In a money-management book I recently read, I came across an interesting anecdote about the log jam. Many years ago, loggers would cut trees and float them downriver to the mill where they were processed into lumber. Inevitably, a log jam would occur: too many logs got stuck around a bend in the river, clogging the passageway and preventing any further movement downstream.

What would the loggers do? To extricate the heavy logs from the water was nigh impossible, but the logs needed to continue moving. So they would throw in a handful of dynamite, blowing up some of the logs and allowing the remainder to dislodge and resume floating downstream.

In finances, the log jam translates into that moment when you’re saving every penny you have, buying only what you can afford, and remaining steadfastly committed to becoming debt-free, carefully guiding your logs down the river—but then you reach a complete wall. You’ve done everything right, but you simply don’t have another penny and you must swipe the credit card to pay for your next pair of shoes. You feel stuck.

At that moment, you must throw in some dynamite and blow up some logs. You have to shake things up dramatically, doing something radical to find a few extra dollars. The book I was reading suggested staging a yard sale, getting yet another job, or selling everything you have (almost until your kids are afraid you might sell them, too!).

The Euphoria of Squeezing Grapes into Pharaoh’s Cup

What’s true in finances is true in religious life, and well, life in general: Sometimes, you have to blow things up and do something radically different from what you’ve been doing until now.

This idea has solid roots, stretching back to a curious place—the butler’s dream recounted in this week’s parshah.

After being thrown into jail for a crime he did not commit, young Joseph awakes one morning and greets two of his cellmates—a baker and a butler. Noticing their long faces, he asks, “Why do you look sad today?”

Both relate disturbing dreams they had had the previous night. We’ll leave the baker’s dream for another day and focus on the butler’s. The butler describes seeing himself surveying three growing vines, taking the grapes, and squeezing them into Pharaoh’s cup. Joseph interprets the dream as an indication of the butler’s imminent return to his post, which indeed occurs.

In a remarkable essay, the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chabad Chassidism, unveils the cosmic narrative behind this intrigue of Egyptian inmates and their nocturnal visions.

There’s a lot to cover, so we’ll focus on one point:

The grape holds a prominent place in Kabbalistic and Chassidic thought. Home to arguably the world’s oldest and happiest juice, the grape represents the G‑dly soul within you that is home to an ancient and very happy force—the joy she experiences as a result of her passionate love for G‑d. You see, the soul is naturally in love with her Creator—the sort of heady, euphoric love, represented in a piquant glass of wine.

The metaphor continues with the imagery of the wine being squeezed into Pharoah’s cup: Very counterintuitively, in Kabbalistic thought Pharoah represents G‑d Himself. Beyond the simple imagery of a king, the representation is reflected in the very word “Pharaoh,” which in Hebrew means to “expose.” It’s the type of exposure that occurs when you rip the cover off a million-dollar painting at Sotheby’s—when the value and quality burst onto the scene—and it represents an overwhelming G‑dly presence.

So, to “squeeze grapes into Pharaoh’s cup” is a sort of spiritual bliss, when all systems are working and the natural love your soul has for G‑d is alive and streaming into G‑d’s cup, fully exposed and at full blast. It’s the type of “peak spirituality” we envision of the most pious when they sway in prayer, wrapped in a tallit and jumping with holy exuberance. Or the seasoned scholars steeped in Torah, who twirl their thumbs in glee as they discover yet another insight, another layer of G‑dly wisdom.

Escape the Blockage

Images of people swaying in exuberant prayer and scholars pounding delightedly on tables makes for vivid poetry, but the problem is that for the average person, it’s a long shot. As much as you’d like to be there, it’s usually not the case. Sure, you may try to pray from time to time, to study and connect with the spirituality of the moment, but it typically falls flat.

You have what Kabbalah calls an acute case of “blockage.” While you have a beating soul, a fiery engine of spirituality inside of you, its pathway to expression is blocked. It’s stuck in a logjam.

What are the logs?

They are the endless hours of work, television, eating, drinking, and just mundane life. The days, weeks, and years that pile on in an endless, mindless cycle of material engagement. Sure, it’s all necessary stuff, but the deep commitment we have to football and the local steakhouse get in the way of spiritual euphoria. After all, you can only be on fire and passionate about one thing at a time. If your field of vision is filled with Monday Night Football, it’s going to be very hard to stick prayer and study in there as well.

In the metaphor, you’re drinking the wine of spirituality from time to time (not the kool-aide!), but it’s not doing the trick. It’s not bringing you any joy. You feel like a dud.

What to do?

Let’s go back to the wine. You see, wine is a funny thing. When you drink a nice glass or two, it makes you happy and fuzzy inside. When you drink a whole bottle or two, suffice it to say that you’re probably not going to be very happy, and you most certainly won’t feel very good inside.

You’ll just be drunk.

Not ignoring all the horribly negative repercussions of drinking too much, there’s something to be learned from someone in that state: the recognition that the current state of affairs is not working and the drive to simply blow it up. Of course, no one should seek to escape with a round of drinks, but it’s certainly worth considering the matters in your life that aren’t working and could use some torpedoing.

In a religious context, the torpedo may look something like this: It’s time to tell yourself that though you have subscriptions to Netflix and ESPN, and a credit card with amazing rewards for money spent on dining, you can choose not to use them. Let the subscription expire; the restaurant industry will be fine without you. By changing course, you blow up the blockage, and now you’re ready to experience real spiritual growth.

Radical Departure

What’s true in our spiritual life is true in all of life.

Sometimes, your current way of thinking and your tried-and-tested methods just aren’t working.

The business strategy you so carefully planned and ran past a panel of 13 executives yields no results.

The endless conversations you’ve had with your spouse don’t improve your marriage.

The parenting guidelines you picked up in the last 15 workshops are making your kids think you’re either crazy, stupid, or maybe both.

That friend you’ve been chasing for 10 years still kicks you to the curb every time she’s finished using you.

Sure, you can keep trying, but there comes a moment when it’s time to blow things up, to reset the current reality, and try radically change.

Maybe you need to consider a different line of business.

Maybe you need to get professional help for your marriage.

Maybe you need to change your lifestyle and give yourself more time at home to be with your kids to be a better parent.

If you’re stuck in a rut and it’s just not working, consider the log jam, and blow things up. I’ll meet you downstream at the sawmill.