Vayeshev: The Price of Dreams

The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” – Eleanor Roosevelt 

Nothing embodies the truth of this saying like the story of Joseph and his brothers. The same story also embodies the fact that dreams have a price. 

An old Jews tale tells of a passionate and pious man with a white beard and a sparkle in his eyes which began coming to synagogue every week. On the Sabbath, the congregation was reading the Torah of Vayeshev, the man listens in horror to the story of the brothers taking their brother Joseph, throwing him in the pit, and selling him. The man erupts into uncontrollable crying. A year goes by and the man arrives on the same Shabbat in the synagogue. As the Torah is put down at the center of the synagogue and the reading begins, the man’s body shakes. When the portion speaking of Joseph getting close to his brothers he yells: “stop! Don’t get close to them!” The same thing happens the next year. Another year goes by, and the man yells to the center of the synagogue: “Joseph! I don’t feel bad for you anymore! I warned you twice!”

Jokes aside, despite having read the story so many times over, so many are intrigued by the story of Joseph and the brothers every year as if it were thriller never to have been seen before. There is so much in that story, so many relate to on such a deep level. 

“…when Joseph was seventeen years old, being a shepherd, he was with his brothers with the flocks, and he was a lad, [and was] with the sons of Bilhah and with the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought evil tales about them to their father.”

At first, Joseph seems like the brother we would all dislike. He brings his father the negative information there is to tell about his brothers. And yet, so many identify so much with him. 

“And Israel loved Joseph more than all his sons, because he was a son of his old age; and he made him a fine woolen coat. And his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, so they hated him, and they could not speak with him peacefully.”

Here’s the twist. There is something to like about Joseph. He is his father’s beloved son. He was born to his father at Jacob’s old age, and he is the underdog; it is Joseph on one side and everyone on the other side. Why did Jacob love Joseph more than all his other sons? The rabbis offer different perspectives. While the verse states it was “because he was his ben zekunim” there are different translations for this. Rashi translates it as a child born to Jacob in his old age, while the standard Aramaic translation, Targum Unkelus, translates it as “a wise child”. The Midrash states that Jacob loved Joseph because he was the one who studied most Torah and cites an opinion that it was due to the physical semblance Joseph had to Jacob, which made him most likable to Jacob.

Then come Joseph’s dreams:

“And Joseph dreamed a dream and told his brothers, and they continued to hate him. And he said to them, “Listen now to this dream, which I have dreamed: 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.” So his brothers said to him, “Will you reign over us, or will you govern us?” And they continued further to hate him on account of his dreams and on account of his words.”

If we were there at Joseph’s side, if we were the little angel whispering in his ear, the one thing we would tell him is to stop dreaming, or at least to stop sharing his dreams. And yet, the exact opposite is what happens.

“And he again dreamed another dream, and he related it to his brothers, and he said, “Behold, I have dreamed another dream, and behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were prostrating themselves to me. And he told [it] to his father and to his brothers, and his father rebuked him and said to him, “What is this dream that you have dreamed? Will we come I, your mother, and your brothers to prostrate ourselves to you to the ground?””

Recognize the hate Joseph is bringing upon himself with his dreams, Jacob scolds Joseph and tries to get him stop sharing his dreams. Jacob seeks Joseph’s best interests in shunning Joseph’s dreams, even if he too believes in those dreams. 

“So his brothers envied him, but his father awaited the matter.” (Ibid.)

The Torah tells us that indeed Jacob was awaiting the coming of Joseph’s dreams. Despite rooting for Joseph and his dreams, Jacob discourages the way in which Joseph goes about his dreams. 

Joseph is doing something right and something wrong. He is right in having his dreams; he is wrong in sharing them in an undiplomatic way.

Why did Jacob, who was able to recognize the enmity Joseph’s dreams brought, not able to recognize the hate his colorful coat will being on him? 

The rabbis criticize this approach, Jacob towards Joseph, so much so that they point to it as the quintessential example of how not to raise children. 

