Vayeshev: If you will it, it is no dream

The story of Yosef is the dawn of our own era, and it is propelled along by the motive force of dreams. Yosef dreams, the people around him dream, Pharaoh dreams.…These dreams come in pairs, and each of them is a window into a possible future — perhaps a future that would never come to pass had the dream never been told.

Listen to this dream I had!  There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Then here, my sheaf arose and stood upright; and your sheaves stood all around and bowed down to my sheaf. (Bereishit 37:7)

What moved Yosef to share this dream with his brothers? Pride? Spite? Or perhaps it was just that he was immature and insecure. Certainly his siblings had reason enough to hate him for his father’s favoritism. And naturally enough, hearing about his grandiose dreams didn’t help: “they hated him all the more” .

But it was Joseph’s second dream that was the last straw:

Look, I have dreamed another dream! And this time, the sun, the moon, and the eleven stars bowed down to me. (37:9)

Now it wasn’t only his brothers who had cause to be annoyed with Yosef; his father too was alarmed: “What is this dream?” Ya’akov asked. “Shall your mother and I and your brothers indeed come and bow down to the earth before you?”

We aren’t told Yosef’s answer, but only that Ya’akov took note of the dream.

Did his brothers also take note? Did their father’s anger subtly hint that Yosef’s days of playing the favorite were over? The white space between the letters is rife with possibility, but little certainty. We know only the outcome: Yosef was soon sent off by his father to check up on his brothers. Perhaps this was Ya’akov’s way of trying — finally — to let go, to allow Yosef some independence.

And off he went, his father’s pet, to meet treachery and deceit. He could be forgiven for thinking that his father was in on it from the beginning. He had no way of knowing how his brothers had plotted and double-crossed each other, nor how his father mourned his apparent death. There are ample hints that he discovered the truth only decades later.

A mistaken interpretation

But let’s go back to the dream that set this whole adventure in motion. Sheaves.… But Ya’akov’s family were shepherds, not farmers! A dream about sheep would be understandable…but, sheaves? Only in hindsight does it all make sense: the need for grain will drive Ya’akov’s remaining sons down to Egypt to buy food in a time of prolonged drought.

And the sun and moon? The obvious interpretation — and the one that Ya’akov had immediately jumped to—was that the sun and moon represented him and Rahel (or Leah, since Rahel was no longer alive at this time).

But it was a mistaken interpretation! And herein lies the crux of the issue: had Ya’akov interpreted this dream correctly, it’s possible that the dream would not have come true! Why? Because the sun and moon in the dream had nothing to do with Ya’akov and Rachel! Nada! Zilch! Bupkis!

To what then did they refer?

This is where all potential streams of time become entangled in the web of prophecy. In Egypt, Pharaoh styled himself the descendant of the sun god and the companion of the moon god. Yosef’s dream had to do with his future position of power in Egypt, and not with his family at all. His dream was far more grandiose than even he could have imagined: the land of Egypt itself would bow down to him!

And yet, had Ya’akov not misinterpreted the dream as referring to himself, the whole chain of events which led Yosef to Egypt might not have come about. On such insubstantial misdirection the first domino begins to topple. The fluttering of a butterfly’s wings that will eventually cause the typhoon.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Dreams and dominoes

The lesson — or at least one lesson — of this story is that it isn’t dreams that move events; it is their telling!

A subconscious thought becomes explicit when it is articulated in speech. Things unspoken — and unspeakable — may have tremendous influence on us, but there is no volition involved. Until we articulate the dream and bring it into conscious awareness, we have no control over it. By telling, we bring a wordless reality into the realm of time — of history. Had Yosef never given reality to his dreams by sharing them with others, their intersection with history would have been stillborn.

Yosef’s dreams — and their misinterpretation — knocked over the first of the falling dominoes that would lead Yosef to Egypt, just in time to find his vocation as an interpreter of dreams—and of economic trends. His rise to power paved the way for the salvation of his family in a time of famine. But the price — Yosef’s virtual enslavement of the Egyptian population — would have to be paid.

Israel’s Return to History

But of course, the story doesn’t end there. In fact, that was only the beginning. We, here and now, are firmly embedded in the timeline of Yosef’s dreams. The Egyptian Exile was the prototype of all exiles, and the eventual redemption was the prototype of all redemptions, including our own. In generations to come, our descendants will tell and retell the End of the Long Exile just as we retell the Exodus from Egypt.

In our day, we are harvesting the sheaves of Yosef’s first dream, and seeing them standing upright in the fields.  We were like dreamers, and though we plowed in sorrow and sowed bitter thorns, we are gathering in a harvest beyond Yosef’s wildest dreams.

The rest will be the stuff of future history.

About the Author
Yael Shahar has spent most of her career working in counter-terrorism and intelligence, with brief forays into teaching physics and astronomy. She now divides her time between writing, off-road trekking, and learning Talmud with anyone who will sit still long enough. She is the author of Returning, a haunting exploration of Jewish memory, betrayal, and redemption.
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