This week's class is from Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom, teacher of the Project
Genesis Rambam class.
I. - Dreams and Prophecy
Our Parashah is "bookended" with stories about dreams; both stories
featuring Yoseph (Joseph) as the central character. At the end of our
Parashah, we are told about Yoseph's success in the prison of the court of
Egypt - and of his insightful explanation of the dreams of two of his
"Each of the two men - the butler and the baker of the king of Egypt, who
were being held in prison - had a dream the same night, and each dream had
a meaning of its own. When Yoseph came to them the next morning, he saw
that they were dejected. So he asked Pharaoh's officials who were in
custody with him in his master's house, 'Why are your faces so sad today?'
'We both had dreams,' they answered, 'but there is no one to interpret
them.' Then Yoseph said to them, 'Do not interpretations belong to G-d?
Tell me your dreams.'" (Beresheet [Genesis] 40:5-8)
Yoseph is confident about his ability to explain their dreams - and that
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 Yoseph get this confidence; indeed, where did he get the ability
to interpret dreams? The earlier dream sequence in the beginning of our
Parashah, involving Yoseph, posits Yoseph not as a dream interpreter;
rather, as the dreamer. His brothers and father are the ones who make
inferences from his dreams - but he just reports them. When did he learn
how to explain dreams?
This question carries extra significance in light of the later story of
Yoseph's redemption from prison. The butler finally remembers Yoseph and
reports his successful dream interpetation abilities to Pharaoh. This
leads not only to Yoseph's rise to greatness (as a result of his
explanation of Pharaoh's dreams), but ultimately to our terrible oppression
and slavery in Egypt. (See BT Shabbat 10b)
II. - Dreams and Reactions
In order to understand Yoseph's ability to interpret the dreams of the
butler and baker - and then those of Pharaoh, let's look back at the first
dream-sequence at the beginning of our Parashah:
Yoseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him all
the more. He said to them, "Listen to this dream I had: We were binding
sheaves of grain out in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood
upright, while your sheaves gathered around mine and bowed down to it." His
brothers said to him, "Do you intend to reign over us? Will you actually
rule us?" And they hated him all the more because of his dream and what he
had said. Then he had another dream, and he told it to his brothers.
"Listen," he said, "I had another dream, and this time the sun and moon and
eleven stars were bowing down to me." When he told his father as well as
his brothers, his father rebuked him and said, "What is this dream you had?
Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come and bow down to the
ground before you?" His brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept
the matter in mind. (Beresheet 37:5-11)
Yoseph had two dreams - the dream of the sheaves and the dream of the
stars. An in-depth study of the differences between these dreams - surely
a worthy enterprise - is beyond the scope of this shiur. We do note,
nevertheless, several significant differences in the reaction of his family
members to the dreams. Resolving two questions about these reactions and
one (seemingly) ancillary issues will help us understand Yoseph's later
confidence and ability as a dream interpreter:
- Why did Yoseph tell his brothers about his dreams? He already had a
tempestuous relationship with them and, surely, relating these dreams would
do nothing to reverse that trend.
- When he told them that he had had the first dream (the dream of the
sheaves) - before informing them of the content, they hated him more than
before (37:5). After he related the content of the dream, his brothers
accused Yoseph of plotting - or, at least contemplating - a "takeover" of
the family. After he related the second dream (the dream of the stars),
they had no reaction. Note that the dream of the stars is much more
impactful than the dream of the sheaves in two ways:
- Not only are the brothers bowing down (akin to the blessing given to
Ya'akov - Beresheet 27:29), but the sun (father) and moon (mother) are also
- Unlike the first dream, where their sheaves bowed to his sheaf, the
second dream had the stars, sun and moon bowing to Yoseph himself.
Nevertheless, the brothers remained silent in response to hearing this
dream - although they were jealous (37:11). Note that he related this dream
twice; to his brothers and, later, to his father in their presence. Why
didn't they react to the second dream - either time?
- The father, on the other hand, reacted to the second dream in the same
fashion as the brothers' reaction to the first dream - yet he "kept the
matter in mind"; i.e. he waited to see if it would be fulfilled. Why did
Ya'akov simultaneously castigate his son for this "egocentric" dream -
indicating a dismissive attitude towards it - while waiting to see if it
would come to pass?