“A person should never distinguish one of his sons from among the other sons by giving him preferential treatment. As, due to the weight of two sela of fine wool [meilat] that Jacob gave to Joseph, beyond what he gave the rest of his sons, in making him the striped coat, his brothers became jealous of him and the matter unfolded and our forefathers descended to Egypt.”

(Talmud Shabbat 10b)

So what was the meaning of the “ketonet passim” the coat, why did it get the brothers so angry, and why did Jacob do it to begin with? 

Interestingly, the different opinions of what the striped coat was made from, carry great implications as to what was taking place in the story. While Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, Rashi, in his great commentary explains that the terms striped is actually referring to the material the coat was made of, and Rabbi David Kimhi (1160–1235), also known as Radak, explains it refers to the many colors the coat had, others take a different approach. Rabbi Ephraim Zick, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Bnei Akiva in Ra’anana cites the great Rabbenu Yonah Ibn Janah who says the term “ketonet passim” refers to the fact that the coat was made from several pieces of material, not just one. He suggests that this implies Joseph being not just a monolithic person, but one who encompasses several different kinds of people. Thus the brothers feel Jacob is suggesting that Joseph has all that they encompass. Rabbi Zick goes on to cite Rashi’s son in law, Rashbam’s who suggests the coat was unique in that it had sleeves that reached the palm of his hand. In this view, the implication was that Joseph would not have to do manual labor even while his brothers toil away shepherding. 

In all these views, Jacob did not do anything to outright enrage the brothers, while even he was able to recognize how the explicit sharing of Jospeh’s dreams and their implications would indeed magnify the brother’s hate to Joseph.

And then comes the price of the dreams. 

“And his brothers went to pasture their father’s flocks in Shechem. And Israel said to Joseph, “Are your brothers not pasturing in Shechem? Come, and I will send you to them.” And he said to him, “Here I am.” So he said to him, “Go now and see to your brothers’ welfare and the welfare of the flocks, and bring me back word.” So he sent him from the valley of Hebron, and he came to Shechem.”

Joseph, not knowing the extent of his brothers’ hate to him, yet knowing that it does exsit agrees to go on this mission. He agrees to go and be alone with his brothers, and for this the rabbis praise him.  

No matter what you think of Joseph at this point, then comes the conversation which can tear anyone’s heart apart. 

“Then a man found him, and behold, he was straying in the field, and the man asked him, saying, “What are you looking for?” And he said, “I am looking for my brothers. Tell me now, where are they pasturing?”

Joseph could get off with a pretty good excuse and go home. He can tell his dad: “I tried!”, and get out of the whole uncomfortable encounter with his brothers. And yet, when Joseph says, “I am looking for my brothers, one can hear more than just a unknown location. Joseph is looking for his bothers. While he may be interacting with them poorly, he seeks out his brothers, he wants to be with them. It is the same unspeakable pain a child feels when excluded from a group, yearning to be included, even as the group does not want to include him. Joseph is “seeking his brothers” on so many different levels. He is asking where they are, in so many different ways. 

With all his seeking, Joseph does find his brothers, but not in a way he had ever imagined even in his wildest dreams. 

“And the man said, “They have traveled away from here, for I overheard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.’ “So Joseph went after his brothers, and he found them in Dothan. And they saw him from afar, and when he had not yet drawn near to them, they plotted against him to put him to death. So they said one to the other, “Behold, that dreamer is coming. So now, let us kill him, and we will cast him into one of the pits, and we will say, ‘A wild beast devoured him,’ and we will see what will become of his dreams.”

Up to this point, the rivalry between Joseph and his brothers can be seen as a standard sibling rivalry. Jealousy, competition of attention, and discomfort with one another can all be normal in the context of sibling rivalry. Suddenly, everything escalates so quickly. The brothers attempt to kill Joseph, then throw him into a pit, then sell him into slavery. 

“Now it came to pass when Joseph came to his brothers, that they stripped Joseph of his shirt, of the fine woolen coat which was upon him.”

