This past summer at Camp Ramah, I had the joy of spending some evenings with a bunk of middle school boys, doing what is called, in camp terms, harga’ah, which literally means “calming down,” and refers to an activity that helps get the kids ready for bedtime. I brought them a number of what are called “Lateral Thinking Puzzles,” which are puzzles where you share a clue in the form of a small amount of information, and then let others ask Yes or No questions to figure out the (one or maybe two) correct interpretations of that clue. The fun of the puzzle is trying to ask the right questions (and sometimes unusual questions) to zero in on the correct interpretation.
Here is one example:
A man walks into a bar and asks for a drink. The bartender pulls out a gun and points it at him. The man says, “Thank you,” and walks out.
The boys in the bunk then spent a great deal of effort asking question after question, trying to narrow down the possibilities of what this clue means. There is great satisfaction when the group stumbles upon the answer.
What makes these puzzles so hard is that people always have initial assumptions about what the words in the clue mean; it is hard to take a step back and look at the clue without any preconceived notions.
SPOILERS: The solution to this one is that the man has the hiccups, and the gun was only used to scare him.
In one sense, this week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev, is about the same thing: How do we interpret the small amount of information that we have? How we make sense of our lives? Vayeshev challenges us to think about how we see the world, interpret it and make sense of it. We see this in both the figures of Joseph, Jacob’s beloved son, and in Tamar, the daughter-in-law of Judah, another of Jacob’s sons.
First let’s look at Joseph and his dreams.
Joseph is the second youngest and favorite son of Jacob, first born son to Rachel, the love of Jacob’s life. He has ten older brothers, and one younger brother. The Torah says that his brothers cannot stand him; Jacob’s favoritism towards Joseph has poisoned their relationship to the point where they cannot even be polite to him.
Joseph is a dreamer who knows that his dreams are trying to tell him something vitally important. So much so that he cannot keep what he knows to himself, and shares his two dreams, one where he is a bundle of grain and his brothers’ bundles of grain all bow down to him, and the other, where he is a star surrounded by eleven other stars and the sun and the moon.
It is crucial to the story how everyone responds to these dreams. The brothers interpret these dreams through the lens of their hatred for Joseph. For them, they are nothing but the arrogant musings of a teenager. They rush to this interpretation based on their own experience, which blinds them to the fact that these dreams have a myriad number of interpretations. Who knows what they actually mean! Later on in prison, Joseph says to the cup-bearer and baker, each who have had ominous dreams, that “all dream interpretations belong to God,” so why not the brothers’ interpretations? Because they are not dream interpretations. They are personal reactions to these dreams. They are not from God; instead they are from the minds of these frustrated brothers. They hurl angry questions at him: “Do you mean to reign over us? Do you mean to rule over us?” As we have seen before with Dinah, Joseph’s brothers like to end scenes with angry questions that leave space for neither answers nor other interpretations.
After Joseph’s second dream, it is Jacob, his father, who hurls angry questions: “What is this dream you have dreamed? Are we to come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow low to you to the ground?” Had they put aside their own internal narratives and biases, they might have had the same reaction as Joseph did to his dreams.
These dreams are like Lateral Thinking Puzzles. Very little information. Lots of assumptions. Many possible interpretations, but only one correct one.
Joseph, for his part, offer no interpretations for his dreams. His reaction to his dreams is to share them with others. Joseph seems to genuinely offer them to the family as a puzzle that they can solve together. He has a sense that they mean something, that they communicate something important that the family needs to understand. I prefer to think that Joseph was wise enough at that time to recognize that his own reaction to the dreams might be solely based on his life experience. Instead of offering up a quick response, he lets the dream sit in him and simply be, uninterpreted, reserving final analysis until a later date. What is most important then about Joseph’s reaction to his dreams is that he knows that he does not understand them; his trusts that their full meaning will come in the course of the family’s unfolding story. Ironically, it is his brother’s increased anger from the dreams that actually pushes him in the direction through which the dreams will be fulfilled.
Joseph might have what is called “First Sight.” In his book, The Wee Free Men, the fantasy author Terry Pratchett introduces us to another young adult, named Tiffany Aching, who aspires to become a witch. In the book, a witch is not the fairy tale stereotype, but rather is a person who has finely honed skills of perception, among other qualities. One of these skills is called “First Sight,” which means you see what really is there, versus things that are not actually there. I like to think that Joseph has First Sight, that he knows that he does not know what his dreams mean, despite the fact the his family situation hints that they are about his dominion over his brothers. And that is exactly how his brothers interpret the dreams.
Of course, even though Joseph seems to recognize that he does not understand his dreams, at the same time, he shows a complete lack of understanding of his brothers’ hatred towards him. He is either blind to it, unaware of its depth, or unaware of what levels of violence they are capable of. When Joseph comes to his brothers in Dotan, if not for the bumbling intervention of Reuven and then Judah’s cold compassion, they would have killed him on the spot. Instead, they sell him as a slave, and he ends up in Egypt. In a moment of double-blindness, no one at this moment in the story sees that all of this moves them closer to fulfilling the dreams. On top of that, the brothers take Joseph’s special coat, dip it in blood, and send it to Jacob with the message, “We found this. Please examine it. Is it your son’s tunic or not?” Jacob, like his sons, rushes to interpret the meaning of this object. “My son’s tunic! A savage beast devoured him! Joseph was torn by a beast!” The interpretation Jacob tells himself blinds him from any other possibility, even from the remote possibility that Joseph is still alive. We, as the privileged audience, who have heard this before, know how every choice and every interpretation made in this unfolding drama is leading to that moment of the dream fulfilled.
