The Key To Interpreting Dreams


‘And Pharaoh said to Joseph, I had a dream last night, and no one is able to interpret it” [Genesis 41:15].

There is an unusual symmetry in the portions of Miketz and Vayeshev, both of which deal almost exclusively with the rise and fall (in Vayeshev) and the fall and rise (in Miketz) of Joseph.

Vayeshev begins with an introduction to Joseph. His father adores him, giving him the cloak of many colors. Yet, by the end of Vayeshev, Joseph is in prison. It is the final degradation in a series of degradations arising from his loose tongue and provocative dreams. He is cast into a pit and sold into slavery in Egypt.

Miketz ends with Joseph still in prison, but almost immediately we witness his rise and emergence as a national leader. The child dreamer becomes second only to the Pharaoh, and secretary of treasury, labor and agriculture all in one.

Rabbi Isaac Bernstein suggests the method behind the symmetry: Joseph is doomed to begin his descent because his dreams are self-absorbed, his sole interest lying in communicating his own dreams of self-aggrandizement to others. By the beginning of Miketz, Joseph is listening to the dreams of others, and using those dreams to help the others. Once one begins listening to other people’s dreams one is ready to ascend and achieve true leadership.

The key to Joseph’s dream interpretation lies in a new-found ability to listen. Remember that Elijah receives a vision teaching him that God’s presence is to be found in a small silent voice, “kol demama daka.” How can a voice be silent? The adviser’s voice must be silent in order to listen very carefully to the words of the supplicant. Proper advice can only emerge from carefully listening and empathizing with the individual who speaks out of desperation and travail. Only when one understands that can one offer proper advice.

When the wine steward revealed his dream (and dreams are always a key to the hidden and subconscious thoughts and aspirations of the dreamer) of ‘squeezing grapes into Pharaoh’s cup, and then placing the cup in Pharaoh’s hand’ [Gen. 40:11], it became clear to Joseph that the wine steward only wanted to continue to serve his master, that he had no trace of a guilty conscience, and so he would be found innocent and returned to service.

The chief baker’s dream, on the other hand, is very different. He dreams of birds snatching the loaves of bread from the basket on his head. The birds, or nature, are out to get him, and often paranoid people have reason to feel guilty. Joseph listened well and surmised that the chief baker was guilty and would be hanged.

Similar was the case of Pharaoh’s dream. Joseph understood that Pharaoh’s concern was the economic well-being of Egypt. If Pharaoh was frightened of economic disaster, the best way for Joseph to overcome that concern was to present a plan of prevention: “Now let Pharaoh seek out a man, understanding and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt in the seven years of plenty. And let them store up all the food of those good years, and pile up corn under the hand of Pharaoh… that the land shall not be cut off through the famine” [Gen. 41: 33–37].

The Joseph of Miketz did not shout his dreams to others, rather, he listened carefully to the dreams of others, and was ready to be of service wherever possible. Only this new Joseph could be expected to rise and remain on top.

Joseph’s earlier dreams, that led to his descent, echoed Jacob’s dream: “A ladder standing on the ground (earth), its top reached up toward heaven … God’s angels were going up and down on it…”  Joseph, too, dreams of the two elements in his father’s dream, earth and heaven. His first dream is of the earth (stalks of wheat) and his second dream is of the heavens (sun, moon and stars). But there are two major differences between the dreams of father and son. Jacob’s dream is one: he yearns to connect heaven and earth. Joseph has two separate dreams. In Jacob’s dreams, God and the angels are at its center; in Joseph’s dream, Joseph is at the center (the stalks of wheat and the stars, sun and moon are bowing to him). God is absent from Joseph’s subconscious; he, Joseph, wishes dominion on earth and even in the heavenly cosmos.

But as the Joseph stories develop, a much-chastened Joseph, as well as his repentant brothers, learn invaluable lessons. The brothers learn that they should have tried to teach — not tear away — their errant brother. Joseph learns that his abilities of economic and administrative leadership must serve the higher power of God and Torah. Joseph’s dreams are realized when his family bows to him as the grand vizier of Egypt. But in the greater dream of Israel, Joseph will serve Judah, the guardian of tradition and Torah. Jacob only gives Joseph the “blessing” of a double portion; the “birthright” of spiritual leadership and direction is granted to Judah [Gen. 49: 8–10]. When Joseph truly understands his proper position, he is able to take his place as the heir to the blessing, but not as the heir to the birthright, and leader of the family-nation.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.

Candlelighting, Readings:

Shabbat Candles: 4:10 p.m.

Torah: Gen. 41:1- 44:17; Numbers 7:42-47; 28:9-15

Haftarah: Zechariah 2:14-4:7

Havdalah: 5:10 p.m.