Joseph’s Dreams: Dreaming Big, or Too Big?
“And Jacob settled
in the land that his fathers resided in,
in the land of Canaan.”
| Vayeshev Ya’akov
| be’eretz megurei aviv
| be’eretz Kna’an
Our parsha is named Vayeshev (and [he] settled), because it begins to tell us of what happened once Jacob settled in the Land. In the previous parsha Jacob had returned home to Hevron, to the home of his father Isaac in Mamre where Abraham has also lived. Isaac died at the age of 180 years and was buried by his sons Jacob and Esau in the Tomb of Machpalah. (35:27-29) Jacob is now the patriarch of the family.
However, a great deal this parsha is going to be about Joseph and is not going to necessarily relate to the land of Canaan. This parsha is going to relate how the children of Israel, who is also called Jacob, came to dwell in Egypt. Strangely, though the story beings with the statement “These are the chronicles of Jacob” (v.2), but the first thing it tells us is that Joseph was 17 years old when this story beings. Jacob and Joseph are so intertwined in their love for each other that the story of one cannot be told without the other.
Why Do Joseph’s Brothers Hate Him?
It’s important for us to understand how things can seem to spiral out of control in this story so quickly regarding the brothers hatred for Joseph. It seems to happen at break-neck speed. But it wasn’t something that happened over night. As we learned in the last parsha, when Esau came and Jacob thought he was going to slaughter them he was sure to put Rachel and Joseph in the furthest and safest spot away from danger, he arranged his household by order of importance to him and Rachel and Joseph were at the top of it. (33:2) This was offensive in cultural terms because Leah was entitled to be the head wife, and here he was showing favoritism to the second wife and her child who was the youngest. This all happened when the children of Jacob (Israel) were small children, but the brothers resented him ever since because of it.
When our parsha begins it’s narrative it tell us that Joseph was in the fields with the children of Bilhah and Zilpah. Rashi tells us that “that is to say, that he was usually close to the sons of Bilhah because his [other] brothers would demean them, whereas he was kind to them.” The sons of Bilhah and Zilpah were sons of servants. Apparently the most demeaned of all of them were the sons of Bilhah who was the maidservant of Rachel, they had it twice as bad being sons a servant and being associated with the resented house of Rachel. They were the only company that Joseph could find for himself, at the bottom social tier of the clan (v.2)
Jacob’s apparent love for Rachel and Joseph made them the closest to his heart, but the most reviled among the rest of the family. But it wasn’t necessarily intentional when Jacob seemed to show favoritism. Our text tells us “Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a coat of many colors.” (v.3) The contention being made that Joseph was most loved because he was Rachel’s son was not true, in reality Jacob had become an old man and had become a lot more docile in his ways as people often do with age. And being settled in his life he had more time to dedicate to giving attention to Joseph. His act of spoiling Joseph with the flashy outfit was something we would normally see a grandparent doing as apposed to a parent, but we have to understand at this point Jacob is well into his 60’s and that is just his temperament. The only reason he appeared to love Joseph more was because he had more time and resources to devote to Joseph than he did before, like when his other children were young and he was on the road with them.
Sadly though, this was not understood and seems to have not been explained to the brothers. The only thing they saw was that their father showed love for this brother more than them, and “velo yachlu dabro leshalom / and they could not speak peaceably to him.” (v.4) Not that they were unwilling, but it was not possible for them to be kind towards him. Had their father tried to explain the difference to them maybe they would have understood and in their hearts could have felt differently.
It is very important for people who raise children to not allow oneself to play favorites with any one of our children and to articulate our love for each child. It is important for us to explain to the older children that we have learned from our ways, certainly making mistaking the past, so our ways naturally appear more gentle to the younger children because we have more experience to make better choices.
Now before we get too far we need to realize that, like all individuals, Joseph has his own personality defects as well. Joseph seemed to have a big mouth, and had a problem with exaggerating. Basically he was lying to his father through exaggeration. Rashi tells us that when we read “vayave Yosef et-dibatam ra’ah el-avihem / Joseph brought a evil utterances about them to his father” (v.2) that Joseph was of the habit of just mumbling things, like a person does in their sleep almost automatically; he just talks to hear himself talk. And in doing so he ending up exaggerating things about his brothers to his father, which made the situation even worse.
“And Joseph dreamed a dream
and when he told it to his brothers,
they hated him more.”
| Vayachalom Yosef chalom
| vayaged le’echav
| vayosifu od s’no oto
So when we come upon the situation of hearing about Joseph’s dreams, the instance that breaks the camel’s back for them, we are told that his brother’s hated him already and they now hated him all the more because of it.
