Friday, November 27, 2009

Sermon for Vayetzei/Thanksgiving

The Power of Dreams
Rabbi Don Levy
Parashat Vayetzei
27 November 2009

I woke up violently in the middle of the night last night; I had had a nightmare. In it, I was in bed – and the bed was in the middle of a road. And a bus was bearing down on the bed. In the dream, I jumped to get out of bed. And as often happens in nightmares, I jumped physically as well, waking Clara and leaving me to explain that everything was okay, I’d just had a nightmare.

Afterward, the dream continued. The bus, it turned out, was a tour bus. It was there, because I had taken on the job of organizing a tour of some Jewish museums in Los Angeles. The job did not turn out well. Around every corner of the tour, I kept getting snowed under by details I hadn’t taken care of adequately.

Some dreams are easy to figure out, but this one was perplexing. I’ve organized a couple of tours, but never in LA – only to Israel. And neither tour was a disaster for lack of adequate planning, although there were glitches to be sure. The first one went off reasonably well, and the second one was a resounding success. I don’t say this to brag, only to point to the perplexing nature of my dream last night.

I remember when I was studying psychology in college, and we viewed a film entitled ‘To Sleep, Perchance to Dream,’ about the phenomenon of dreams. The film made it clear that despite the title’s being taken from Hamlet’s famous ‘To Be or Not to Be’ soliloquy, there was no perchance in the equation. When we sleep, we dream. Period. All night. We only remember a small portion of our dreams: those which occur during a certain part of the sleep cycle, and those whose violence awakens us as did mine last night. But during our hours of sleep, we dream an almost-unbroken chain of dreams. These dreams, if remembered and recounted, can provide a valuable insight into our inner selves.

When I entered rabbinical school and began to study the Torah in depth, I was immediately fascinated by the portions which chronicle key characters’ dreaming. There is, of course, Jacob’s dream in this week’s portion, followed closely in the text by Joseph and Pharaoh’s dreams of which we’ll hear in the next few weeks. I remembered learning about the power of dreams in college psychology, and I was fascinated by the way the Ancient Rabbis grappled with the meanings of the dreams recorded in the Torah.

Jacob’s dream, the account of which I’ve just read from the Torah, is baffling. There’s a ladder that reaches to the heavens, and angels are ascending and descending. And Adonai seems to be overseeing it all. He comforts Jacob by telling him: “I am Adonai, G-d of Abraham and Isaac your forebears. I bequeath the land, upon which you lie, to you and your progeny. Your progeny will multiply like the sand of the earth, and you shall spread out west and east, north and south. All the families of the earth shall be blessed through you. I shall be with you, and will guard you in all your wanderings. And I shall bring you back to this land as I will not abandon you until I will have done as I have promised you.” And Jacob responded by proclaiming: “Adonai was in this place and I did not know it.”

The simple meaning of the dream is that Jacob is being torn away from his land of residence as he is fleeing from his brother Esau’s murderous wrath, and G-d is comforting him by telling him that all will be well with him. But as was their habit, the Rabbis saw deeper, more hidden meanings in the dream. They saw the angels as the great empires of history, and their ascent and descent of the ladder as the rise and fall of those empires while the progeny of Jacob – the people Israel – would endure and flourish even after all of the former had been vanquished to the history books.

The Rabbis’ real point was to comfort the people, who were suffering under the mighty power of Rome at the time the Midrash was framed. Rome would fall, as had Assyria before that as we know from the Hanukkah story, as had Egypt before that as we know from the Exodus story. And so human history would unfold, but the destiny of the people Israel would endure.

The British historian Paul Kennedy, who wrote The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers back in the 1980’s, would agree in part with the Rabbis’ interpretation. Kennedy saw in the pattern of human history the rise of one superpower, followed by its plateau and its decline, followed by the rise of another superpower to replace it. His point was clearly a warning to his ‘smug’ American cousins; their century would come to an end, and another great empire would take their place at the acme of humanity. Just as the American Empire had long since eclipsed that of his own country. Given the economic meltdown we’ve experienced, one might reasonably be inclined to accept Kennedy’s thesis and see in China the next great power on the ascent.

It is fashionable in some circles to see our country in the context of Kennedy’s thesis. We’re just another in a line of empires that had their day and then waned into relative insignificance as their stars dimmed. To this mindset, the idea of American Exceptionalism is but a mirage, a pie-in-the-sky notion that belies the reality. Those who hold that the American experiment is something unique in human history are just deluding themselves in the hope that our nation will uniquely break the pattern, and that our power will remain ascendant forever.

I guess it’s no secret to most in this room that I reject the idea of America’s fitting into this neat pattern. I believe with all my heart in the Exceptionalism of the American experience. I guess this comes in part from my long residencies in other countries, from my listening to citizens of those lands express the values of their nations and contrasting them to those that characterize America.

