One Person’s Dream May Be Another Person’s Nightmare: Sidra Vayeshev and the dream narratives of Joseph

Sidra Vayeshev is begins and ends with a story about dreams and how Joseph is affected by them.  

In the book of Genesis we hear about a number of different dreams and dreamers, and each time dreaming is hugely important. The first dreamer is  Abimelech King of Gerar (Gen 20:3-7) who, having taken Sarah into his harem on the belief that she is Abraham’s sister, is warned by God in a dream to return Abraham’s wife to him. The next dreamer is Jacob, who dreams twice – the first time when leaving the land as a young boy afraid for his future when his dream of a ladder with angels ascending and descending comforts him with the presence of God. The second dream occurs while he is still with Laban but is aware that the tide of hospitality is turning and he must return to the land. (Gen 31:10-13). After this God appears to Laban in a dream (31:24) in order to warn him not to attack Jacob.

Within the Joseph narratives, there are three couplets of dreams. Joseph as a young boy dreaming of both the sheaves of corn and of the stars all bowing down to him; the dreams of the butler and the baker, servants of Pharaoh, and finally the two dreams of Pharaoh himself. Each of these dreams contains a message about the future, and seems to be dependent on interpretation in a way that the earlier dreams do not.

Joseph is confident about his ability to explain dreams – a confidence is quickly validated, as each of his explanations is played out in Pharaoh’s court. The butler is restored to his position and the baker is hanged. (40:21-22)

Where did Joseph get this confidence; indeed, where did he get the ability to interpret dreams? The earlier dream sequence in the beginning of our Parasha has him not as dream interpreter but as the dreamer. His brothers and father are the ones who make inferences from his dreams – he just reports them. When did he learn how to explain dreams?

And why does the butler “finally” remember Joseph and report his successful dream interpretation abilities to Pharaoh. This ability will lead not only to Joseph’s rise to greatness but ultimately to our terrible oppression and slavery in Egypt. (See BT Shabbat 10b)

Dreams can bring about powerful events. Once we can imagine, we can aspire. Or to put it another way in the words of Herzl in Altneuland “If you will it, it will be no dream”

If we dream, then we can make things happen. Through our dreams, we imagine a world we want to live in. We can imagine a better tomorrow that we can help make happen. Dreams offer dress rehearsals for the reality yet to be.

Yet precisely because dreams provide a chance to see ourselves as significant in changing our reality, they can be dangerous. Following our dream might also skew our sight of others. and perspective about what impact we may have. If we aspire too narrowly, letting our ambition be the driver in our leves so that we blot out the reality of others whose world we share, our dreams can become a deadly weapon. Our ambition and self-centredness following our own dreams can mean that we can hurt and demean others, and this is what Joseph did to his older brothers.

Joseph’s dreams may well have been prophecy. They may well also have embodied the sibling rivalry between him and his older brothers. He was, after all, ben zekunim, the child of his father’s old age, and therefore a favoured child. He was certainly the child of the favoured wife. His dreams and the way he presented them to his brothers were offensive to them, and quite rightly so.  The brothers were offended not so much by the dream itself as by the apparent cause for this dream. They clearly thought that Joseph must be thinking about his takeover of the family so much that these thoughts have entered his dreams.  Jewish tradition knew early on that not all dreams are prophecy, but that they may be the expression of what we today would describe as subconscious desires and repressed urges.

So the brothers must have thought at first that the dream was an expression of Joseph’s ambition, and they rightly would have hated him for that. But why did they keep silent at the second dream?  Maybe they already knew the tradition that teaches that a single dream may be caused by internal thoughts and musing, but if that same dream occurs twice then it is truly God’s word. We find this approach explicitly stated by Joseph when he explains Pharaoh’s doubled dream: “The reason the dream was given to Pharaoh in two forms is that the matter has been firmly decided by God, and God will do it soon” (Gen. 41:32)

         We too have our dreams and our visions, and often we see them as being somehow stamped with the approval of the Almighty. But we should take the time to see our dreams from a different perspective, to look at how they look through the eyes of others. For what may appear to us as a deserved reward may seem to other parties involved as conquest, exploitation, or marginalization.

