A RAISIN IN THE SUN
“They reached the wadi Eshcol, and there they cut down a branch with a single cluster of grapes—it had to be borne on a carrying frame by two of them—and some pomegranates and figs.” (Numbers 13:23)
When we reach this week’s portion, I often think about Langston Hughes’ powerful poem Harlem: “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?” Lorraine Hansberry used the words of this poem as the title of one of the great plays in American theater history. It tells the story of a black family struggling in the southside of Chicago. One of the lines of the play still jumps out at me, as Mama says to her son who has disappointed her, “I ain’t never stop trusting you. Like I ain’t never stop loving you.” The poem and the play are not simply about black families struggling in America. They are about everyone who sees their dream for a better life deferred.
The main story of this portion is about a dream deferred. The Israelites are about to enter the Promised Land, “a land flowing with milk and honey.” But then ten of the twelve spies bring an evil report about the land. “There are giants who live there.” As a result, the entire people Israel are punished. They will wander the wilderness for forty years, and only their children will be allowed to enter the land.
The entire history of the land of Israel seems to be the history of a dream deferred. The Israelites enter the land, but then are exiled by the Babylonians. They are allowed to enter the land again, but then they are exiled by the Romans. The dream is deferred almost two millennia. Only then, with the founding of the modern state of Israel are the Jews allowed to enter the land for a third time. People scoffed at Theodore Herzl’s prediction that he would establish a Jewish state. He famously replied, im tirzu ain zo aggada, “If you will it, it is no dream.” The dream was deferred but never died. It did not dry up like a raisin in the sun.
What is true of the dreams of an entire people is also true of our individual dreams. We need dreams for our lives, things we hope to accomplish during our limited time on this earth. A life with no dreams is a sad one. Sometimes we are so busy with life, earning a living, raising a family, enjoying some recreation, that the dream is deferred over and over. As another great poet John Lennon said, “Life is what happens to you, while you’re busy making other plans.” Yes, life is what happens. But we still need plans, and we still need dreams.
This hit home for me as I faced my retirement. (It is really a quasi-retirement. I am no longer working at the big busy synagogue, but I am working at another synagogue. I am also teaching college.) But I had plans and dreams, often deterred during my working days. One of those plans was to start writing books again. I now have one new book published and another in the hands of an editor. I refuse to let the dreams dry up in the sun. I tell other people who retire that they may be retiring from a job, but they are not retiring from life. They need dreams and plans, projects to fill their days. It is what gives life a purpose.
Sometimes people ask me what they should dream. What should they plan for their lives? I ask them, what if you had unlimited money and unlimited time? What would you want to accomplish? What small thing can you do to add to the beauty of the world. I truly believe that God sent us here for a purpose, and we are alive because our work is not yet finished,
I began thinking about Hughes’ powerful image of a raisin drying up in the sun. Then I thought about this week’s portion. The symbol of the land of Israel which the spies carried out with them was a large branch with a cluster of grapes. This image of the cluster of grapes became the tourism symbol for the modern state of Israel. Grapes left in the sun become raisins and dry out. But these grapes, symbolizing the land, were large and fresh. They are a powerful symbol of a dream that is undeterred, a dream that refuses to die. This week is the perfect time to think about our own dreams. What dreams do we have that we will not allow to die?