Two Amazing Lessons
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim
Dedicated to my dear friend Rabbi Roth, whose one question led to many insights
When studying Joseph’s dreams and interpretations, the analogy of a genius painter comes to mind. This painter would arrange millions of paint specks on a single paintbrush. Then, using only one stroke, he would move his brush across a blank canvas. Suddenly, a beautiful scene would emerge; trees with colorful leaves, birds in flight, sun and clouds, mountains, and streams. A passerby witnessing the picture-perfect scene emerge with one stroke, would be in awe of how with one action, this painter anticipated how all the paint specks would fall into place and create a perfectly harmonious and picturesque scene. God’s two dreams granted to the young Joseph paint such a picture.
When he was 17, Joseph dreamt of 11 sheaves bowing to his. And then in another dream, he saw 11 stars and the sun and moon bowing to him. Even after seeing his brothers’ dismay at his retelling the first dream, Joseph nonetheless felt compelled to repeat his second dream to his brothers and his father, in a second recounting. It was due to these dreams that the brothers conspired to kill Joseph…eventually selling him instead. It was his father who suggested and rejected an interpretation that they would all bow to Joseph: the 11 stars being his 11 brothers, and the sun and moon representing Joseph’s parental figures. At this stage, it does not appear that Joseph offered his own interpretation. Yet, 13 years later, Joseph accurately and astonishingly interprets not only the dreams of Pharaoh’s stewards, but also Pharaoh’s dreams. All 3 dreams came true exactly! But how did Joseph know their interpretations? This question is strengthened by Joseph’s apparent lack of interpretative sills concerning his own two dreams. And many of the Torah commentaries including Ramban and Klay Yakkar do not suggest Joseph was divinely inspired with the interpretations: he succeeded in unraveling each dream solely through his own wisdom.
Later on, when his brothers descended to Egypt to purchase food during the famine, the brothers do not recognize the now 39-year-old, bearded Joseph standing before them. It is suggested that a further denial of this Egyptian viceroy truly being Joseph, was generated from the brothers’ rejection of any success Joseph would attain. Having been humiliated by his brothers, they were sure Joseph would be psychologically crippled, and certainly no viceroy.
When Joseph sees his brothers, he “recalls the dreams.” Rabbi Israel Chait said that this means that Joseph would use the divine license provided by these dreams to subjugate his brothers into repentance. Creating a situation where the youngest Benjamin would be imprisoned on false charges, Joseph orchestrated a replica of his very own sale to force his brothers into a parallel dilemma. Would they abandon the accused Benjamin now, who ostensibly stole Joseph’s goblet, as they had done 20 years earlier when they sold Joseph? Or, would they display complete repentance, and sacrifice themselves for their brother? Normally, one is not permitted to place anyone under such a trial, but Joseph recognized his dreams as divine in origin: a license to perfect his brothers. As Rabbi Chait taught, the first dream of the brothers’ sheaves bowing to his—physical dominance—was the precursor for Joseph’s dominance over them in the spiritual realm, symbolized by the 11 stars, sun and moon bowing to him. Then first dream was meant by God to teach Joseph that when the brothers would bow to him for food, Joseph thereby received permission to rule over them concerning their perfection, symbolized by higher bodies: the luminaries.
Subsequent to his dreams, Joseph understood their meaning; and not necessarily 39 years later when he first saw his brothers…but perhaps much earlier. Torah only tells us that he recalled the dreams upon seeing his brothers, to teach that this was when he would act upon those dreams. But their interpretation may have preceded this by many years.
When did Joseph become such a great dream interpreter? He was in prison most of the time in Egypt, and he didn’t seem to offer interpretation to his own dreams at 17 years of age. From where did Joseph obtain such knowledge of dreams, that he would eventually interpret the dreams of Pharaoh’s stewards and Pharaoh himself, with such precision? We are aware of the Torah’s description of Joseph as “Ben Zekunim” or as Unkelos translates, “a wise son.” Jacob taught Joseph all his knowledge attained at the Yeshiva of Shem and Aver. Perhaps this included lessons Jacob learned from his own dream of the ladder, and maybe others. So at the very outset, Joseph was a wise individual.
We also wonder why God gave these two dreams to Joseph, as they apparently contributed—if not caused—Joseph’s sale. But we cannot approach God’s true intent without His saying so. However, we can study, and perhaps suggest possibilities.
God’s Dreams: Altering History and Offering Perfection
God is perfectly just. He would not jeopardize Joseph’s life or well being, had Joseph not warranted this sale. We learn that Joseph beautified himself. He also reported his brother’s wrong doings to his father. He had an egoistic tendency, which was rightfully corrected as God humbled him in prison for many years. He publicized his dreams attracting unnecessary jealousy upon himself, which culminated in his sale and ultimately, his imprisonment. Thus, with Joseph’s dreams, God clearly intended to perfect him. But that was not the only reason for the dreams. As we mentioned, the genius painter performed one stroke of his brush, and created a perfect picture with tremendous detail. God’s dreams prophetically sent to Joseph had many ramifications.
