The Dreams of Joseph- Thoughts on Parshat Vayeishev

Behold, we were binding sheaves in the midst of the field, and behold, my sheaf arose and also stood upright, and behold, your sheaves encircled it and prostrated themselves to my sheaf.”… And he again dreamed another dream, and he related it to his brothers, and he said… , the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were prostrating themselves to me. (Genesis 37: 7,9)

In this week’s Torah portion, we learn of Joseph’s rocky relationship with his brothers and find two clear contributing factors to the animosity. The first reason that the brothers held bitterness toward Joseph was because they resented the preferential treatment that he received from their father Jacob. The second cause of bitterness was due to Joseph’s famous dreams. As the verse states, “And Joseph dreamed a dream and told his brothers, and they continued to hate him.” (Genesis 37:5) This is not an isolated event, for we know of another instance later on in the verses whereby Joseph again tells over his dreams to his brothers, further vexing them and stoking their hatred of him. The entire episode is most perplexing. True, Joseph could not control his father’s preferential treatment but he certainly could have kept his dreams to himself rather than relaying them over. The question becomes clear: if the message was not being received and instead only brought about feelings of ill will between the brothers, why then did Joseph continue in the practice of recounting the dreams?

In his work, Chamesh Drashot, Rav J.B. Soloveitchik provides a fascinating explanation on this question and writes a most contemporary message for our times. According to Rav Soloveitchik, Joseph’s dreams were not merely subconscious musings but were in fact a reflection of the very deep rooted fear and worries of insecurity and instability for his family’s life in Canaan. Joseph was waiting for the actualization of God’s promise to Abraham, “For your seed shall be a stranger in an alien land.”(Genesis 15:13) At this moment in history, their future in Canaan looked sure; however, Joseph lived with a sense of foreboding for what he knew would ultimately come. He felt that the family was not ready, and was wholly unprepared, for the exile from Canaan and the inevitable changes that lay ahead. Joseph’s dreams of binding wheat in the field symbolized the shift of environment from shepherding in Canaan to the agricultural way of life in the land of Egypt. Economics would not be the only change, there would also the broader cultural shift that the family would encounter after leaving Canaan. This idea expressed itself in Joseph’s second dream in which the sun, moon and eleven stars prostrated to him. According to Rav Soloveitchik’s explanation, Joseph was attempting to rouse his brothers and call them to action. In this new environment Joseph was cautioning, “If we will not be prepared for new conditions, the environment will swallow us! Our intellectual forces will completely assimilate. On the other hand, if we think of the future…We can render Abraham’s heritage triumphant in the alien surroundings too. Abraham’s Torah is very powerful, but only when we are prepared for the conflict.” (ibid pg 28).

The issue then, which in turn fueled the hatred between Joseph and his brothers, was in a divergent schema of life –Joseph was looking toward the future and the brothers were only able to see the present. Writes Rav Soleveitchik, “…he dreamt of a new framework within which the unity of the family could be preserved…His constant preoccupation was the continuation of the Abrahamic tradition amidst a new economic structure and civilization. The brothers did not understand him, for they looked upon the future as the continuation of the present.” (The Rav Speaks, page 26) This was the core of the dispute between Joseph and his brothers: Do we live with the status quo and not worry about the future, or do we actively prepare for and make plans in order to weather the storm? We know that Joseph’s brothers, who made up the overwhelming majority, viewed him as a dangerous rabble-rouser and after long debate decided to sell him to slavery to Egypt. But history vindicated Joseph and his call to action, for it later became clear that the entire family of Jacob was saved from starvation thanks to his efforts in preparing Egypt for the days of famine. In fact, the brothers themselves admit to having been mistaken, as the verses state, “Please, forgive now your brothers’ transgression and their sin, for they did evil to you.”(Genesis 50:17).

