The Disarray Left By Dreams


One of the most fascinating aspects of the portions we are reading is the extent to which our towering personalities are driven, even obsessed by their dreams. To what extent is it the dream, and not the individual’s merits and actions, which determines the family’s leadership and legacy?

Joseph’s dreams invited envy — even hatred — in the hearts of his brothers. Why? Certainly sibling rivalry is a most observable phenomenon, but it is difficult to understand the venom felt among Abraham’s great-grandchildren, the future Twelve Tribes, towards this other son of Jacob.

Dreams reveal our innermost and often subconscious thoughts, fears and ambitions. The classical Jewish dream was had by Jacob, of a ladder connecting Heaven and Earth, with ascending and descending angels between the earthly and heavenly domains, with God at the top of the ladder promising Divine protection to Jacob.

The Land of Israel is that place which merits God’s care from the year’s beginning to end, with the Holy Temple slated to become the earthly abode for the Divine Presence. The Holy Land and the Holy Temple express Jacob’s dream of uniting Heaven and Earth.

Joseph, too, dreamed of those same elements, the below and the above, with sheaves of wheat and heavenly bodies. But in Joseph’s dreams, they are not connected.

Jacob dreams of Divine assurances that he will return safely to Israel, whereas Joseph dreams of agricultural produce, a form of productivity known as the unwholesome and powerful “gift of the Nile.”

Worst of all, while God stands at the center of Jacob’s dream, Joseph himself is the center of his own dreams, wielding mastery over the earthly as well as the spiritual, with both earth and Heaven bowing down to him! If the striped, colored cloak expressed the bestowal of family leadership upon Joseph, then the brothers were convinced that their father Jacob had made a tragically wrong choice: They saw Joseph narcissistically worshiping himself instead of God. They hated him with the righteous hatred of children.

Just as Esau had been ejected from the family, they thought Joseph must be ejected, too.

Joseph is blithely unaware of the complex interpretation his brothers give his dreams; he merely sees himself as achieving economic, earthly mastery as well as spiritual, heavenly domination over his siblings, the two areas of control which Jacob wrested from Isaac: the physical blessings and the spiritual “firstbornship.”

It was this faith in the ultimate realization of his two dreams which fortified Jacob to overcome all of the setbacks he suffered after he was sold into Egypt.

When Joseph saw his brothers bowing before him in order to purchase grain [Genesis 42:6], he believed that his first dream of economic and political power had been realized. But what he really desired was the spiritual leadership, the essence of being the “firstborn,” the universal assemblage of all the nations under the sovereignty of God, with him — Joseph — being the earthly king of Israel.

Hence, when “Joseph remembered his dreams” and prepared for their realization, he said to his brothers “you are spies” and insisted that they return with his beloved and only full brother, Benjamin. He wrongly calculated that their old father would not send Benjamin alone, but would opt to accompany him. Then Jacob, too, would bow down to the Grand Vizier (Joseph) and the second dream, too, would be realized.

Alas, Jacob does not go down to Egypt at this point, and Joseph never achieves spiritual mastery over Israel.

Perhaps it is because Jacob does not bow before him and so his second dream is never fulfilled; perhaps because Jacob decides to separate the material blessing from the spiritual birthright because he still feels guilty about the deception Rebecca convinced him to enact; perhaps because, despite the fact that he repents, he wasn’t worthy.

You will remember that when Joseph stands before Pharaoh to interpret his dream, Joseph insists that it is not Joseph but God who will interpret the dreams for the well-being of Pharaoh. Joseph likewise recognizes the importance of the Land of Israel when, with his very last breath, he asks to be buried there. Nevertheless, Joseph invested most of his most productive years on behalf of Egypt and the Egyptians rather than on behalf of Israel and the Israelites. He also helped enslave the Egyptians to Pharaoh for economic reasons, which was hardly the legacy of Abraham’s “compassionate righteousness.”

Ultimately, it seems that worthiness and not “dreaminess” is the deciding factor for the future Jewish leadership.

Shabbat Shalom.

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

Candlelighting, Readings:

Shabbat Candles: 4:16 p.m.

Torah: Gen. 41:1–44:17                         

Haftarah: I Kings 3:15-4:1

Havdalah: 5:18 p.m..