This time of year pulls at such extremes: holiday uplift and gratitude comes with the longing for people far away and the weight of people no longer here, the missed connections, and the messed up connections. There’s an unsettled churning in the mind, the spirit, and the weather that reminds us how little control we really have.
At this time of year, there’s just so much that reminds us of our powerlessness.
And then, at this very time of year of shorter days and longer nights, of longing and louder demons, the torah gives us Joseph, the powerful dreamer. He wields the power of dreams – experiencing them, interpreting them, and hearing God through them. And even more remarkable, he’s not afraid of his power. His power doesn’t come to him because of some leap of faith, like Abraham; or a great trauma, like Isaac; or theft and manipulation, like Jacob. His power is a part of who he is..
How many of us are afraid not only of our powerlessness, but perhaps even more so of our power? What if I fail? What if they find out I’m a fraud? What if I’m not as good as I thought I was? What if I’m as powerful as other people say I am?
Unlike so many of us, Joseph is unafraid of his power. And like so many of us, he’s also unskillful with it.
In his youth, when he tells his brothers about his dream in which sheaves of wheat representing his brothers bowed down to the sheaf of wheat representing Joseph, they “hate him even more” (Bereshit 36:7-8). And later, when he tells both his brothers and his father about the sun, moon, and stars bowing down to him, his father responds:
“Is this dream you have dreamed? Are we to come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow low to you to the ground?” (Bereshit 37:10).
Joseph has no sense of how sharing his dreams impacts him and the people around him.
We can blame his youth, but how many of us move through life ignoring that we have an impact on more than just ourselves? Or that our past actions affect us in the present? This forgetting our impact is forgetting our power. And when we forget our power, we can easily shirk responsibility for what we do with it. It’s not that our power goes away, it’s more that: wielding it ineptly, we cause damage and destruction when otherwise our mindful use of power could cause great good.
But we can learn to be skillful with our power. That is what t’shuvah teaches us: how to be skillful with our power; our impact on ourselves, on others, on our community, and even on God.
Each of us is powerful, whether or not we can interpret dreams or make beautiful art or donate lots of money. Our power is in the way we impact ourselves, the people around us, and the world. Joseph comes at this very time of year to teach us that even in the face of the powerlessness of changing seasons, the powerlessness of addiction, the powerlessness of loss and grief, we do have power, and we must take responsibility not only for what we can’t control, but for what we can control.
I was talking to a resident recently about losses in his life. A friend of his died a couple of weeks ago and it reminded him of grief neglected – of a friend who died last December from COVID. They hadn’t been on good terms at the time of death, but they’d been friends since they were nine years old. And what could be done now? Actions that these dear friends would look and smile upon. Commitments in their names. These actions don’t fix the past, but they help the present and give us a future.
When I use my power skillfully – when I choose mindful, positive impact – I change how I relate to my past by living in the present and giving myself a future.
During this time of year that reminds us of our powerlessness, what will you do with your power?
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukkah,