A Dreamer of Dreams

Joseph can be called the first representation of the creative spirit in the text of the Torah. As Thomas Mann beautifully puts it in “Joseph and his brothers”:

“At the time, his brothers did not yet call him Dreamer, but it came to that very soon. If for now, they merely called him Utnapishtim and Reader of Stones, the mildness of these terms for expressing hostility can be explained by these young men’s lack of invention and imagination. They would indeed have gladly called him nastier names, but they could come up with none, and so they were very happy once they could call him Dreamer of Dreams, which was nastier.”

Joseph certainly does not suffer from the lack of invention and imagination. In fact, not only is he the first depiction of a creative spirit, but he is also one of the thoroughly modern characters in the Torah text. His openness and desire to share the most intimate thoughts stem not from his haughtiness but from an uncontrollable urge to give the people around him a part of his soul, which is was a creator does every day.

The rabbis, being somewhat old-fashioned, almost unanimously speak about Joseph as a reckless and immature youth who opens up to the hostile relatives without thinking twice about it. Only Or HaChaim, writing in the XVIII century, having experienced life in Europe, suggests that:

“Perhaps Joseph went to tell his brothers that they were wrong in ascribing his dreams to his ambitions, but that for some reason G’d planned to elevate him to a high position and that Jacob’s agreeing to send him on this mission was a sign that all of this had been approved by G’d.”

Here Or HaChaim gingerly says that creativity is, indeed, the God-given gift. Joseph could not behave in the other way. As another Joseph, the great Russian poet and Nobel laureate, Joseph Brodsky, said in his Nobel speech:

“The one who writes a poem writes it above all because verse writing is the extraordinary accelerator of conscience, of thinking, of comprehending the universe. Having experienced this acceleration once, one is no longer capable of abandoning the chance to repeat this experience; one falls into dependency on this process.”

As we know, this is what happened to the biblical Joseph.

About the Author
Nelly Shulman is a journalist and writer currently based in Berlin. She is an author of four popular historical novels in the Russian language. She is working on the fifth novel in this series and on her first English-language novel, a historical thriller set during the Siege of Leningrad. She a Hawthornden Fellow and an alumna of the Nachum Goldmann Fellowship.
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