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Parashat Vayigash 5781

December 25, 2020

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Encouraging ALL Our Children to Dream
A D’var Torah for Parashat Vayigash
By Rabbi Marc Rudolph (’04)

This week in our parasha we continue to read about that dreamer par excellence, Joseph. The second youngest child among 12 sons, he dreams of his older brothers one day bowing down to him. His brothers ridicule him for his dreaming, and his father, Jacob, rebukes him for sharing his dreams and causing trouble in the family. But Jacob also takes his son’s dream seriously.

Joseph’s dreams express his ambition to someday be great. In this week’s parasha he uses his extraordinary talents to rise to become second in command to the Pharaoh in Egypt. In that position he will save the country from famine and help Pharaoh to amass a considerable fortune in the process. His achievements will have surpassed his wildest dreams.

Have you noticed that in the Torah the dreamers are all men? What about women and their dreams in the Bible? The biblical scholar Phyliss Trible notes that women in the Bible can be prophets, they can be wise women and sages, they can be singers and composers of songs, but there is no woman in the Bible who is a dreamer. If women in the Bible have their own dreams, their own ambitions apart from those of their fathers, husbands, sons and brothers, we are not told about them.

In this respect, the Bible might be an accurate reflection of our present-day culture. Studies have shown that females, and especially teen-age girls, believe that they will never be able to fulfill their dreams. Many believe that they are not smart enough, good enough, or deserving enough, to achieve their ambitions in life. Therefore, they inhibit themselves from exploring possibilities for the future and imagining greatness for themselves. When they do have dreams, they may not have the confidence to pursue them. We all know, however, thatthis is not because women intrinsically or naturally lack confidence in themselves. Rather, research shows that in our culture, ambition is viewed as a positive trait when seen in men, but a negative trait when expressed by women. Women who are seen by others as ambitious and aspiring are also viewed as pushy, selfish and unlikeable. According to surveys, the top three qualities Americans admire in a man are honesty, financial and professional success and ambition. These same surveys show that the top three qualities Americans admire in a woman are physical attractiveness, kindness and intelligence. “Ambition”, a characteristic so valued in a man, is noticeably absent from the description of what we admire in a woman.

It stands to reason, then, when women are bold enough to express personal ambition, they often find that the adults in their lives discourage them. Mark Twain called these people “dream busters” and cautioned us to stay clear of them. “Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions,” he advises, “Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.”

Fortunate indeed is the young girl who has parents who will nurture her dreams. Jessica Meir was one such young girl. A few years ago Jessica tweeted out a Hanukkah greeting that included a photograph of her holiday themed socks. What made this communication so special was that Jessica tweeted from the International Space Station where she is one of two female astronauts. In October, 2019 she and her fellow female astronaut, Christina Koch, made history by becoming the first two women to go on a space-walk together. Since 1965 there have been 227 space walkers, 14 of them women. But never, until this year, has a woman spacewalked walked with another female astronaut as her partner.

Jessica Meir was born and raised in Caribou, Maine. Hers was the only Jewish family in town. There was no synagogue in Caribou, so she had her bat mitzvah in the synagogue in Presque Isle, a nearby town. Jessica’s first distinct memory of the ambition to be an astronaut was in first grade. When the teacher asked her class to draw a picture of what they wanted to be when they grew up Jessica drew a picture of an astronaut in a spacesuit standing on the surface of the moon. When asked about the parental support she had for nurturing her dream, she described the love of nature she learned from her mother, and her father’s fondness for wandering and adventure. “It might also have had something to do with the fact that the stars shone so brightly in rural Maine,” Meir added.

In studying Jessica’s trajectory to fulfilling her dreams, we can learn several principles. The first principle is, don’t be afraid of dreaming big dreams. In allowing ourselves the freedom to dream we discover our passion, and following our passion is the pathway to a rewarding life. The second principle is that we all need someone to help interpret our dreams, to offer us guidance, to support us in taking the steps necessary to achieving our ambitions. At the age of 13, Meir attended a Youth Space Camp at Purdue University, an indication of the parental support she received at a very young age. The third principle is that we need to do the hard work necessary in order to make our dreams come true. Jessica Meir earned a Bachelor of Science in biology from Brown University, a Masters in Space Studies from the International Space University in Strasbourg, France, and a doctorate in Marine biology. Her fieldwork in the Antarctica included scuba diving with penguins under the ice which prepared her for adapting and surviving in extreme environments. When she applied to the NASA space program, she was one of eight out of 6300 applicants accepted for the astronaut class.

Jessica Meir is but one stellar example of a girl who aimed high and used her extraordinary talents to pursue her ambition by doing the long, arduous, and necessary work to make her dreams come true. She did it with the support and encouragement of her parents, teachers and others who encouraged her along the way. It is a reminder to us all that when the children in our lives, girls and boys, express their dreams, we need to listen and encourage them. We need to take their dreams seriously whether we are parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends, coaches or teachers. We should encourage young people to let their imaginations soar and discover what they feel passionate about. We should not tell them “why they can’t”. Rather we should tell them “how they might”. As Jacob did with his son Joseph, we too should take our children’s dreams seriously.
Marc Rudolph (AJR 04) is Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom in Naperville, Illinois.