         We need to strive for a God’s eye view, in which how our dreams appear to everybody can be factored into the unfolding of the dream into a more welcoming reality. Because our dreams don’t have to pan out exactly for them to come true, and we certainly have a role to play in bringing them forth.

 

Parashat Va’era

There is so much packed into this sidra – where to begin? Is it with the conundrum of the name of God as presented here? The new and different kind of relationship that God has with Moses in comparison with the Patriarchs? The insight into Moses’ speech difficulties? The hardening of the resolve of Pharaoh by God – and for what purpose? The sudden placing of the genealogy interrupting the narrative flow? The terrible plagues inflicted on the Egyptians? The most amazing (to me, the mother of a primary school child) that the plague of lice could not be repeated by the powerful magicians who could copy other plagues?

One line spoke to me more this year than any other – Moses repeats the words of God who tells the people “I am YHVH and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians and I will deliver you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments, and I will take you to Me for  a people and I will be your God, and you will know that I am the Eternal your God who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians and I will bring you in to the land concerning which I lifted up My hand to give it to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob, and I will give it to you for a heritage, I am YHVH” and the people “did not listen to Moses because of impatience of spirit and [their] difficult work” (6:6-9)

Literally the words “kotzer ruach” mean shortness of breath or limited spirit and could mean, as Rashi understands it, that they were physically finding breathing hard, presumably because of the severity of the work they had to do. But I find Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s translation as “impatience” more satisfactory. They did not listen to what Moses was saying because they were operating in a different emotional environment, they were focussed only on the here and now, they could not see beyond the next task to be achieved.  Short termism was all they could manage. The Jews were slaves – and had been for some generations – in a land named Mitzraim, “the doubly narrow place”. They had  become habituated to their surroundings and their lives, they had learned how to survive, and that skill was all about having narrow horizons themselves. They could not possibly imagine a future, let alone a future in a different world where they would be quite different themselves. The generation of the exodus were emotionally and intellectually locked down, they suffered failure of imagination as well as failure of faith, their one imperative was to keep their heads down and keep doing what they had always done. They would allow themselves no awareness outside this behaviour. They just wanted to survive but it seems they no longer knew why it was important to survive or what they were surviving in order to become.

This view of “kotzer ruach” of narrowness of spirit and failure to dream of a better future is one that comes into sharp focus for me as I watch the run up to the Israeli elections. The many shifting coalitions as people jockey for votes, the offerings of quick fixes rather than thoughtful change, the lack of focus on life -critical issues in favour of trivial ones, the refusal to engage with the peace process, the social pressures facing so many of the people, the financial pressures that can surely not be sustained, it is depressing to sit here watching a country I love suffering from kotzer ruach, taking short breaths that allow it to continue from moment to moment, but having lost direction, belief, imagination, purpose. In 1897 Theodor Herzl famously wrote “im tirtzu, ein zo agada; ve’im lo tirtzu, agada hi ve’agada tisha’er’,: ‘If you will it, it is no dream; and if you do not will it, a dream it is and a dream it will stay”. Because he and others thought and planned and imagined and dreamed, a Jewish State was born, but it requires the thinking and planning and imagination and dreaming of its current leadership for it to continue to be what it was set up to be: “THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.” (Declaration of Independence 1948) (1)

Moses offered hope and deep meaning to the Children of Israel, who could not listen to  him or understand what he was offering and so missed a vital opportunity to not only survive but to thrive as a people of God. I hope and pray that we will not suffer such a failure of imagination and will again, and that those who are able to vote in the coming election will make their voices heard for good, so that the promise “I will take you to Me for a people, and I will be to you a God, and you will know that I am the Eternal your God” with all that that extraordinary relationship of covenant and obligation can mean, will happen in our day.

 

(1)  taken from http://www.mfa.gov.il/MFA/Peace+Process/Guide+to+the+Peace+Process/Declaration+of+Establishment+of+State+of+Israel.htm