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 recipient of the familial leadership legacy? We shall investigate these issues, but first let me explore the dreams of Joseph, the most prolific biblical dreamer.
Joseph’s dreams invited envy – and even hatred unto death – in the hearts of his brothers. Why? Certainly sibling rivalry is a most observable phenomenon, but, it is difficult to understand the intense venom felt amongst the great grandchildren of Abraham, the future Twelve Tribes of Israel, towards this most beloved son of their father.
When we remember that our dreams reveal our innermost and often subconscious thoughts, fears and ambitions, then we can unravel the code. The classical Jewish dream was that of Joseph’s father, Jacob, a ladder connecting Heaven and Earth, ascending and descending angels between the earthly and heavenly domains, with God at the top of the ladder promising Jacob Divine protection. Israel is a land on Earth which merits God’s care from the beginning of year until year end, and the Holy Temple is 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, sheaves of wheat and heavenly bodies. But in Joseph’s dreams, they are not connected.
Each has its separate dream. Moreover, Jacob dreams of Divine assurances that he will return safely to Israel, whereas Joseph dreams of agricultural produce, a form of productivity, indeed, a profession invented in Egypt, the unwholesome and powerful “gift of the Nile.”
Worst of all, while at the center of Jacob’s dream stands God, Joseph himself is the center of his own dreams, as he wields 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 the familial leadership upon Joseph, then the brothers were convinced that their father Jacob had made a tragically wrong choice. Joseph was a “megalomaniac” who hankered after Egypt instead of Israel; narcissistically worshiping himself instead of God. They hated with the righteous hatred of children who see their ancestral religion of compassionate righteousness and moral justice being hijacked in favor of Egyptian wheat.
Just as Esau had been ejected from the family, so too must Joseph be ejected, if the vision of Abraham is to endure and eventually prevail in subsequent generations.
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 had wrested from Isaac: the physical blessings and the spiritual “firstbornship.”
It was this faith in the ultimate realization of his two dreams which fortified him to overcome all of the setbacks he suffered after he was sold into Egypt.
Now to return to our portion, 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 the “firstbornship,” 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 full brother, Benjamin. He wrongly calculated that the old father would not send Benjamin alone, but would opt to accompany him. Then Jacob, too, would bow down to the “Grand Vizier” 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 Rebekah 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, he insists that it is not his wisdom, but God who will interpret the dreams for the well-being of Pharaoh. He 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 enslaved 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.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Chancellor Ohr Torah Stone
Chief Rabbi – Efrat Israel