Rabbi Chait taught that the dreams also provided perfection for the brothers, as Joseph was licensed through the dreams to place them into this trial regarding Benjamin. Simultaneously, this forced Jacob to part with Benjamin, perfecting Jacob as well, by helping him restrain his excessive love for Benjamin, displaced from his beloved, departed wife Rachel. And we see that Joseph’s plan is successful. As Rashi states, when Joseph embraced his father after all those years, we would think Jacob equally embraced his son Joseph. But he did not: he was preoccupied “reciting the Shima.” Of course the Shima (Torah phrases) did not yet exist, but this metaphor means Joseph’s plan to perfect his father worked: Jacob no longer directed his excessive love towards man, but now, towards God. He re-channeled his passions towards the Creator, as should be done.
So the dreams perfected Joseph by contributing to his sale and refinement of his ego, they enabled Joseph to perfect his brothers by forcing them to defend Benjamin, and they perfected his father as well, forcing him to break his bond to Rachel expressed in her son Benjamin. We might think these matters alone are amazing, that two dreams might offer so much good for so many. However, there is a great deal more to Joseph’s dreams. Something even more astonishing.
We asked earlier how Joseph transformed into such a brilliant dream interpreter. How did he know that the dreams of the stewards and Pharaoh were true and Divine? What did Joseph know about dreams? All he had were his 2 dreams years earlier. Soon thereafter he was cast into prison for over a decade. However, those dreams offered Joseph more than we think.
What was Joseph doing in prison this entire time? Of course he must have had chores, and he was promoted to oversee the other inmates. But he had his solitude as well…time to think.
Having received tremendous knowledge from his father, the teachings of Shem and Aver, Joseph gained deep insight into how God rules the world, and interacts with mankind. He knew the concept of repentance, for he was soon to be the conductor of his family’s repentance. He too must have reflected on his own state seeking repentance, “Why am I in prison? What is my sin?” He soon realized his dreams precipitated his descent into slavery, and that God gave him these dreams. He analyzed his dreams, and must have spent many hours, days, and weeks studying God’s precise communications of the night. What did he discover?
Pharaoh and His Stewards
10 years elapsed in prison. One day, Joseph saw the wine and bakery stewards were troubled by their dreams, and invited them to recount them before him. Joseph interpreted both dreams exactly in line with what happened: the wine steward was returned to his post, and the baker was hung. 2 more years elapse, and Joseph finds himself before Pharaoh. Pharaoh heard of Joseph’s interpretive skills, and he too told Joseph his dreams. Again Joseph interprets the dreams with exact precision, and they come true. But if God did not tell Joseph the future, how did he know it? We now arrive at the core of the issue…
2 Divine Signs: Dreamer & Duplication
God’s dreams granted to Joseph contained content, but they were also “instructive.” God gave Joseph 2 dreams, for objectives in addition to perfecting his family and himself. What do I mean? Besides the “content” of the dreams, prophetic dreams also have a “style”: the chosen dream recipient, and dream duplication.
Joseph received these dreams, and none other. He also received “2” dreams. Ramban states that 2 separate but similar dreams are unnatural: Pharaoh could have naturally seen both of the dreams’ content concerning the cows and the ears in a single dream (Ramban, Gen. 41:32). Pharaoh didn’t wake up and dream similar content again…unless it was divinely inspired. The same rule applies to the 2 stewards who dreamt similar dreams. And Joseph knew this. Joseph too had 2 separate dreams with similar content (Gen. 37:9). Ibn Ezra teaches that duplication in dreams indicates their divine origin: “[divine] dreams are doubled, as is the manner of prophecies” (Num. 12:6).
Joseph had many years to ponder his situation in prison, and much of what he may have pondered was the last event leading him into prison: his dreams. He knew they were from God, as he tells his brothers years later: “God sent me before you to place for you a remnant in the land and to sustain you…” (Gen. 45:7)
What did Joseph determine were indicative of divine dreams? He recognized dream duplication was unnatural. He also recognized that his dreams affected his perfection, so the “recipient” also indicates divine intent. These 2 elements were contained in the stewards’ dreams and in Pharaoh’s dreams. The stewards’ dream duplications were a variation, but no less telling of their divine nature, since they both occurred the very same night, to 2 individuals. Pharaoh also had 2 dreams, and of additional significance, it was “Pharaoh”—the man with the wherewithal to address the forecasted famine—who received the dreams.
Joseph understood from his own experience that dream duplication and a strategic dream recipient point to the dream’s Divine nature. So convinced was Joseph of their divine origin that the recipient is of a telling nature, Joseph says to Pharaoh, “What God plans He has told to Pharaoh” (Gen. 41:25). Joseph meant to say, “Your reception of this dream as opposed to another indicates its divine nature.” And Joseph repeats this in verse 28.
