This has been a difficult Chanukah for this world. As we light our candles in the darkest time of the year, we struggle to find a way to overcome the darkness of this world with the light of goodness. In this week’s Torah portion, Miketz, we learn of Joseph the dreamer, Joseph the environmentalist, Joseph the predictor of a great famine
I am thrilled to share this d’var Torah from Walter R. Isaac, rabbinical student at the Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute. As Walter says, we are facing a famine right now. We just don’t know it.
On Terror and Grain
by Walter R. Isaac
In our Parashah this week, Joseph lives and interprets the American dream. His story is a rags to riches classic. But his story is not only about prosperity and success. Like the dream he interprets for Pharaoh, it may have told of prosperity, but at its root it was a warning. And warnings foretell the potential for disaster. Joseph also interprets Pharaoh’s dream as a warning. He counsels Pharaoh to store up grain so that during a coming famine, there would be enough food for the people of Egypt.
Similarly, the American dream is a dream about abundance and plenty. And times of plenty are good because during those times one does not lack necessities such as food, clothing or shelter. But times of plenty also carry a hidden danger. The danger is that in the midst of plenty we might become lazy and forget that such times do not last forever and are always followed by times of relative lack.
If we live by grain like the Egyptians did, then we must store up that grain during times of plenty so that we can survive the famine during the times of scarcity. But this is the take away…What goes for the needs of the body, also goes for the needs of the mind. What is true in our story for Egypt’s grain is also true for the human heart.
Grain is compassion. Grain symbolizes a crucial sense of justice and love and concern for those who are different. And just as Joseph saw how Egypt’s future depended on how, during times of plenty, they prepared for the trials of famine and scarcity… it is also the case that during times of comfort and safety we must check the grain stored in our hearts and see if we’re prepared to withstand the trials of danger and insecurity.
Terrorism is a kind of famine. It is a trial characterized by the scarcity of safety and the presence of danger. No it is not the absence of food or water or shelter, but it IS the absence of things such as peace and stability.
Fortunately, the season of terror does not last forever. And because of this, we need to store up the proper grain in order to survive what terrors will afflict us. What troubles me is that too many of us as Israelites have not stored up the proper amount of grain in our hearts to survive this famine. And this time, it is not a famine of food, but rather a famine of compassion, a famine of security, and a famine of care for those human beings we both know and don’t know.
I fear that in blaming others for recent terrorism many people miss the fact that terrorism is nothing new for America. There is a long American tradition of spreading terror among people of color. Our inability to stamp out the remnants of this tradition has enabled far too many to feel comfortable expressing ideas such as rounding other people up, expelling undesirables from society, surveiling people of a different ethnicity, and creating barriers on the basis of some arbitrary religious or racial or linguistic tests.
So earlier this week, when I heard people discussing these ideas, and I heard on the news serious conversations among politicians about what kind of surveillance or what kind of mass expulsion would or would not be permitted by law, I thought to myself that we are on the verge of a society-wide famine. And I worried that too many of us as a people have not stored up enough grain in our hearts to survive it.
As you travel through the world this week, as you go to your job and see different kinds of people in the market, on the street, at the bus stop or in the post office—check up on your food stores. Examine your heart’s balance sheet. What does it tell you? Have you stored up grain during this time of plenty? Can you withstand a famine of compassion? Can you survive a scarcity of love for the stranger? If not, then you should remember the warning of Joseph’s dream. And if you can’t remember his dream, then remember the American dream, or what some people have called the American nightmare. Because both of them warn us of the suffering that will come without sufficiently storing up that precious grain in our human hearts.