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Imagination Redux

The power of human imagination is incredible.

If you’ve ever daydreamed or watched children play, you’ve experienced firsthand the ability to form images of things or ideas in the mind. When we read stories or consume different media, our minds light up with wonder and possibility, experiencing and feeling things that might not exist in the external world but are very real to us.

The ability to imagine is not trivial; the thoughts and beliefs generated in the internal world drive actions and behaviors that shape the external world.

But imagination isn’t simply idle daydreaming or fantasy, nor even just internal play we then act out externally. It’s a distinctly human quality to think about the future and plan for it, to conceptualize a possible future, and then try to make it a reality.

Without an imagination, you would be stuck living within the confines of what you already know. A world without imagination would be a world without creativity and would leave us with little capacity to experiment, explore, innovate, solve problems, or even entertain ourselves.

The capacity for imaginative thought is an exceptionally creative activity and arguably even a religious act – it is the tool that enables change. The power of imagination speaks to the core of not only who we are but also who we might become, and as such, aligns closely with our essential nature as beings created in the image of the Divine.

This profound understanding of imagination is vividly illustrated in the biblical narrative of Yosef and Yakov’s reunion.

Yosef’s brothers abducted him in childhood and trafficked him into slavery. They covered up their crime by telling their father a wild animal had mauled him, and Yakov lived unconsoled in all the years that followed. When fortune brought his brothers before him, Yosef took the opportunity to bring healing to his family, and Yakov went down to Egypt to see his long-lost son once more. In the pivotal moment, Yakov remarks that he never believed such a thing was possible:

וַיֹּאמֶר יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל־יוֹסֵף רְאֹה פָנֶיךָ לֹא פִלָּלְתִּי וְהִנֵּה הֶרְאָה אֹתִי אֱלֹהִים גַּם אֶת־זַרְעֶךָ – And Israel said to Yosef, “I never imagined I’d see you again, and now God has even let me see your children as well!” (48:11)

Our sages teach that at this moment, Yakov uttered Shema Yisrael, a centerpiece of Jewish prayer that affirms the unity and power of the Creator.

We might think that Yakov says this prayer out of appreciation; he is thankful for once again laying eyes on his son Yosef before he dies.

But his words suggest something deeper than gratitude, something much more like shock or surprise – לֹא פִלָּלְתִּי.

Rashi takes this expression to mean deliberative thinking or judgment. The Rashbam explains that Yakov never allowed himself to dare to hope he might see Yosef again. The Chizkuni understands it to mean that Yakov had not even prayed to see Yosef again, an impossible expectation given that a wild animal had killed him, noting that the word Yakov uses is cognate to the word for prayer – תפלה / פִלָּלְתִּי.

Or, as we might say today, Yakov never imagined that he might see Yosef again.

The suggestion of an association between prayer and imagination is exceptionally powerful. R’ Judah Mischel observes that the obvious implication is that part of prayer is allowing yourself to dare to imagine that things can be different or better, that something else is possible.

Taking these insights together, we come to understand that the moment of Yakov and Yosef’s reunion captures an essential teaching that the bounds of our imagination are not the limits of what is possible. As our sages teach, even with a sword resting on your neck, you must not give up; you should still pray for an escape.

Our capacity for imagination transcends mere thought and goes far beyond what we perceive as possible and deep into the realm of faith and hope. In fact, R’ Meilich Biderman teaches that the human predisposition towards hope and optimism is one of God’s greatest expressions of kindness.

R’ Moshe Sherer said that one of our greatest blessings is the ability to dream; the Ponevezher Rav sharply added that dreaming big is important, but be careful not to fall asleep.

We all face situations that seem impossibly far, irrevocably broken, and irretrievably lost. This story challenges us to dare envision a world beyond the confines of our current reality, to pray, hope, and work towards the seemingly impossible because absurdly improbable things happen all the time.

Fuse your prayers with the power of imagination – not as an escape from reality, but as a bridge from the inner world to a brighter, better world that might still be possible.