This debate between Joseph and his brothers, writes Rav Soloveitchik, played out not only in the biblical era but also continues in our times. The Rav points to the unwillingness of the great Torah leaders in Europe to join with the Zionist movement and their negative stance towards the trend of Religious Zionism as the modern day manifestation of this age-old debate. He writes, “Our brothers, great leaders, rabbinical giants of Israel…evaluated the future from the standpoint of the peaceful and tranquil, satisfied present…and they categorically rejected all dealings with the secular…The Joseph of 5662 (the Mizrachi) instinctively sensed that the relative tranquility, peace, quiet and security in which his great brethren lived was only a phantasm.”(ibid pg 30-31) Unfortunately, the Zionist call was met with skepticism and contempt. But similar to the biblical narrative, modern day Zionism has also been vindicated to some extent with the passage of time. The above insight into the nature of Joseph’s dreams explains why the biblical Joseph and the Joseph of 5662 continued to share and make their dreams known even in the face of antagonism and adversity. When a dream’s message is integral to the continuation and survival of the Jewish people, that message must be spread and its lesson internalized at all costs.

On this idea, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the Chief Rabbi of Efrat, writes a most poignant story in his book “Listening to God–Stories for My Grandchildren.” Rabbi Riskin once attended a funeral in the town of Kfar Hasidim with his acquaintance, Yehuda Noiman. The funeral was one which was attended by two very different crowds of people –kibbutzniks and yeshiva students. Rabbi Riskin recounts a dialogue between the town’s Rosh Yeshiva and Yehuda Noiman, which occurred during this event. The following is an excerpt:

The Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Elya Mishkovsky, came out, viewed the assembly from the higher yeshiva portico, and seemed to have noticed my friend Yehuda Noiman. He then addressed him in Yiddish, “Yudke? Yudke iluy (prodigy)?”

Yehuda, whom I knew as a rather shy and humble individual, turned red, blushed deeply, and responded in Hebrew, “Yes Reb Elya, that’s what they called me in the yeshiva of Rav Shach in Petah Tikva, where we studied together.”

The Rosh Yeshiva’s eyes narrowed. He asked in Yiddish, “But what happened to you? I know you left the Yeshiva, but how did Rav Shach allow you to leave? You, too, could have been a Rosh Yeshiva.”
Yehuda answered in Hebrew, and by this time everyone from both groups was listening to the conversation intently. “Rav Shach sent me many letters urging me to stay.”

Reb Elya, the Rosh Yeshiva, seemed to rise to his full height, literally looking down on my friend, and said strongly (but not harshly) in Yiddish, “And those letters of our Rebbe will serve as a prosecuting attorney when you stand before the throne of God after a hundred and twenty years.”

I felt very sorry for Yehuda. I didn’t think my laid-back and self-effacing friend would give any answer at all. But he responded immediately, decisively, and in Hebrew, “And the kibbutz that I helped build, and the guns that I used in the wars that I fought, and the souls of the many Israeli Jews whose lives I protected–they will be my defense attorneys. And they will win the day and exonerate me before God.”

The Rosh Yeshiva took a step backward. He realized that he had lost that first round, and apparently decided not to continue the debate. Again, he said in Yiddish, but this time with a smile on his face and in his voice, “You remained the same Yudke, the same prodigy.”

My friend didn’t let it rest. He responded in Hebrew, “No, Reb Elya, I didn’t remain the same Yudke that I was in the Yeshiva. I changed. I saw the changes in history. I saw what our generation demanded. I think I even saw what God expected of me. I looked around myself at the ravages of the Holocaust. I understood that our era demanded that the kibbutz, and the battleground of war, had to serve as the infrastructure for the establishment of the Jewish State, the first Jewish State in close to two thousand years. I didn’t remain the same because Jewish history didn’t remain the same. You remained the same. You didn’t change.”

In our era’s complex and ever changing world, we would do well to take the above message to heart. We must take the time to understand what history demands from us. May we all merit the fortitude to persevere like our ancestor Joseph, and to have the courage while in the face of adversity, to stand up to and rise to the challenge.

About the Author
The Author is a Jerusalem based Rabbi and Jewish Educator, and is the author of the Two Volume book "A People, A Country, A Heritage-Torah Inspiration from the Land of Israel."
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