By Shlomo Riskin
“They said to one another, ‘Here comes that dreamer! Come, now, let us murder him and throw him into one of the pits…’” (Gen. 37:19).
“We are such stuff as dreams are made of.” (Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act 4, Scene 1).
From our Biblical portion of Vayeshev until the conclusion of the Book of Genesis, Joseph, most beloved and favored son of Jacob, takes center stage. His chief characteristic is that he is a dreamer. Joseph can hardly wait to relate to his family these dreams in which he plays the central role. They engender deep jealousy in the hearts of his brothers – a jealousy so consuming that they are ready to murder him – whereas, his father takes the dreams very seriously and anxiously awaited their fulfillment. (Gen. 37:11, Rashi ad loc.)
Sources as diverse as our sacred Bible, the Talmud (especially B.T. Berakhot, chapter 9), William Shakespeare, Sigmund Freud, and the world of psychoanalysis all have enormous respect for dreams. They are an important key to the mind and personality of the dreamer.
Two Biblical portions ago, we were told of Father Jacob’s dream, “a ladder established on earth whose top reached up to the heavens, with angels of God ascending and descending upon it” (Gen. 28:12). Jacob dreams of uniting earth and heaven, the material and the spiritual, the physical realm with the supernal realm. God is at the center of the dream, Jacob’s descendants will spread out in every direction to bring the Abrahamic blessing (of compassionate righteousness and moral justice) to all the families of the earth, and Jacob himself will ultimately return to the land of Israel (ibid, 13-16).
Now we see the two dreams of Joseph – the darling son of Jacob, who received not only his father’s almost exclusive love, but also the special tunic of striped colors – which sent him the clear message that he was the chosen, the heir apparent, and the future leader of the incipient tribes of Israel.
Joseph first dreams of sheaves of grain, symbolic of the earthly, material blessings. In his dream, Joseph’s brothers’ sheaves were all bowing down to his sheaf; he then dreamed of the sun, moon and eleven stars, symbolic of the heavenly, spiritual blessings, and that they too were all bowing down to him.
To be sure, he has internalized the familial narrative and the Abrahamic vision. Both the physical and supernal realm find their place in his dreams, with the faith that success in both will enable the family representative (ultimately the Messiah) to bring the combined two blessings to the entire world, indeed to the cosmos.
Jacob is duly impressed with Joseph’s grasp of the family mission as well as the preciousness of Joseph’s ambition. He is aware of the touch of hubris in his dreams, and probably blames it on immaturity (Joseph is only seventeen years old). Apparently, Jacob still feels he has made the right choice.
The brothers are furious. Undoubtedly, their anger is fueled by their jealousy, but they certainly take note of three most disturbing factors in Joseph’s dreams. First of all, Joseph dreams of the earthly part of the mission involved in agriculture (sheaves of grain). This represented the all-consuming back-breaking occupation of powerful, pagan and sophisticated Egypt, rather than their ancestral, nurturing and meditative profession of shepherding, so indigenous to the Land of Israel.
Second, God does not appear in Joseph’s dreams at all; and third, everyone and everything is bowing down to Joseph. For the brothers, this would be blasphemy, totally unbefitting the heir to the Abrahamic legacy.
From this point onwards, much intrigue, deception, exile and eventual rapprochement will take place in the search for the most worthy bearer of the familial heritage. But, above all, the most important challenge facing the entire family – Jacob as well as his sons and future tribes – is to unite behind one person (or perhaps two, as we shall see) to continue the sacred mission.
Indeed, the entire Book of Genesis has its major theme the continuation of Abraham’s vision and necessity of his descendants to remain united as one peoplehood of Israel under the God of ethical monotheism.
The enormous lesson of this commentary is that a Jewish leader must be not only a “continuator” and a unifier, but also a dreamer. He must dream the dream of Abraham and Jacob, the dream of bringing God’s message of love, morality and peace to all of humanity. Joseph will mature, he will come to see God as the center of the Universe and he will even teach this vision to the Pharaoh of Egypt. When Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dream, he insists, “It has nothing to do with me; God will respond in order to provide well-bring to Pharaoh” (Gen. 41:16).
And with his dying breath, Joseph makes his brothers swear that when God returns them to Israel, they will bring his remains to be interred in the sacred and eternal land. In the final analysis, what kept Joseph staunchly standing on his feet despite his many setbacks and peregrinations was his commitment to the fulfillment of the familial dream.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.