When my son Jeremy was 4, I took him to the Zimmer Children’s Museum, near my home in Los Angeles. The exhibit includes a replica of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, with paper for children to write their prayers and insert them between the stones of the wall. I explained this idea to Jeremy, and encouraged him to draw his prayer. He drew an indecipherable scribble on the page and stuck it inside the wall.
I wondered, what was his deepest longing. Was it for a new toy? World peace? Out of curiosity, I asked Jeremy, “What did you pray for?” He replied simply, “A play date with Evan, ” he said, referring to a classmate. That night, after Jeremy went to sleep, I e-mailed Evan’s mom to arrange a play date for the following week. If only, all of our prayers could be answered so easily.
This week’s Torah portion also recounts a boy’s wish. The parsha is called Vayeshev (and he settled) because Jacob has returned to his homeland of Canaan. In the beginning of the parsha, Joseph tells his brothers about his dreams. As a teenager, Joseph had visions of grandeur; he dreamed that his brothers and his parents would all bow down to him.
By the end of the parsha, the complete opposite of Joseph’s dreams has occurred. Joseph is forgotten and alone in prison. There, ironically, Joseph becomes a dream interpreter. Rather than fulfilling his own dreams, Joseph helps others understand their dreams. This shift ultimately leads to his liberation, when the cupbearer whose dreams he interpreted in prison eventually recommends him to Pharaoh. When Joseph’s goals change from dominating others to helping others, his life begins anew. As a statesman to Pharaoh, Joseph eventually attains the stature that he envisioned as a youth, but only by helping the Egyptians through the famine, which became his life’s purpose.
All this focus on dreams forces us to ask ourselves: What are our deepest aspirations? Like the young Joseph, do we dream of fortune and fame? Or like the elder statesman, do we aspire to serve the community in which we live?
This holiday season may force us to face which of our dreams have come true and which haven’t. As we run around shopping for presents we may not be able to afford, we confront our financial dreams which, for so many of us, have come crashing down this past year. However, upon reflection, we may discover that other dreams have come true, such as having good people to share our lives with and the chance to help others. Indeed, the holiday of Hanukkah celebrates a dream – Jewish survival and autonomy – that has come true against all odds, both in ancient times and in our own day.
This Hanukkah, my deepest prayer is the one that Jeremy wrote in the wall. May this holiday be filled with play dates with friends and family, and may all our worthy dreams come true.
Rabbi Ilana Grinblat teaches rabbinic literature at the American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their two young children.