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November 17, 2013 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Vayeshev

This week’s portion is all about Joseph- first his troubled boyhood and enslavement, then his rise and fall (and part of his later rise) in Egypt.  It ends with two dreams by imprisoned court officials, both of whom confess their dreams to Joseph and get their dreams interpreted.

For my purposes, the most interesting dream is that of the king’s baker, who dreams that he is balancing bread for the king on his head, and that birds then fly above the bread and start eating it (Gen. 40:17).  Joseph interprets the dream to mean that in three days the king will execute the baker, and his flesh will be eaten by the birds.

Where’d Joseph’s inspiration come from? If one relies solely on the Torah’s text, this might seem like prophecy out of the proverbial blue.  But Scharfstein throws in an interesting point that makes the whole episode a bit more complex.  He cites an Egyptian book on dreams stating that birds in a dream are a bad sign, with the word “bad” highlighted in red.  Since Joseph had spent a few years in Egypt by this point, he might already be aware of this concept, and interpreted the baker’s dream accordingly.  (Or if you want to treat the story as a parable of some sort rather than a work of history, you might say that the author threw in a common Egyptian idea to make the story more realistic).

Joseph’s use of Egyptian cultural motifs brings out an interesting question: do what extent should we, as Jews, use the phraseology and concepts (or for that matter, the language) of the larger culture around us? In our time, different groups of Jews employ different strategies.

Haredim tend to speak in Hebrew and Yiddish as much as possible, in order to create a common culture distinct from the outside culture.  Even where the primary language is English, it is full of linguistic touches different from that of other English speakers.*  Where Jews are already ghettoized, this linguistic difference keeps them in the ghetto.

But where Jews are already part of the outside society and already speak the dominant language, they may not be reachable in some other language.  For example, in the early 20th century rabbis mostly preached in Yiddish, and some Orthodox rabbis argued that it was even halachically impermissible to preach or pray in English.  This sort of mentality made Orthodoxy seem completely irrelevant to my parents’ English-speaking generation, and may be one reason why it took some decades for Orthodoxy to get back on its feet.  Today, the Josephs of the world have won the argument; in modern Orthodox communities people mostly speak standard American English and talk about American culture, and even haredim have usually met Americans halfway by speaking in somewhat-less-standard English.

*For an extensive discussion of “frum English” (focusing on yeshivish and right wing modern orthodox communities), you may wish to read the book Becoming Frum.

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