Dreaming Big

In her 2002 album, entitled “Halos and Horns” Dolly Parton sings a ballad about an old mountain woman who people come to see from miles around. This woman had a special gift. As Dolly Parton tells it:

In a little pouch of burlap
Tied with a piece of twine
There were bones all shapes and sizes
Gathered through the course of time
She’d throw them out before you
She swore that she could see
The present, past, and future
She could read your destiny

These old bones, I shake and rattle
These old bones, I toss and roll
And it’s all in where they scatter
Tells you what the future holds.

Can the future be foretold?  Are our destinies determined at birth? Our parasha this opens with Jacob settling down in the Land of Canaan. Up to this point he has led a tumultuous life, filled with exile and wandering, with family strife, deception and much heartache. At the ripe old age of 130, hisold bones look forward to some rest and tranquility. His younger son, Joseph, however is disliked by his older brothers. This dislike turns to hatred as Joseph shares with them his dreams about his future. He dreams that one day his brothers and his father will bow down to him. Perhaps Joseph understands his dreams as prophetic, foretelling his and their destinies. His brothers clearly understand his dreams as aspirational and detest his naked ambition and what they see as his hunger for power and domination.

One of Joseph’s dreams was that the sun, the moon and the stars were bowing down to him. It is an interesting image because most people in the civilized world at that time thought that their destinies were governed by the stars, that their lives were determined by the position of the heavenly bodies at the time that they were born. The Akkadian language and culture, based in Mesopotamia, shaped the understanding of life for all of the people in the region, including the ancient Hebrews. The Akkadian word “mazeltu” means “position of a star” in an astrological chart. The word “mazel”, as in “mazel tov” came from this Akkadian word. When we say it we mean “congratulations” but its derivation puts its meaning closer to “may your stars bring you good fortune”.  A “shlimazel”, therefore is a Yiddish word for someone who is star crossed.

There is the old Yiddish joke: What is the difference between a shlimiel – one who is clumsy- and a “shlmazel” – a person who is unlucky. A shlimiel is a person who spills a cup of tea — a shlimazel is the person who gets it on his trousers.

The prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah cautioned the people against consulting astrologers to predict their future. The Rabbis of the Talmud accept the claims of astrology, but hold that they do not apply to the Jewish people.  The medieval sage Maimonides completely rejects the claims of astrologers, holding that the belief that the stars influence our fates is theologically incompatible with the concept of free will.

No one can foretell the future. The future is, to a large extent, in our hands.  In 2014, Israel’s President Shimon Peres addressed Congress on his receiving the Congressional Gold Medal. He concluded his remarks by saying:

“Ladies and Gentlemen, I leave you today with one piece of advice. It is the advice of a boy who dreamed on a kibbutz but who never imagined where his blessed life would take him. When Theodore Herzl said: “If you will it, it is no dream.” He was right. Looking back on the life of Israel, our dreams proved – Not to be too big – But too small.
“Because Israel achieved much more than I could have ever imagined. So I ask only one thing of you, the United States of America — this mighty nation of dreamers. Don’t dream small. You are great. Dream big. And work to will those dreams into a new reality. For you and all humanity.”

We should follow the advice of Shimon Peres and the example of Joseph about dreaming big – both as a nation and in our own lives.  They both achieved much more than they could have ever imagined – we could too, if we persist in our dreams, if we don’t give up on them, if we don’t allow ourselves to get discouraged.  Because there are obstacles to overcome and it is hard work, and because there is no guarantee that we will succeed. But still we must try. The author Norman Cousins once wrote, “The tragedy of life is not that we die, but what we let die inside of us while we live.”

In that Dolly Parton song, the old fortune teller, on her death bed, shares her final words with her daughter. After a lifetime of telling fortunes she confides her secret, “You just remember that the magic is inside you/ There is no crystal ball”.

Shabbat Shalom