No biblical character is more associated with dreams than Yosef. He was a dreamer and an interpreter of dreams and at almost every juncture in his life, dreams played a role in moving the plot forward. His dreams were the catalyst for his brother’s animosity towards him, prompting them to sell him to slave-traders who brought him to Egypt. It was ability to interpret dreams – the dreams of the king’s cupbearer and baker which prompted his eventual rescue from prison and it was his interpretation of Pharoah’s dreams which led to his ultimate rise to the pinnacle of power in Egypt, saving Egypt from famine and ensuring his family’s descent to Egypt.
Yosef’s penchant as a dream interpreter is captured in the words of the cupbearer when he admits to Pharoah his offense in neglecting Yosef once he was returned to the palace:
And there was a Hebrew lad, a slave of the high chamberlain, and we recounted to him and he solved our dreams, each of us according to his dream he solved it. And it happened just as he had solved it for us, so it came about… (41:12-13)
The medieval commentators more or less take this statement at face value. Rashi understands this to mean that Yosef interpreted the dreams “according to the dream and close to its content.” Rashi’s grandson, Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir (Rashbam) adds: “and also like he interpreted so it was.”
It is possible that these interpretations are a reaction to the following rabbinic midrash (~3rd century) which interprets the verse: “And it happened just as he had solved it for us, so it came about” super-literally in an anecdotal story and discussion of the significance of dream interpretation:
So, there was a story about a woman that came before Rabbi Eliezer. She said to him: I saw in my dream that the second floor of my house burst? He said to her: You will give birth to a baby boy and he will live. She went and it was so for her.
Another woman came at the same time to ask. She found Rabbi Eliezer’s students sitting there, and their rabbi was not with them. She said to them: ‘Where is your rabbi?’ They said to her: ‘Tell us what you want and we will tell you.’ She said to them: “I saw in my dream that the second floor of my house burst.’ They said to her: “That woman (namely, you) will bury her husband.’ When she left them, she began to cry. Rabbi Eliezer heard her voice and said to them: ‘What did you say to that woman?’ They said: ‘That woman came to ask you.’ ‘What did you say to her?’ They replied: ‘Like this and like that.’ He said to them: ‘You have caused the loss of a man!’ For is it not written: ‘And it happened just as he had solved it for us, so it came about.’ For hasn’t Rabbi Yohanan said: ‘Everything follows the interpretation…’ (Bereishit Rabbah 89:8 Theodore-Albeck ed. 1095-6)
Rabbi Eliezer and his teacher Rabbi Yohanan held a view not universally accepted among the sages. They held that the meaning and significance of dreams is very much in the hands of the interpreter – “it happened just as he solved it”. This explains why Rabbi Eliezer chided his students who he felt failed in their attempt to interpret the woman’s dream because their interpretation caused her harm instead of giving her hope.
While I do not want to take a stand regarding the significance of dreams – that I will leave to our sages of yesteryear, and to Freud, Jung and the like; it seems to me that Rabbi Eliezer’s message is of great significance. This anecdotal midrash serves as an important warning for all of us who offer others advice or help others work out their problems to be especially careful not to do harm.