Not every king is Martin Luther King
No doubt there are some fans of West Wing and House of Cards sitting among us this morning. Things have moved on a little since the heyday of my own favourite political drama, Yes, Minister or Yes, Prime Minister, as it later came to be known.
Each of these series throws up in their own inimitable way the dreams and schemes of rulers and politicians who plot their way to the top and aim to keep themselves there, simultaneously brushing aside their rivals and ruthlessly checking the aspirations of anyone who seeks to topple them.
Undoubtedly the Hebrew Bible is the original source for this kind of political intrigue. The Book of Samuel sees the institutionalization of the monarchy in the land of Israel, at the best of the people who are clamouring for a king. Saul is anointed as the first king, and quickly it is demonstrated how a king must keep his people satisfied with a succession of military victories. When David emerges as a young and virile warrior, the people sing that while Saul has killed 1000s, David has slain 10s of 1000s, which rather than making Saul proud of the young shepherd harpist, tends to make him green with jealousy. I am sure we all know the rest of the story, but if not then I urge you to read the Book of Samuel which chronicles the succession. Likewise, the hero of today’s Haftarah portion, the wisest man imaginable, King Solomon, he who built the Temple in Jerusalem, was the first person to inherit the kingship from his father David. But Solomon had to grasp his inheritance from among 20 brothers that his father had sired, and those are just the one’s that are recorded by name in the Bible. Their sibling rivalry makes Joseph and his brothers look like child’s play, and there is little to reconcile them as they squabble to the death over the crown.
At the beginning of the portion today, as Natalie has read, Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt, has a dream. The rabbis ask a rhetorical question – well what makes that so special, or even remarkable, doesn’t everyone dream? Incidentally scientists today also understand that everyone, given a certain level of sleep, dreams. Those people who say they never dream merely don’t remember their dreams. But the rabbis in the Midrash answer their own question by emphasising: that while it is true that all people dream, a king's dream affects the whole world.
A king’s dream can be visionary. Both in a positive way: “I have a dream” can be a Martin Luther King-style vision of an end to racism and discrimination. One that finishes, to quote his 1963 text, with the yearning for an Aleinu-style recognition of God’s glory: “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together."”
But not every king is a Martin Luther King. Not every monarch or ruler or indeed President offers the kind of visionary outlook that can inspire and unite their society or nation. Pharaoh in our story had a dream of seven fat cows being eaten by seven slender cows. And it was the job of his political advisors, his speech-writers, the Egyptian “magicians” as they were known, to conjure up an explanation that would satisfy their master. They failed at this task and it fell to Joseph, the poor unfortunate dream-boat languishing in prison for a crime that he did not commit, it fell to Joseph who had nothing to lose, to go for broke and use his gift. He interpret Pharaoh’s dream as an economic prediction of the future. Seven years famine would follow seven good years, the thin cows would eat the fat, and by a good handling of the economy in the fat years: that is to say, fixing the barn-roof while the son was shining, enough food could be stored, indeed hoarded, that later the world would be brought to its knees, their gold and silver worthless in the surrounding nations’ desperation to have something to eat.
Joseph was a visionary economist, whose rags to riches story inspires us never to give up. His talent, coupled with being in the right place at the right time, saw his fame rocket and eventually his whole family would come and bow down to him, which had been his fantasy since he was a teenager. God had not forgotten him even in his darkest days, and this inspires us with hope when we are feeling low. Tomorrow things may make a turn for the better.
Another would-be politician that we know from the Bible is Daniel. Best known for his survival of a night with the lions, his tale is another compelling one that depicts how he survived as a Jewish outsider in the court of the Babylonian King, Nebuchadnezzar. Similar to Joseph, Daniel was asked to interpret dreams but rather replied: "'The secret which the king has asked can neither wise men, enchanters, magicians, nor astrologers, declare to the king; but there is a God in heaven Who reveals secrets, and He has made known to the king Nebuchadnezzar what shall be in the end of days.” And from this answer we understand that the interpretation of dreams and the giving of political counsel, can be a perilously difficult and risky business.
Natalie – you have worked hard to reach your bat mitzvah today, and I hope that what you have achieved is the stuff that dreams are made of. You have gathered your family from far and wide, from Australia and the United States, your two grandmothers and your great aunt who has come to Asia for the first time, as well as your aunts and uncle, even your cousin who has flown in from Tokyo.
Natalie, we have talked a lot about different types of dreams and the difference between dreams and nightmares, day-dreams or night-dreams or visions. We have also discussed what greatness you can achieve with the hard work and application that must be coupled to your undoubted talents, perspiration and inspiration. And let me end by quoting Theodor Hertzl, who said more than a century ago that famous line: “If you want something, it’s not a dream.” That by yearning and working for a goal in equal measure, you can surely achieve it. Dreams can come true – as Gabrielle likes to sing – Dreams can come true, be they Israel or world peace or an A in your next examinations – if you, if we all, put every ounce of your being into achieving them.
Shabbat shalom and happy Chanukah!