Last week at the NU Hillel Orthodox Minyan, Rabbi Michael Balinsky led us through a wonderful teaching of the 19th century Hasidic master Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, who is better known by the title of his major work, the Sefas Emes. The particular teaching that Rabbi Balinsky brought was an elaboration of the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. One of the significant elements of that story is that at the moment that Mrs. Potiphar makes her attempt to seduce him, Joseph does not hesitate, but immediately runs outside. The Sefas Emes picks up on this point and says that what really happened was that God took away Joseph’s ability to choose, and left him with only one possible action. This, according to the Sefas Emes, is actually the highest level of freedom, achieved only by the very righteous. In fact, he says, the moment when God takes away the possibility of choice is precisely the moment when a human being is most free.

It’s a powerful teaching, and one that can be easily misunderstood and abused. But it comes to mind in light of my post last week about the emphasis on seeing clearly in the Joseph story (and the resonance of that theme with our own Madoff-induced haze). And it has further implications in relation to this week’s Torah reading, Miketz, in which dreams turn out to be the bearers of a deeper reality than is attainable through conscious means. First the dream of Pharaoh’s butler and baker turn out to be true; then Pharaoh’s own dreams come to fruition; and finally Joseph’s early dreams about his family bowing down before him are made manifest in the real world. 

The question pulsating beneath these narratives and the words of the Sefas Emes is this: What is real, and how do we know? While Freud did his part to redeem the notion that our dreams are bearers of truth, we generally tend to think of a dream as “only a dream.” Joseph’s story wants to tell us otherwise, at least in when it comes to the dreams of this particular individual, or, more accurately, to his ability to interpret them. Dreams, when apprehended correctly, turn out to be more true than the rational thoughts we think all day long. A paradox to ponder.

Beyond that, the Sefas Emes is gesturing at an even deeper paradox, which is that alignment between our will and God’s will is something that happens–at least according to him–through a related process of being released from the very thing which makes us human, the ability to make choices. This has some relationship to the Christian notion of grace, and sounds very foreign to those of us with modernist sensibilities. But if we listen to our own experience, we may find that it’s true to us too: Sometimes the right choice is so plainly obvious to us, so clear, that there is no choice. In those moments, we act with the faith that our will and God’s will are aligned.

Later in the week I had the additional pleasure of studying some more Hasidic texts with Rabbi Balinsky. This time we looked at writings related to Hannukah. One of them, from the Kedushas Levi of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, built on the idea that the miracle of Hannukah was not that the oil lasted for eight days when it should only have lasted for one, but that the Maccabees had the desire to light the menorah in the first place. Since they demonstrated their faith that this was the right thing to do, God reciprocated by making the oil last for eight days.

The important point here is that, like us, the Maccabees had no divine voice telling them that theirs was the right course of action. They relied on their own powers of discernment, their own knowledge, which came from a deeper place than rationality. When we light the Hannukah candles, we are demonstrating the same courage, and we remind ourselves that sometimes knowing the right answer is both simpler and more difficult than we thought before.

Shabbat shalom and Happy Hannukah.