Now let’s turn to Tamar. Right after Joseph is sold into slavery, we focus on Judah and his family. Judah marries a Canaanite woman and they have three children: Er, Onan and Shelah. Er marries Tamar, and promptly dies, leaving Tamar childless. Judah tells Onan that it is his obligation to be a dutiful brother-in-law and help Tamar have a child. When Onan refuses to do that, he promptly dies as well. The Torah tells us in no uncertain terms that God is the one who killed these two sons, but this narrative fact is not told to make us angry at God, or to think of God as a homicidal deity, but to tell us, the privileged audience, that is was not Tamar’s fault. Like with Joseph’s dreams, we have a series of events that seem baffling. Why would two young and healthy men drop dead all of a sudden within months of each other? What is Judah to make of this situation? What is Tamar to make of this situation?
Judah and Tamar’s situation is also like a Lateral Thinking Puzzle. Lots of assumptions. Many possible interpretations, but only one correct one.
Judah, as he did with his brothers before, rushes to interpret these events base on his own internal narratives and biases. When thinking about Shelah, his last living son, helping Tamar to have a child, he says to himself: “He too might die like his brothers.” Judah connects the dots as best he can, and sees Tamar as the common factor in both deaths, seeing her as a veritable black widow. Unlike Joseph who can live with a lack of understanding, Judah cannot accept that he has no idea of what is really going on.
What might be Tamar’s take on all of this? At this point, we can imagine that Tamar is grieving the death of her husband, concerned and even angry about the death of his brother, but mostly she would be concerned that she is childless, which, in this society, makes her situation precarious. She is still tied to Judah’s family, who is obligated to help her bear a chid in Er’s name. When Judah sends her back to her father’s house, she fully expects to wait there until Shelah is old enough to help her bear a child. In this moment, She is blind to the fact that Judah sees her as the source of the problem, and that she is a dangerous force to be contained in her father’s home.
Several years later, Shelah grows up, and Tamar sees that she has actually been imprisoned in her father’s house, and, unless she does something, she is going to spend her entire life as a childless widow. In that moment, Tamar sees clearly what Judah’s intentions have always been and what she must do to make her own dream fulfilled, the dream of having a child to carry on her husband’s lineage. In act of obfuscation, she puts on a veil, and plays the part of a kadeshah, which is a professional “companion.” The place she sits at is called Einaim, which means “eyes,” perhaps alluding to her ability to see clearly what the situation is, what is means, and how she must act in this moment.
When Judah sees her, he does not see her. Instead, he sees a harlot, and despite their conversation and their moment of physical intimacy, he has no idea that this woman is Tamar, his daughter-in-law. True, it has been several years since he last saw her, but how does he have no idea that this is Tamar? One possibility is that he lacks First Sight, that since he thinks that it is impossible that this is Tamar, it simply isn’t. After all, he sent her back to her father’s house, and there she stayed. Right? It is inconceivable to Judah that she would do this. So behind both a cloth veil, and through Judah’s veil of his own inner narrative, Tamar does what needs to be done.
A few months later, it becomes known that Tamar is pregnant, which in this case is incest, since she is still tied to Judah’s family and is not allowed to be with any man other than Shelah. Judah, once again, rushes to interpret the small amount of information that he has, and immediately calls for her execution.
Through her new clarity of sight, Tamar has already foreseen this moment. Before she and Judah have their transaction, he gives her his seal, cord and staff as a pledge against her payment. [This would be the equivalent of giving someone your wallet, phone and car keys.] Before Judah’s friend came back with her payment, she had gone on her way, leaving him confused. Rather than risk embarrassment, Judah decides not to track her down and to let the woman keep them.
In this moment of truth, Tamar gives Judah just enough information so that he can, for the first time, see things as they really are, and not as how he has interprets them. Tamar sends Judah a message along with his seal, cord and staff, and says, “I am with child by the man to whom these belong.” Judah, the man who blinded his father with a coat dripped in blood, finally has his own blinders removed. When he hears this message and sees the items, he finally understands that Tamar was not the problem, that he really does not understand why his sons died, and that he had unjustly imprisoned Tamar for years. Judah recognizes that left to his own devices, his family would have been significantly smaller than those of his brothers.
The challenge for us is to think about how we think. When we are presented with a small amount of information, how do we make sense out of it? I don’t think most people naturally see things like Joseph, able to see without the filter of bias and preconceptions. Most of us are like Jacob, Judah and the brothers, who reasonably do our best and interpret the events of our lives through our experiences, past and present.
When confronted with a situation, it is far more challenging to not rush to interpret, but rather to take a moment, a breath, and step back from our initial reactions and assumptions about the situation, and to ask ourselves: What am I seeing? What is really going on here? What was my reaction to this situation? What is the meaning of my reaction? Are there are other ways to understand this, even if it means a complete lack of understanding?
For Joseph, his openness to the possibility of his dreams leads him ultimately to a position of influence that saves his family, Egypt and the entire region from a famine. For Tamar, her ability to see how to achieve her dream leads her to have twin sons: Peretz, whose name means breakthrough, and Zerach, whose names means brilliance. It may not surprise us that from Joseph’s line and from Tamar’s line, come visions of a messianic future that is free of hatred, bias and lack of understanding.
May we each have the capacity of Joseph and Tamar to see what is really in front of us, to avoid the pitfalls of our assumptions and habits of the mind, and follow our dreams to their fulfillment.