Here we have the ever talkative and attention grabbing Joseph saying to them “shime’u-na ha-chalom hazeh asher chalamti / Hear, please, this dream that I have dreamed.” He is clearly beseeching them to listen to him, because they don’t want to have to listen to him yet again.
Without invitation Joseph breaks into telling his dream. In his first dream we are told that he dreams of being in the field with his brothers and they are tying the wheat together into sheaves. Joseph’s sheave got up and stood upright. However the sheaves belonging to his brother’s encircled his and bowed down towards his. Notice is doesn’t say that they fell, but it says “and they bowed” (vatish’tachavena). What Joseph is describing, logically, is something that is not a natural occurrence because he doesn’t suggest that the wind caused them to fall in his direction. No, they move until they are round about him and they all bend towards his. If it was the wind they would have all ended up facing the same direction be it north or south, etc. No, they all face the center towards him as if encircling him, with him at the center. (v.7)
He used the word bowed, meaning they were showing reverence, here we can see Joseph has already begun to interpret his dream a certain way. And this is exactly the way that the brothers walked away understanding this message. So they ask Joseph point-blank, did he really believe it was possible that he could rule or have authority over them? And we are told they hated him even more for his dreams, and for his words (v’al devarav). (v.8)
And here is another character flaw that we face here with Joseph. His youthful ambition, his enthusiasm and anxiousness got in the way of his message. We see the other reason they hated him was not just because of the dream that he had, but more so because of the way that he communicated this dream to them. The could not help but become even more incensed by him.
When he has his second dream Joseph gets even more annoying. Notice he tells his dream to his brothers in verse 9, and then he tells it again to his father with his brothers present in verse 10. He says that in his dream there were 11 stars that bowed down to him, along with the sun and the moon. It’s not hard to decipher, he has 11 brothers and there were 11 stars. And the symbol of the sun was always associated with the masculine and the moon with the feminine, so it clearly meant his father and mother.
When Jacob hears Joseph’s dream we are told “va’yigar-bo aviv / and his his father rebuked him.” (v.10) Because of the dreams Joseph is chastised.
Now we should ask ourselves, why should Joseph be castigated regarding his dream? In order to answer that question we need to answer a complicated question first; what is a dream?
When Joseph has his first dream about the sheaves his brothers only ask one question: did he really think that he was going to raise himself above them and have authority over them. They wanted to know if Joseph really thought it was possible.
But with regard to the second dream his father starts out with a more precise question, “mah ha-chalom ha-zeh asher chalamta / what is this dream that you have dreamed?” (v.10) He wants to know what this dream is supposed to mean to Joseph. But “mah” also can mean how or why as well in many cases. Jacob seems to be asking, even more deeply, how is it that Joseph could let himself dream up such a thing. Why would he allow himself to dream up such a thing. Surely the dream had a lot of chutzpah!
If we examine the way that Joseph talks about his dreams we get a clue to why he bares the weight of his father’s rebuke. Joseph refers to them as “ha-chalom hazeh asher chalamti / the dream that I have dreamed” (v.6) and “chalom chalamti / a dream I dreamed.” (v.9) Likewise when his father rebukes him he refers to the dream as “the dream that you have dreamed.” (v.10)
What we need to understand about these dreams of Joseph’s, like all dreams, they are not oracles. Though all things are inspired by G-d, and dreams are sometimes used as ways of stirring visions inside of people through out the scriptures, they are not necessarily prophecies. These dreams are reflections of Joseph’s own desires, that’s why they are his dreams that he dreamed, he had to take ownership for them. They were only reflections of his most consuming thoughts being made evident, as is it is written, “for a dream comes through much concern, and the voice of fool through many words.” (Ecclesiastes 5:2)
Our young and ambitious brother, Joseph, was a person that thought too much and was thus prone to exaggerating in his head. He was a young man who talked to much and thus also had the tendency to exaggerate with his words.
When Joseph was done making this spectacle with his dreams we read “vay’kan’u-vu eichav, v’aviv shamar et ha-davar / and his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.” (v.11) Kinei, to be jealous is a little bit stronger than it looks on the surface. It means to be worked up to the point one is turning red. It can mean to be provoked to anger because of envy. It can also mean to suspect another of being unfaithful. I also means to be zealous or act as an extremist. How ever we look at it, Joseph’s brothers walk away incensed thinking that he didn’t have concern for anyone but himself. Though Jacob wasn’t so sure if the dream had merit and continued to ponder on the matter. None the less Jacob was right in rebuking Joseph.
