevation to high office, controlling Egyptian policy and being able to then manipulate his brothers lives (as well as countless others).
“אַתָּה֙ תִּהְיֶ֣ה עַל־בֵּיתִ֔י וְעַל־פִּ֖יךָ יִשַּׁ֣ק כָּל־עַמִּ֑י רַ֥ק הַכִּסֵּ֖א אֶגְדַּ֥ל מִמֶּֽךָּ׃”
“You shall be in charge of my court, and by your command shall all my people be directed; only with respect to the throne shall I be superior to you.” (Gen. 41: 40)
Through interpreting dreams, Joseph transformed himself was able to realize the ultimate dream of rising to power to rule over the greatest superpower of the time.
The Joseph story closely resembles another immigrant who fled Nazi persecution and came to the United States. A young German-Jewish youth, Heinz Kissinger (later Henry), transformed himself from a refugee seeking sanctuary in the free world to rise to become among the closest advisors to the President of the United States.
In the weeks and months after the Yom Kippur War, when then U.S. Secretary of State Kissinger was practicing shuttle diplomacy back and forth to the Middle East the question of his loyalty and Jewish identity came up. During one of his many conversations with Israeli PM Golda Meir, he attempted to clarify to the PM that just because he was Jewish, he would not be doing the bidding of the Jewish People or the Jewish State.
“I’m an American first!” he declared emphatically.
“I’m an American Jew, and I won’t be doing the bidding of the Jews, as I’m an American first.”
“Henry,” Meir replied nonchalantly, “in Hebrew we read right to left.”
Maybe, like the biblical Joseph, Kissinger was put into positions of power and influence to save the Jews, and maybe not. But he who achieved the fulfilled the ultimate American Dream lived with the question of serving his people versus the American people.
The parallels to today’s reality are clear. Affluence, honor, privilege, educational opportunities, and hard work enabled the Jews to achieve heights in American society that no other country had allowed Jews to reach. We have successfully entrenched ourselves into every aspect of American society. Sometimes we did so by assimilating into American culture and suppressing our Jewishness, while at other points American society offered us the opportunity to maintain an open observance of Jewish ritual and culture. America offered us the opportunity to share our story and put our holidays and rituals out in the open.
In a 1980 essay on Courage Particularity, Rabbi David Hartman taught that:
“Placing the Hanukkah menorah near the window for all to see represents the great message which Jews convey to the world: we choose not to hide the flame of our spiritual tradition within the secluded confines of our people, our family, but rather we wish to have our flame radiate light in the market places of history. The Hanukkah menorah is a concrete expression of the Jews’ commitment to place the particular into the mainstream of history, to enter the market-place with dignity and integrity.”
As we enter the new solar year of 2020 let us recognize that we are Americans who live out the American Dream of rising to great heights in this country through building relationships with our representatives, influencing policy, and being politically active in service of our values and our Torah.
And, we are Jews who also participate actively in an intra-Jewish conversation to determine the course and future of the dream of being a free people in our Land.
This year, 2020, offers unique and rare opportunities to do see both dreams come to fruition.
In just 24 days the polls will open for the World Zionist Congress elections. This is the only democratic opportunity for Jews around the world to have our voices heard at the Parliament of the Jewish People. With our strength and the voice of our Movement we will join forces with Israeli political parties to influence Israeli society in matters of Religion and State, pluralism, equality and democracy.
And this year commit to both using our power to advance our own story and to have our voices heard in the 2020 United States election. Like Joseph, our multiple identities should be an advantage. We should use our strength and power in Israel and advance our values in the society in which we live.
The goal of the Shamash is to not light a tremendous light but to take a little tiny flame and light one light at a time. Each light lit can produce an enormous transformation so that each one of us will have a greater and greater effect on the world. When we light these lights, when we raise our voices, when we vote, we are living our dreams.
Shabbat Shalom, Hanukkah Sameach, and Hodesh Tov,