III. - Ya'akov and his Ben Z'kunim
Solving one other difficulty at the beginning of our Parashah will set us
on the path to a solution. As we are introduced to Yoseph and the special
relationship he had with his father, we are told:
"Now Yisra'el loved Yoseph more than any of his other sons, ki ven z'kunim
hu lo (because he had been born to him in his old age)..." (Beresheet
The Rishonim provide several opinions about the key phrase ben z'kunim hu
lo. Rashi understands it as our translation indicates - since Yoseph was
born to Ya'akov when he was old, the father felt a special affection for
him. Ramban challenges this interpretation on two points:
- Yoseph was apparently born not much later than Yissachar and Zevulun;
- The verse states that Ya'akov "loved Yoseph more than any of his other
sons"; the implication is that Ya'akov loved him more than Binyamin, who
was born much later and when Ya'akov was much older.
Onkelos translates ben z'kunum as "wise child". Ramban points out the
difficulty with this translation: The verse states ki ven z'kunim hu Lo -
he was a ben z'kunim to him (to Ya'akov). If ben z'kunim is rendered
"wise child", then there is no need for the possessive lo afterwards.
Clearly, the ben z'kunim position was not an objective description,
rather it was relational to Ya'akov.
Ramban then offers his own explanation:
"The custom of elders was to take one of their younger sons as a servant,
and he would lean on him at all times, never separating from him. He would
be called "the son of his old age" (ben z'kunav) since he would serve him
in his old age...this is what they [the Rabbis] intended when they stated
(Beresheet Rabbah 84:8) 'Everything that [Ya'akov] learned from Shem and
Ever he passed on to [Yoseph]', i.e. he transmitted to him the wisdom and
Following Ramban's explanation, Yoseph had every reason to see himself as
the heir of the Avraham-Yitzchak-Ya'akov tradition. As the closest and
most favored recipient of Ya'akov's wisdom and tradition, Yoseph understood
that he was destined to experience some of the same events that befell his
father - and to have a similar relationship with G-d. (See Rashi at 37:2 -
"...everything that happened to Ya'akov [also] happened to Yoseph...")
IV. - Ya'akov - The First Dreamer
Among our Avot (Patriarchs and Matriarchs), the only one whom we are told
had a dream was Ya'akov. Ya'akov dreamt not once, but twice - on his way
out of the Land (Beresheet 28:12-15) and when being beckoned back
[It is interesting to note that the only other two dreams recorded in
Beresheet before Yoseph were nearly identical occasions. G-d appeared to
Avimelekh (Beresheet 20:3-7) to warn him to return Avraham's wife to her
husband. G-d then appeared to Lavan (31:24) to warn him not to attack
Ya'akov. These two dreams are not of a category with Ya'akov's - or with
the three remaining couplets of dreams - Yoseph's, Pharaoh's stewards' or
Pharaoh's. In those dreams, there was a message about the future of the
individual or his nation, not a divine intercession on behalf of the
It is reasonable to posit that Ya'akov related his dreams, their meanings
and their outcomes to Yoseph. The favorite son, heir apparent to the
tradition, had every reason to believe that if he dreamt a dream where the
"message" of the dream was obvious, that he should regard it as prophecy
and the word of G-d - just as his father experienced.
V. - Dreams and Visions
We can now look through the first dream sequence and understand the
different reactions of the brothers and Ya'akov - and what Yoseph learned
[I recommended a careful review of 37:5-11 before continuing].
It is clear from the opening verses of our Parashah that Yoseph was engaged
in a power struggle of sorts within the structure of the family (see Rashi
and Ramban on 37:2). Yoseph then experienced a dream - with an obvious
implication for that struggle and its [seemingly divinely mandated]
outcome. He told the dream to his brothers - and they hated him even more
just for telling them! He must have been confused by this (unless he wasn't
aware of it) - for why would they not be interested in hearing the word of
G-d, especially as it affects them so directly?
When he relates the dream of the sheaves (only to his brothers - his father
does not hear of it), they understand its implication - and berate him for
it. What did they find so offensive about his vision?
The verses do not indicate that the brothers disbelieved his dream - but
they were offended by it. The brothers had a piece of information which
was not yet known to Yoseph: Although father Ya'akov is a prophet - and his
dreams are indeed visions from G-d, that is no longer the case with the
next generation. A dream may not necessarily be a vision - it may be the
expression of subconcious desires and repressed urges (as conventional
psychology maintains). The Gemara in Berakhot (56a) records two incidents
where the local (non-Jewish) governor challenged one of our Sages to
predict the content of his dreams of the coming night. In each case, the
Sage described a detailed and horrific dream - which so preoccupied the
governor that he dreamt about it that night.
