Letters Unopened

Miketz By :  Shira D. Epstein Former Dean of the William Davidson School, JTS Posted On Dec 27, 2019 / 5780 | Torah Commentary

Several years ago, during a period of intense dreaming, I started keeping what I lovingly referred to as a “luminous journal.” Immediately upon awakening from a dream, I would reach for a notebook on my nightstand and furiously transcribe all I had experienced, inclusive of dialogue, and mood—a verbatim as if recounting a real-life event. I had learned over time that otherwise, the intense narrative and video that had so vividly played for my one-person viewing audience would be lost. No record, no memory of my dreams.

Even in looking back at that notebook a few months later, it read to me like an absurdist novel, descriptions of my nighttime bird-like flights over NYC streets, and of conversations with people long gone from my life. It was mostly enjoyable, but sometimes quite disturbing—so much so that my recounts could be difficult to read. And yet, I labeled the notebook as a “luminous journal,” rather than a “dream journal.” Perhaps this was aspirational—I wanted to shed light and sparkle on the sometimes jarring images.

Parashat Miketz kicks off with Pharaoh’s dreams—of standing by the Nile, “ugly, gaunt cows” eating “handsome, sturdy cows” (Gen. 41:2–4), There is then a second dream: “seven ears of grain, solid and healthy” that were swallowed up by “seven ears, thin and scorched by the east wind” (vv. 6–7). Pharaoh’s “spirit was troubled” (v. 8) by his dreams, and was further rattled as no one could interpret their meanings for him, eventually telling Joseph, “I have dreamed a dream, and there is no interpreter for it, but I have heard it said of you [that] you understand a dream, to interpret it.” (v.15).

We often focus our discussions of Parashat Miketz on the serendipity and miracle of Joseph being in the right place in the right time, offering his spot-on interpretation skills to Pharaoh. We can then draw a bold, clear narrative line, connecting the dots from his support of Pharaoh to successfully predicting the dreams and thus saving Egypt from famine, to Egypt becoming the land to which Joseph’s brothers travel for survival, eventually bringing Jacob to reunite with his son. The final connected-dot plot point is the eventual enslavement of Jacob’s descendants in Egypt, leading generations later to our Exodus, emerging peoplehood, and entering the Promised Land.

However, this narrative thread gives short shrift to a brief description of the transition between the two dreams: “and Pharoah awoke. He fell asleep and dreamed a second time” (vs. 4–5) —no action, self-reflection, or speaking aloud between awoke-asleep-second dream. What would have happened if Pharaoh had his own ancient, personal version of a “luminous journal”, a way of recording his dreams in that liminal moment between awoke-asleep? Would he have become his own interpreter, rendering Joseph’s skills irrelevant?

“Rav Ḥisda said: A dream not interpreted is like a letter not read” (BT Berakhot 55a).

Through this lens, the real miracle of the Miketz narrative is that Pharaoh rapidly returned to slumber after the first set of unsettling dreams, vividly dreamt again, and recollected all of his dreams upon reawaking—the entire, collective dreamscape process. Any of us who has ever attempted to recall a vivid dream after falling back to sleep knows that if we are lucky, we are at best left with a lingering feeling, perhaps a small glimmer of memory, but the details are most usually lost, never to be rediscovered. It would have been so easy for the dreams of cows and ears of grain to become ‘letters not read’. And yet, Pharaoh weathered the fits and starts of a sleep-disrupted night and had the motivation, desire, and lucidness to ask for help in understanding what he had seen and experienced.

Miracles come in all sorts of packages, and sometimes we need to double-check to make sure that an unread letter is opened—what might be waiting for us inside? As we celebrate the final days of Hanukkah, may we each recognize the miracles both small and large—of being in the right place at the right time, of finding something that we thought was lost, of hearing words of support and receiving actions of assistance right when we need them. May we experience a luminous hag and Shabbat.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee (z”l) and Harold Hassenfeld (z”l).