Parashat Miketz: Dreams that shape reality
The greatest visionaries were guided by their dreams. As parents and educators, it is incumbent upon us to explore our children’s and students’ dreams, and at times, to help create those dreams ourselves.
Chana Assis, Principal (on sabbatical) of OTS’s Jennie Sapirstein High School in Ramot, Jerusalem
The story of Joseph and his brothers is one of the most moving and rattling accounts in the Bible. We can answer the question of why Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt on several different, yet parallel levels.
The first level asks us to explore the circumstances that resulted from the shaky relationships in Jacob’s household: Joseph’s sense of self-importance, the brothers’ jealousy, their willingness to commit a crime by selling their brother, their kinsman, and Joseph’s sons’ willingness to cause their father distress.
The Torah suggests another level of looking at the story of the sale of Joseph: when Joseph re-encounters his brothers, they are very fearful of Joseph’s reaction, and are worried that Joseph would taking revenge on them for what they had done. Joseph, who sensed their distress, turns to them, and says the following to them: “… do not be sad, and let it not trouble you that you sold me here, for it was to preserve life that G-d sent me before you.” (Genesis 45:5) Thus, Joseph gives his harsh story a divine interpretation: he was sold as part of a divine plan to alleviate the hunger plaguing Joseph’s family.
If we revisit the Brit Bein Habetarim (“The Covenant of Parts”) between Abraham and G-d, we’ll discover another level that gives the story of the sale of Joseph an even more profound significance: “And He said to Abram, “You shall surely know that your seed will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and they will enslave them and oppress them, for four hundred years. And also the nation that they will serve will I judge, and afterwards they will go forth with great possessions.” (Genesis 15:13-14) This covenant reveals a divine plan to implement the covenant between the people of Israel and the Holy One, Blessed Be He. The sale of Joseph to slavery in Egypt is just part of a larger and more extensive divine plan to cause Israel’s subjugation at the hands of the Egyptians, after which they would leave as a nation, receive the Torah, and enter the Promised Land as G-d’s chosen people.
We thus have three different explanations for the sale of Joseph, which are completely independent of each other. The first level is physical: Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt because of the human circumstances surrounding the state of affairs between the members of Jacob’s household. The second level is the divine plan to save Jacob’s family from the pangs of hunger. Joseph only comes to sense this level after becoming viceroy to the Pharaoh of Egypt. The third level, which also concerns divine plans, is revealed to Abraham in the Covenant of the Parts, but nothing indicates that Jacob’s sons were aware of this while in Egypt. The physical level of the story of the sale of Joseph is independent. Hashem is closely watching what is transpiring, and steering the events so that they lead up to the sale of Joseph, but Jacob’s sons are nonetheless responsible for their actions, and guilty of selling their brother. The divine levels of this story are clearly distinct and independent as well.
The various interpretations of the story of the sale of Joseph are also reflected in the various dreams we encounter in other weekly portions. Each of the exegetical levels of the story of the sale of Joseph is expressed in a dream.
Joseph’s dreams in Parashat Vayeshev reflect the circumstances in Joseph’s household. Joseph divulges his dream to his brothers, in which his brothers’ sheaves of wheat appear to be bowing down to his own. In another dream, he tells his father and brothers of how the stars, sun and moon were bowing down to him. These dreams incensed them, and fueled their envy, and it was this envy and rage that ultimately led to the terrible episode in which Joseph was sold.
Pharaoh’s dreams, which are related in this week’s portion, reflect the divine plan for the immediate future, the plan that would lead Egypt to greatness. The thin cows that devour the handsome cows, and the shriveled sheaves that consume the full and healthy sheaves, drive Pharaoh to seek an interpreter of dreams. This search leads to his meeting with Joseph, who would end up saving Egypt and Jacob’s family from the pangs of hunger.
Abraham’s dream during the time of the Covenant of the Parts expresses the broadest level of the story of the sale of Joseph, when the Holy One, Blessed be once again promises to give Abraham the Land of Israel, and many descendants.
It is no coincidence that each of these layers of reality involving the descent of the sons of Jacob to Egypt is reflected in a dream. Dreams express our innermost passions and reveal our latent hopes, our intentions and our desires. The revelation of the Holy One, Blessed be He through dreams conveys an educational message, one that reflects something about the importance of dreams.
Dreams are vital for people and nations to grow and flourish. Dreams are the beacons that guide people toward attaining their goals and aspirations. What makes them important is that they reflect a person’s inner self, and guide that person down the path of growth and development. Sometimes, dreamers create their own dreams, while at other times, others (in this case, the Holy One, Blessed Be He) partner with the dreamers to create those dreams.
One familiar type of dream is embodied in the idea of the Utopia, which Bloch comments on: “Utopia… is the tools that people use to create themselves. They use them to try to anticipate something that hadn’t occurred in reality, but exists in human imagination… the role of the Utopia is to raise awareness of something we aren’t yet aware of, and indicate which direction humanity needs to head in, to fulfill its needs and dreams…” (Rachel Elboim-Dror, Yesterday’s Tomorrow, p. 15)
As parents and educators, it is incumbent upon us to explore our children’s and students’ dreams, and at times, to help create those dreams ourselves.
The creators of reality and those who have the greatest influence on that reality are visionaries that are guided by dreams: Abraham, Moses, King David, Maimonides, R. Yosef Karo, R. Alkalai, R. Kalisher, R. Mohilever, Herzl, David Ben Gurion, Menahem Begin, the Zionist movement, and the Jewish People as a nation. Indeed, we were as dreamers…