An important distinction between a vision-dream and a subconcious-based
dream is in interpretation. If the dream is truly a prophecy, its meaning
should be fairly evident, as it is not generated by the person's own
subconcious - we need not be privy to the psychological makeup of the
dreamer to understand the message. A conventional dream, as we are all
aware, may take a great deal of sophistication to understand - although
that is not always the case.
The brothers were not offended by the dream - rather, by the apparent cause
for this dream. They figured that Yoseph must be thinking about his
takeover of the family so much that these thoughts have entered his dreams.
Their derision and hatred is now clear - but why did they keep silent at
the second dream?
There was a tradition in the house of Ya'akov that although a single dream
may be caused by internal thoughts and ruminations, if that same dream (or
the same "message" clothed in alternate symbolism) occurs twice, it is no
longer a happenstance - it is truly G-d's word. We find this approach
explicitly stated by Yoseph 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 G-d, and G-d will do it soon. (Beresheet 41:32)
When Yoseph reported his second dream to his brothers, they did not
"increase their hatred" - not at the report of the dream nor at the
retelling of its content. The fact of the second dream - and its similar
implication - was no longer reason for hatred, rather for concern and
Ya'akov, however, had heard nothing about the first dream. That is why he,
upon hearing about Yoseph's second dream, responds in an almost identical
fashion as the brothers did to the first dream:
"What is this dream you had? Will your mother and I and your brothers
actually come and bow down to the ground before you?"
At this point, Ya'akov surely expected his other sons to have a similar
reaction - but they were silent. [Remember from the incident in Sh'khem
that these sons were not shy about speaking up in father's presence - their
silence here is telling]. After his rebuke, the Torah tells us that "his
brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind."
Ya'akov must have been surprised by the brothers' silence - and must have
figured that this dream was not the first one Yoseph had shared. That
clued him in that there may be more to this dream than he first thought -
and he "kept the matter in mind" - i.e. he waited to see if it would be
Yoseph learned a powerful lesson from this encounter - that even if a dream
is "just a dream" and not prophecy - this is only true when it is an
isolated incident. When the dream is repeated, this is a sign from G-d and
must be understood that way.
We can now return to Yoseph in the Egyptian prison and explain his response
to the butler and baker. When he learned that they had both experienced
significant and terrifying dreams in the same night, he understood that
these were more than dreams. He reasoned that just like a dream that
occurs twice to the same person is more than a dream, similarly, if two men
sharing a fate have impactful dreams on the same night, their dreams must
be divine messages. His response:
"Do not interpretations belong to G-d? Tell me your dreams" - is not
presumptuous. He was telling them that their dreams were more than "just
dreams" - they were in the province of G-d and, as such, would not need
sophisticated interpretation (as is the case with a subconcious-based
dream). They would be fairly easy to understand - as indeed they were.
Yoseph earned his reputation as an interpreter of dreams - and his ultimate
freedom and final rise to power - not by interpreting dreams at all! He
earned it by remembering the lesson from his father's house - that the
"doubled dream" is a mark of prophecy, and by applying it intelligently
years later in the Egyptian dungeon.
For a number of weeks, Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom has been sharing Divrei
Torah on the Parashah with a few cyber-friends and posting them up on
his Home Page at Project Genesis. The goal of the shiur is to examine a
section of the weekly Parashah - although sometimes the shiur looks at
the Haftarah or other related Biblical texts. The shiur "sticks to the
text" with an eye to discovering the underlying themes and associations
towards which the Torah is directing us. Literary analysis and word
association, in the tradition of many of the Rishonim, will be the
What the shiur will not be:
A "drashah" - the shiur will not necessarily conclude with a "message".
Knowledge of Hebrew is helpful but not necessary, as all words and
phrases appearing in Hebrew will be translated.
We hope you enjoy the attached shiur... which Rabbi Etshalom hopes to
begin distributing by email shortly. For now, you can find the shiur
on the web at http://www.torah.org/~rebyitz/ .
Text Copyright © 1996 Rabbi Dovid Green and
Project Genesis, Inc.