Our Sages are going to rebuke Joseph in the Talmud as well for the way that he deals with his dreams:
“‘The prophet that has a dream,
let him tell a dream;
and he that has My word,
let him speak my word faithfully.
What has the straw to do with the wheat –
says Hashem?’ (Jeremiah 23:28)
What is the connection of straw and
wheat with a dream?
‘The truth is,’ said Rabbi Yohanan
in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai,
‘that just as wheat cannot be without straw,
so there cannot be a dream
without some nonsense.’
Rabbi Berekiah said:
‘While a part of a dream may be fulfilled,
the whole of it is never fulfilled.
Whence do we know this?
From Joseph, as it is written,
“And behold the sun and the moon
[and eleven stars bowed down to me,]”
and at that time his mother was not living.'”
הנביא אשר אתו חלום |
יספר חלום |
ואשר דברי |
אתו ידבר דברי אמת |
מה לתבן את הבר |
נאם ה‘ וכי |
מה ענין בר ותבן |
אצל חלום |
אלא אמר ר‘ יוחנן |
משום ר‘ שמעון בן יוחי |
כשם שאי אפשר לבר בלא |
תבן כך אי אפשר לחלום |
בלא דברים בטלים |
אמר ר‘ ברכיה |
חלום אף על פי שמקצתו מתקיים |
כולו אינו מתקיים |
מנא לן |
מיוסף דכתיב |
והנה השמש והירח |
וההיא שעתא אמיה לא הות |
Talmud Bavli, Berachot 55a/b
Our Rabbis teach us two lessons about how to deal with dreams based on Joseph’s slip up. The first is suggested to us by Rabbi Yohanan in the name of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, that we need to sort through our dreams and glean what is nourishing from them and the rest of it we need to discard; just like separating wheat from the straw.
The second lesson is taught to us by Rabbi Berekiah who suggests that we need to realize that not everything in our dream can necessarily be fulfilled. The example that he gives is that at the time of Joseph’s rise to authority his mother Rachel would not be alive, so his dream only came true in part. Though we can make the majority of our dreams come true through perseverance, some things will be left unfulfilled and we need to accept that.
We need to look into our ambitions and separate what has substance from the useless, we need to separate that which is reality from that which is fantasy.
Though Joseph’s dreams were flawed, and even more so his way of communicating it was in error, G-d honored the dream of Joseph and worked with it. G-d did not see fit to destroy Josephs dream. Although it was going to take many years of refinement for Joseph to learn to overcome his aloofness and conform his dream into something that was for the benefit of his people and for the honor of G-d.
The way that Joseph was going to receive honor was by first becoming the humblest of servants. The descent of Joseph into Egypt was not only to build him in character, but it was also essential in order to make his dreams come true. He couldn’t not have risen to power in Egypt without first going through the trials of his enslavement that led him there. He would be remembered as being of righteousness memory, yes; but he would also die first before the rest of his brothers (Exodus 1:6, the death of Joseph listed first before that of his brothers). Joseph learned that dreams can come true, but the hard reality of how it comes about is not as effortlessly and glorious as it happens in one’s dreams. His dreams came with consequences and responsibility, ones that complicated and even shorted his life.
As our parsha progresses, and going into the next parsha, we are going to see the topic of dreams rise again and play a central role in the story.
When we read later that the butler and the baker come before Joseph and he offers to help them with an interpretation of their dreams he will not just being to interpret based on his own impulse. He responds with the words, “Do not interpretations belong to G-d? Tell it me, please.” He has come to understanding that he needs to think about that matter and ask G-d for the true meaning. And now he is respectful in the way he relates to others.
And later when he comes before Pharaoh, who also asks him to interpret his dream, he responds, “It is not in me, G-d will give Pharaoh an answer of peace.” (41:16) Artscroll also nicely renders it as “That is beyond me, it is G-d Who will respond with Pharaoh’s welfare.” Here Joseph shows that he has learned that in order for him to accomplish what he needs to he must look to G-d for strength because he can’t make it happen all on his own. It’s not all about him.
And only once Joseph submits to this level of humility is he able to rise to a place of being truly useful and worthy of honor.
Lesson Points On Dreams:
Be appropriate about the dreams we pursue
Be respectful about the way we communicate our vision to others
Learn to separate the reality from the fantasy
Accept that some elements of our dreams cannot be completely actualized
Learn that we need guidance from outside of ourselves
Learn to accept support from outside of ourselves
Accept that every dream has its cost