Parashat Vayeshev: The Butler's Dream of Redemption
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The butler's dream of redemption and its link to the Jewish People, Chanukah, and agriculture. Is the east side of the Jordan River considered a land "flowing with milk and honey"? And the historic-halachic importance of the ancient city Regev.
"ובגפן שלושה שריגים והיא כפורחת עלתה ניצה הבשילו אשכלותיה ענבים"
"On the vine were three branches. As it was budding its blossoms shot forth and its clusters ripened into grapes." (Bereishit 40:10)
Rabbi Elazar HaModa'i says: "Vine"; this is Jerusalem. "Three branches"'; is the Temple, the king, and the High Priest. "As it was budding its blossoms shot forth"; are the young priests. "And its clusters ripened into grapes"; are the [wine] libations. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi interprets it as the gifts [that G-d gave the Jewish People] … "Vine"; is the Torah. "Three branches"; are the well, the pillar of cloud, and the manna. "As it was budding its blossoms shot forth"; are the first fruits. "And its clusters brought forth ripe grapes"; are the [wine] libations. (Chullin 92a)
A breath of fresh air in prison
These homiletical interpretations, part of a long list of others on the same verse, are breathtaking. Even without understanding the significance of each detail, anyone who comes across them while reading the biblical account—about a senior Egyptian official who "sinned against Pharoah," on the backdrop of the Egyptian prison—gets an unexpected breath of fresh air. If we consider the plain meaning of the verses, they deal with a man completely entrenched in materialism, the only thing on his mind being how to return to his former position (or simply get out of prison alive!). These interpretations, though, take us to different places altogether—certainly not ones we would expect to encounter in this dank, dark cell.
The question, then, is: what's the connection? How can it be that our Sages found such exalted references in the dream of Pharaoh's butler? People only dream about what their mind is occupied with during the day. We can assume that the ex-butler didn't give much thought to the Jews' redemption—inside or outside of prison.
It seems that this is precisely the point. Our Sages wanted to teach us that even when we are in the throes of darkness, at the lowest point possible—both physically and spiritually—we can still take a deep breath of fresh, mountain air.
We can't fathom what was on Yosef's mind during his many years far from home. It is entirely plausible that it was something along the lines of: "What am I doing here? How is it that I, son of Ya'akov, one of the pillars of G-d's chariot, have become the slave of the most degraded and spiritually depraved of nations?" Such thoughts can lead to total despair, which then certainly leads to falling both spiritually and physically, since: "I can’t actualize my potential anyway; why don't I just enjoy this world while I can?"
Yosef didn't take this route. An inner voice prodded him to keep going. He did his best to excel wherever G-d put him, while maintaining his spiritual dignity and avoiding "sinning to G-d," his rejoinder to Potifar's wife, following her repeated attempts to seduce him. This is what occupied his thoughts—not what Potifar might do should he catch Yosef.
Why does Yosef try to excel? What does he gain from it? It seems that Yosef himself didn't know why he was at the time, but one thing he did understand: this was where G-d stationed him. Even if he didn't understand everything, he had to do his job in the best way possible. In hindsight, we know how everything led up to Yosef's appointment as viceroy of Egypt to save the nascent Jewish People and bring them down to Egypt. There it would be enslaved and ultimately become a nation worthy of receiving the Torah, with which it would then be able to rectify the world.
The butler's dream expresses inner truths
The butler's story is not interesting in and of itself; the clashes in the paranoiac courts (and there were many!) are generally not chronicled in the Torah. The significant part of the saga is the butler's second appearance on the scene, at the beginning of Miketz, when referring Yosef to Pharaoh thanks to their encounter in prison. This, in turn, paves the way for Yosef to quickly ascend to the top of the royal pyramid.
Just like anyone else, when the butler slept, his soul (or nefesh, to be precise; only Jews have a neshama) ascended to Heaven, and saw many things. Here, it seems, the butler encountered the great visions of creation, but in his limited understanding he could only grasp the parable. When Yosef interpreted the dream, he tailored it to the butler's level of understanding. However, that does not mean that this is the most exalted dimension of its interpretation.
It might be more precise to say that the true significance of the dream is our Sages' interpretations, while the one Yosef gave the butler was but a pale reflection of the dream's true meaning. The dream was essentially about the grand vision, in which the Jewish People settle in its land, with all the resources it needs to accomplish its role in this world. As interpreted by R' Elazar HaModa'i, one of the redemption-minded rabbis who supported the Bar Kochba Revolt.
The ancient Amora of the Land of Israel, R' Yehoshua ben Levi, adds an interpretation that isn’t so different than that of R' Elazar HaModa'i, yet it connects the spiritual to the physical in a more profound manner. Even the physical grapes—the same grapes the butler was so intimately familiar with—have a purpose in rectifying the world, when used as wine libations on the altar of the Beit Hamikdash. While this ultimate purpose is also mentioned by R' Elazar HaModai, R' Yehoshua ben Levi adds that there is also a bond between the physical and the spiritual: the water, manna, and physical protection came to the desert in a spiritual manner. The ultimate purpose of the Land of Israel's fruit is to bring it to the Beit Hamikdash and pour wine libations there; yet the ability to elevate the physical stems from the Torah, symbolized by the grapevine, from which everything originates. Our Sages' reading of these verses, similar to many other places, is to teach us to interpret correctly not only biblical accounts, but also our lives as individuals and as a nation, where we keep sight of the fact that the ultimate goal at every stage, at every up and down, is to reveal the kingship of Hashem in this world.