Had God not granted Joseph these two divine dreams, Joseph would not have pondered dreams. He would not necessarily have studied their style, to the point that he was able to facilitate the good outcome God desired, by emancipating himself through the stewards’ interpretations, and rising to viceroy applying his wisdom to Pharaoh’s dreams.
God used dreams not only to perfect Jacob’s household, but also to train Joseph in dream design and interpretation...the very matter essential for carving our Jewish history. The design of Joseph’s dreams contained the blueprint for determining the divine nature of the other dreams he would interpret. In other words, his dreams were actually dream instructions, not just messages. This is akin to a coded message in an alien language, where the message content is one lesson, but the textual arrangement also contains hints to decipher this new language. Joseph’s dreams’ “content” contained a message for directing his perfecting of his family. But the dream “design” (selected recipient and duplication) taught him how to unravel dreams in general.
With a single brush stroke of Joseph’s dreams, God 1) placed Joseph in prison to humble him, 2) He caused the brothers to repent, this time not abandoning their youngest brother, 3) He caused Jacob to perfect his excessive love, and 4) He trained Joseph in the art of dream interpretation…the science essential for the aforementioned perfections of Jacob, his sons, and Joseph!
The very dreams that caused Joseph’s imprisonment, also provided his escape, and helped sustain that generation.
We appreciate God’s wisdom: with one action He effectuates the greatest good for so many. We also realize that without Joseph’s appreciation that God teaches man with sublime wisdom, Joseph would not have engaged his own wisdom to discern God’s will, nor would Joseph acquire the dream interpretation skills he discovered while in prison. But since Joseph had such deep knowledge of how God works, he turned all his efforts while in prison to analyzing his dreams, using wisdom to 1) uncover God’s message, and 2) study dream style so as to determine which dreams are Divine, and how to interpret them.
A Fifth Message
Additionally, dreams—by definition—are a manifestation of “hidden” material. Understanding this, Joseph knew that if God communicates with His prophets in dreams, as stated in Numbers 12:6, it is for this reason. God wishes to indicate that just as dreams conceal deeper ideas, certainly God’s dreams conceal deeper ideas to a greater degree. God’s selected mode of communicating with His prophets via dreams is meant to underscore the principle that God’s words too must undergo man’s interpretation, if the intended message is to be discovered. With that appreciation, Joseph delved into the study of dreams, both prophetic and mundane. He also determined that dreams of divine origin contain a code, and once detected, can be understood. Joseph knew that wisdom is how God designed the world. Therefore, it is only with wisdom that man succeeds.
Relevance to Us
Does this lesson have any relevance in our lives? Without witnessing a miracle, we certainly cannot determine with any certainty that a given action is the hand of God. Maybe it is, maybe not. We do not know. We must review our successes and failures with the possibility that God’s education of man can take one of 2 roads: 1) divine intervention for the individual, as with Joseph’s dreams; or 2) natural laws of general providence, such as “boredom” with new acquisitions. God designed man’s psyche to be frustrated with overindulgence in the physical pleasures, so as to redirect our energies back to the world of Torah wisdom. This is not individual providence, but a law of nature that applies equally to all members of mankind. Our consideration of our travails must straddle both spheres of God’s workings. And since the Talmud teaches that prophecy has ceased, our dreams are not prophetic. However, there is a primary lesson that does apply to us all.
A Life of Wisdom
Joseph’s approach to life was based on his knowledge that God created all. Thus, the world “naturally” functions according to God’s wisdom. Despite the fact that God did not reveal Pharaoh’s or his stewards’ interpretations, Joseph secured perfection and sustenance for his family and all of Egypt using wisdom alone. Since he guided his actions purely based on wisdom, he was not in conflict with God’s world that functions according to that same, singular wisdom. Rather, he was perfectly in line with it, as his successes teach. We too can perceive God’s wisdom if we earnestly seek it out from His Torah. Wisdom is the key to success and happiness in all areas. We do not need God telling us anything more, or sending signs, just like Joseph did not need God to interpret the dreams. In fact, God has already intervened by giving His Torah to us all.
Viewing our misfortunes as divinely intended—“It’s all for the good”—man deceives himself, and will repeat his errors. Maimonides teaches that most of our misfortunes are self-inflicted. It is only through following Torah—“Let us search our ways, analyze, and return to God” (Eicha 3:40)—analyzing our ways and determining whether they match Torah ideals, that we will avoid many misfortunes, and our need to falsely pacify ourselves with “It’s all for the good.” Using reason in all areas, and admitting our errors with a responsible analysis and internal change, we can engage wisdom to steer us to the truly good path, as God wills for all mankind, and is readily available without further intervention.
The Torah has all we need. Quick fixes like amulets, superstitious red bendels can’t help us. They can’t defend from God’s punishments. They are also powerless to stop our foolishness. God says in Eicha that the approach to self-improvement and a good life is to engage wisdom, and to change our poor behaviors.