When the verse says the brothers stripped him for his special coat it is not just literal; whatever unique advantage the brothers perceived Joseph to have, was attempted to be stripped off of him. 

But the story of the coat does not end here. 

After selling their brother away to slavery, Jospeh’s brothers to not just let go of the coat. 

“And they took Joseph’s coat, and they slaughtered a kid, and they dipped the coat in the blood. And they sent the fine woolen coat, and they brought [it] to their father, and they said, “We have found this; now recognize whether it is your son’s coat or not.” He recognized it, and he said, “[It is] my son’s coat; a wild beast has devoured him; Joseph has surely been torn up.”

The coat has come, more than anything, to symbolize the rise, and perceived fall, of Joseph’s dreams. What was thought to be a symbol of status and high aspirations, became the evidence to his death; the embodiment of his demise. Instead of being something to celebrate, Jospeh’s coat, and dreams, became something for Jacob to mourn. 

But Joseph’s dreams don’t end here. 

Joseph goes to Egypt, becomes fabulously successful in the home of Potiphar, and finds favor in everyone’s eyes. After another set back and being thrown back into prison at the behest of Potiphar’s wife, he climes the ranks again.

So when do Joseph’s dreams come true? When does it take a change for the better? When Joseph beings to actualize the dreams of others. 

“And Joseph came to them in the morning, and he saw them and behold, they were troubled. And he asked Pharaoh’s chamberlains who were with him in the prison of his master’s house, saying, “Why are your faces sad today?” And they said to him, “We have dreamed a dream, and there is no interpreter for it.” Joseph said to them, “Don’t interpretations belong to God? Tell [them] to me now.” (Genesis, chapter 40)

It is through solving the troubles of others and focusing on their dreams that Joseph gets to actualize his own dreams.

The lesson we learn from Joseph is to make sure that we dream, dream big. But those dreams will not come true unless we look out for others and care to make their dreams come true. Dreams have a price, dreams can take years, or even decades, but if they involve looking out for others, caring for what is important to them, those dreams will come true. 

A story and concept that embodies this, is one that took place with Warren Buffet, American’s most successful investor and one of the wealthiest people in the world. 

The story goes that Buffett one day approaches his pilot, Mike Flint, after realizing that Flint had worked for him for the past 10 years. He wants to discuss Flint’s career goals and how he can help him achieve them.

“The fact that you’re still working for me”, Buffett jokes, “tells me I’m not doing my job.”

To map out his goals, Flint was asked by his employer to conduct a simple exercise. It would change the way he viewed his priorities forever.

The first step in this exercise was to list down 25 things that Flint wanted to accomplish in the foreseeable future. Nothing was off the table.

Secondly, Flint was to rank these items in order of importance and circle the top five. Prioritizing his goals was more undoubtedly challenging than listing them, but Flint managed it.

Just when it appears as though the most challenging part of the exercise was over, Buffett asks Flint a seemingly simple question: “what are you going to do with the remaining 20 items?”

“Well the top five are my primary focus but the other twenty come in at a close second”, Flint explained. He goes on, “They are still important, so I’ll work on those intermittently as I see fit as I’m getting through my top five. They are not as urgent, but I still plan to give them dedicated effort.”

At this point, Buffett’s expression changes a little. He responds sternly:

“No. You’ve got it wrong. Everything you didn’t circle just became your Avoid-At-All-Cost list. No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you’ve succeeded with your top 5.”

Buffet was looking out for the dreams of others, helping them make those true. He wanted to breathe life into his pilot’s dreams, with concrete steps to make that happen. Making those happen may have a price, it may come at the expense of other pursuits, that is how dreams work. Buffet took time off from pursuing his own dreams, to make sure the dreams of others come true. With that inspiration, it is likely to assume this is why so many of his own dreams came true. 

Shabbat Shalom. 

About the Author
The writer is a rabbi, writer, teacher, and blogger (www.rabbipoupko.com). He is the president of EITAN-The American Israeli Jewish Network and lives with his wife in New York City.
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