And second place is: Regev
"Tekoa is best for its oil … Second to it is Regev, on the other side of the Jordan River" (Menachot 8:3).
"There are brought and recited over … and from oil-olives from the other side of the Jordan River. Rabbi Yose the Galilean says: we do not bring first fruits from the other side of the Jordan, since it is not "the land flowing with milk and honey" [that the verse describes]" (Bikurim 1:10).
Transjordan: a land flowing with milk and honey?
Chanukah: the deadline for bikurim
The mitzvah of bikurim is divided into three periods, the first of which is from Shavuot to Sukkot. This time is considered a period of rejoicing, which is why the bikurim can be brought then, and when brought to the Beit Hamikdash the fruit bearer reads the parashat habikurim text at the beginning of Ki Tavo. The second period is from Sukkot to Chanukah. Despite the fact fruit is still ripening (pomegranates, dates, and olives) at this period, it is not considered a time of rejoicing (according to the first opinion brought in the Mishna, which we follow in practice). For this reason, although we can still bring bikurim, we cannot read the related biblical verses. The third period is Chanukah to Shavuot, when fruit of the seven species no longer ripens; at this time bikurim is no longer brought. Chanukah, then, is the official end of the agricultural year, and thus also for the mitzvah of bikurim. Perhaps this can shed light on why kabbalists view Chanukah as the time for the final sealing of the judgement from the Days of Awe, since agriculturally Chanukah marks the absolute end of the agricultural year. The upcoming holiday of Chanukah is a wonderful opportunity to take a look at the mitzvah of bikurim, especially with relation to olive oil.
Bikurim from the land flowing with milk and honey
The Mishna states that oil olives should be brought specifically from the "other side of the Jordan River," since its olives are of excellent quality (according to the Rash; the Rambam holds that one can bring bikurim from all over the Land of Israel, which includes the east side of the Jordan River, but not limited to there). However, R' Yose HaGelili disagrees, maintaining that bikurim should not be brought from east of the Jordan River, since that area is not considered a "land flowing with milk and honey." Since this expression is mentioned in the verses discussing bikurim, it stands to reason that bikurim should only be brought from "the land flowing with milk and honey," a description that does not fit the Transjordan area.
There are two possible ways to explain R' Yose HaGelili's opinion. This could be a realistic description of the situation: that is, on the "other side of the Jordan River" there might be plenty of top-quality oil olives, but not outstanding quantities of milk and honey, as we find in various regions in the Land of Israel (and there are many famous Talmudic accounts of the outstanding fertile qualities of the Land of Israel).
It could be, though, that R' Yose HaGelili is not relating to the agricultural quality of the Transjordan area; that he views "a land flowing with milk and honey" as a spiritual-halachic definition, rather than an agricultural rating. In this way, for example, should we find an exceptionally fertile area in Australia, it would not receive the moniker "a land flowing with milk and honey." In this context, it is interesting to note that Rabbeinu Bechaye views the term "land flowing with milk and honey" as having spiritual meaning. That is, the Land of Israel has the ability to merge opposites, such as rachamin, mercy and din, strict justice, hinted at by milk and honey.
Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda HaKohen Kook took this one step further (based on his father's works): The Land of Israel has the ability to bring out something pure from the impure (kosher honey from an impure bee), and the permitted from something forbidden (milk from an animal, which is meaty). It could be that these qualities pertain mainly to the Land of Cana'an, the western side of the Land of Israel, and less so to the east of the Jordan River, which is why the term "a land flowing with milk and honey," in its spiritual sense, would not apply there.
In practice, Rambam rules (Hilchot Bikurim 2:1) that bikurim are also brought from the "cities of Sichon and Og," in keeping with the initial opinion cited in the Mishna, but then only as a rabbinic obligation. That is, according to the Rambam, even the first opinion agrees with Rabbi Yose HaGelili that the eastern side of the Jordan River is not a land flowing with milk and honey, and thus not subject to bikurim. However, he believes that miderabanan, one still should bring bikurim from this area (for a detailed discussion on this topic, see the article by Rabbi Yigal Ariel in his book Bikurei Ha'aretz).
Oil and the Battle at Regev
Regev, winner of the silver medal for the menachot offerings in the Beit Hamikdash, in the competition for the best quality olive oil, is an ancient city on the eastern side of the Jordan River. In the past, Regev was identified with the biblical Argov region, situated in the kingdom of Og, in the Bashan area. This opinion is no longer accepted. Regev is currently identified with Kafr Rajîb, situated in the Gilad region, several kilometers south of the `Ajlun region, and 20 km west of Jarash, in parallel latitude to central Samaria. Aside from its importance vis-à-vis olive oil manufacture, Regev is famous thanks to the positive turn of events in Hasmonean chronicles that occurred there. During his battle campaign to conquer east of the Jordan River area, Hasmonean King Alexander Yanai (Jannaeus Alexander), who affiliated with the Sadducees, fell in battle. His death occurred in 76 BCE, when he and his army besieged the fortress of Regev. King Yanai was succeeded by his widow, Queen Shlomtzion (Salome Alexandra). The queen was a Pharisee sympathizer and completed the conquest of Regev. Jews resided in Regev even after the Temple's destruction, and the city is included in the list of those obligated in ma'aserot (Tosefta Shevi'It 4:10).