The Power of Dreams

Last week we examined Joseph standing up against the authority of Potiphar’s wife. This week I want to look at a different facet of Joseph-his ability to solve dreams.

Our portion begins with Pharaoh having a dream which no one can solve. The chief butler, who had been restored to power at the end of last week’s portion, suddenly remembers that a Hebrew youth correctly interpreted the dreams which restored him to power and led to the chief baker being hung.[1] Pharaoh sends for Joseph to interpret the dream but before he does so, Joseph proclaims, “Not I! G-d will see to Pharaoh’s welfare.”[2]  We often gloss over the gall and bravery Joseph had to make this statement, as those who held the title Pharaoh considered themselves to be gods. Then of course Joseph correctly interprets Pharaoh’s dream and becomes his grand vizier, the second-in-command.

What gave Joseph the ability to interpret Pharaoh’s dream? Is this a particular talent that any of us can learn from in order to curry favor with contemporary elected officials?

The Talmud teaches us that dreams are 1/60th of prophecy.[3] This teaches us that there is a small kernel of truth in every dream and that  G-d is trying to teach us a message through our dreams. The rabbis see this very clearly, especially if we turn back to last week’s portion. After Joseph’s two dreams in which he proclaimed that his brothers would bow before him we have the statement ואביו שמר את הדבר, “but his father guarded the matter.”[4] What does this strange statement mean? Rashi states that it means that Jacob waited and anticipated when Joseph’s prophecies would come true.[5]  Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno adds a personal dimension here, asserting that Jacob thought the dream was true and desired that it be fulfilled, referencing the Talmudic maxim, “A person is jealous of everyone except his child and his student.”[6]

An interesting difference between these earlier two dreams and Pharaoh’s dream in our portion is that Joseph did not reference G-d. While we know the dreams come true in the brothers’ bowing down before Joseph, we also know that Joseph sounded like a braggart and a tattletale, not exactly a sympathetic figure. Now, in contrast, he sounds like a matured figure who gives credit for his abilities to G-d. Similarly in next week’s parsha when the brothers fear Joseph’s wrath, he assures them, “Do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me here; it was to save life that G-d sent me ahead of you.”[7] Beginning with Potiphar’s wife, which we discussed last week, Joseph demonstrates an understanding that G-d is responsible for all of his successes. This talent Joseph has for telling dreams is G-d given to be used to help those around him rather than something meant to make him superior to his brothers.

Last week we read a Haftarah from the beginning of the book of Amos, a prophet who routinely castigates the Kingdom of Israel for their misdeeds. It is the words of a later section from Amos, however, that speak to me when I read the story of Joseph. Amos asserts, “To Me, Israelites, you are just like the Ethiopians-declares G-d. While I brought Israel up from the land of Egypt, I also brought the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir.”[8] In other words, don’t think you’re so great just because you were chosen by G-d to be freed from Egypt. Joseph now recognizes that he has been brought down to Egypt for a reason; to serve Hashem through his great skill in deciphering dreams, and thus to save the lives of the Egyptians (and later his own family) from famine. No specific reason is given for why Joseph was given these skills or this responsibility; rather, like all of our great ancestors, G-d chose to single him out for His holy work.

We are close to concluding our Festival of Lights, our חג אורים. A holiday like Hanukkah can make us feel that we’re so great because we kept faith in Hashem through avoiding Hellenism and for fighting for our religion and beliefs. Before we finish celebrating, however, I want to ask ‘Are we so great?’ I read an article by Barbara Brotman entitled The Maccabees Were on the Wrong Side of History: So Why Do We Still Celebrate Hanukkah?”[9] Barbara writes about her Greek friend John who says “You like wine? You like theater? You like philosophy? You’re with us!”[10]  She asks, “How can I celebrate a holiday that commemorates a defeat of Jews who wanted to live in a cosmopolitan world — in short, Jews like me?”[11] I would argue against her that the two are not mutually exclusive; that one can like Greek cultural and culinary advances, including the Olympics and spanakopita, while concurrently believing in one G-d and in the right to practice Judaism rather than be coerced into practices that are counter to who we are. On Hanukkah I celebrate the ability to publicly practice Judaism: to wear a kippah without being afraid of being beaten up, to light a Hanukkiah by my window without fear that my house will be attacked by an angry mob, to have a public Hanukiah lighting rather than have to hide my Judaism in my home. To put on a pedestal the freedoms we are given to worship our Creator as we choose, is something worth celebrating, and this is what Joseph recognized in our portion by declaring that his gifts and talents come from G-d. May we go into our final day and a half of Hanukkah with pride in who we are and with what we stand for, just as our ancestor Joseph had pride in G-d.

[1] Genesis 41:12-13

[2] Genesis 41:16

[3] Babylonian Talmud Berachot 55a

[4] Genesis 37:11

[5] Rashi on Genesis 37:11 ד”ה שמר את הדבר

[6] Seforno on Genesis 37:11 ד”ה ואביו שמר. The Talmudic reference is Sanhedrin 105b.

[7] Genesis 45:5

[8] Amos 9:7. This is the start of the Haftarah read for Aharei Mot/Kedoshim or for Kedoshim in a leap year.

[9] Barbara Brotman, Forward, December 21, 2016.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

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