Those who see America as just another in a line of empires would like me and those who hold my view to focus on America’s flaws and see her as tainted by the faults of all empires from the get-go. We came, we saw, we conquered, we displaced, we despoiled…and now we’re on the wane. Why should we see ourselves as any different?

But the very holiday we have just celebrated points out the difference. The Pilgrims of the Mayflower, quirky though they might have been, came with a sublime vision of creating G-d’s Kingdom on these shores. They didn’t come to displace the natives who then very sparsely inhabited the continent. Rather, they sought harmony with them as they worked hard to pursue their own vision of a City on a hill – a phrase used in a famous sermon by John Winthrop, one of the leaders of the Pilgrim Fathers, borrowed from the Gospel according to St. Matthew and later borrowed by President Ronald Reagan. With lapses – no nation is perfect, after all – their progeny and those who joined them in fleeing the Old World kept alive this vision, and sought to build a society anchored by a different basis here. A number of you in this room, having been born elsewhere, can attest to and celebrate this difference. Even today, people flock to our land because it is different in a positive way. For every immigrant who succeeds in coming here there are many who unfortunately don’t make the cut and can only dream of coming here some day.

Does this view cast aspersions on other nations, as some would say? Of course not; it only recognizes on these shores a unique dynamic that continues to attract the best of the other nations who bring their unique contributions to the American enterprise. Each nation has its strengths, but America manages to uniquely assimilate the strengths that members of those nations bring when they join us. I can tell you first hand from my long sojourns abroad that the Turks, the Greeks, and the Germans are unable to do this. The British can to a certain extent. Our British cousins are far more able than most nations, to accept immigrants from other places and incorporate them in their nation and draw from their strengths. But they cannot match the energy of the American nation because – as I see it – they cannot define what is the essence of British-ness. When Britannia ruled the waves, she saw her mastery of the world as her essence. In the waning of her Empire, she has yet to define what her enduring values are. Britons struggle with this question – what are our values as a nation? – every day. America’s enduring values, while they were certainly highlighted during our reign as the world’s most powerful nation, are dependent on something other than being a world power.

Only Israel, tiny Israel, has a quality of destiny approaching that of America’s. Despite the insignificance to which her tiny size and beleaguered condition would logically consign her, Israel matters far out of proportion: in terms of creative energy, in terms of good works among the less-fortunate nations, in terms of assimilating each wave of immigrants in turn while at the same time being shaped by those immigrants’ unique contributions.

This really should come as no surprise. From the time of the Pilgrims, the thinkers who most shaped American life were students of the Torah and were imbued with a philo-Judaism that shaped their worldview and their plan for the American nation. It is fashionable – again, in some circles – to see the philo-Israelism of their contemporary counterparts as a desire for Israel to play a role in the playing-out of a certain apocalyptic vision of the Christian writings. But that’s not the attraction for Israel by some of our Christian neighbors. Rather, they see America as deliberately constructed in the mold in which G-d forged Israel – and blessed with power and influence because of it.

This unique tie-in of destinies – America’s and Israel’s – is what led to the unique relationship of our two nations. It is not the power of American Jews; we’re far too fractious a group to exert the kind of influence that our detractors often accuse us of wielding. When we read the account of Jacob’s dream this week and annually when we read the portion Vayetzei, we should take comfort from the Rabbis’ understanding of this passage. We can recognize now, as they did then, that the people Israel represent something unique in human history that will endure when all the other powers have waned. Likewise, we can look at the non-Jewish nations who have developed and celebrated a philo-Judaism: to an extent Great Britain but even more so the United States of America. We see in the assimilation of the lessons of ancient Israel, the source of our nation’s goodness and strength.

It is tempting to see America as just another in a chain of superpowers a la Paul Kennedy’s thesis in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. It takes a great onus off our backs. If we’re just another superpower on the wane, then we might as well forget the burdens we’ve taken on as a nation. Instead, like the Europeans, let’s become pragmatic and focus on prolonging our own affluence. We don’t have to feel a responsibility for less-fortunate peoples. Freed from the burden of being the World’s Policeman, we will have the resources to build a utopian, cradle-to-grave welfare state in the mold of Sweden. We can even turn our backs on Israel, and pragmatically seek the favor of her enemies in the Arab and Islamic world.

But perhaps the interesting convergence of the American festival of Thanksgiving, and the reading of the account of Jacob’s dream will serve to remind us of the two unique and yet dovetailing destinies that we as Jewish Americans enjoy. At least, I hope it will. Because it is true that the great nations of the world have historically, and will continue to, rise and fall. But G-d has promised that the tiny people Israel will endure because they matter far out of proportion to their numbers. America is much larger and more powerful and has ruled as the reigning superpower in the world for a number of decades. Perhaps our economic, political, and military power has been, or is in the process of being, eclipsed by that of China and even India. But if we Americans continue to make America mean something more, something far more divinely inspired, then our significance like that of tiny Israel will continue to matter. May this be so as we remember the dream of our Pilgrim Fathers and seek to keep it alive. Happy Thanksgiving and Shabbat Shalom.