Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Table Talk -- Miketz 5768

In his 17th Meditation, Anglican Priest John Donne writes of “for whom the bells tolls,” using the imagery of the ringing bell to signify God’s call to action. He explains,

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

The imagery of the bell strikes us strongly (pun intended), and really works as metaphor for a personal message from God. God does indeed ring a personal bell for each of us, and it’s up to us to listen and hear that toll when it comes. Yet, from where does Donne derive this image? Does he make it up on his own? Far from it. He lifts the powerful language from our parshah.

The Torah tells us that one night Par’oh dreams two disturbing dreams that he cannot understand. The thin cows eat the fat cows; the weak stalks eat the strong stalks – and yet he cannot fathom their meaning. These powerful dreams haunt Par’oh to the point that he even unearths a Hebrew slave – Yosef - from prison to interpret them. In describing Par’oh’s state of mind, the Torah uses wonderful language, telling us, ויהי בבקר ותפעם רוחו – “and it was in the morning, and his spirit was troubled.” (41:8)

The Midrash, wondering about the meaning of the word ותפעם – which we translate as “and was troubled,” explains that it means that היתה מקשת עליו כפעמון הזה – “that [the dream] was beating upon him like a bell.” (The word ותפעם shares the same root as the word פעמון – bell.) Apparently, the bell did indeed toll – but it tolled first for Par’oh in Egypt.