JWR's Chanukah

Rabbi Avrohom Chaim Feuer: The Age of Illumination

Rabbi Moshe Sherer: Exploiting the Menorah -- and the Miracle

Lawrence Charap: Whose Chanukah? Variations on the Hasmonean Theme

Aural Torah: Sounds of the Lights

Reader Response

December 25, 1997 / 26 Kislev, 5758
Joseph's dreams, Karl's dreams

Proactive prophecy versus revolution and the totalitarian vocation

Rabbi Hillel Goldberg, in his first commentary on the weekly Torah portion for JWR, takes a wide-ranging, philosophical approach to Parshas Vayeshev.

"AND ISRAEL [JACOB] LOVED JOSEPH more than all his sons because he was a child of his old age, and he made him a coat with stripes" (Genesis 37:3).

Like Jacob, my wife and I have a child "of old age." This leads to books like What To Expect: The Toddler Years. Among its many lessons is a distinction between nightmares and "night terrors." A nightmare is a bad dream. A "night terror" attacks a child physically, bringing on screaming, thrashing, bulging eyes and facial contortions. A night terror might last considerably longer than a nightmare, but, paradoxically, it leaves no memory when the child awakens in the morning.

A dream, then, is not a single reality, and not least because an instinctive question about dreams is this: Are they real? The answer, mirroring the question, is often yes and no. Sigmund Freud analyzed his own dreams to devise a methodology of dream analysis that, in turn, revealed... what? A person's conscious or unconscious desires? It's not always clear.

THE TALMUD discusses dreams at length (Berachot 55). One of its distinctions is this: A bad dream is better than a good dream, for a bad dream may arouse one to repent, while even a good dream contains some degree of nonsense. Dreams are complex. Adding to their complexity is the perspective of the Hebrew Bible. It does not treat dreams as possible messages from an adult's psyche to himself or from a child's developing memory to his undeveloped power of reason. Dreams in the Pentateuch are vehicles of prophecy. They are accompanied by what Maimonides describes, almost verbatim, as "night terrors."

If by dream we mean a visual experience when asleep, there are only nine dreams in the Pentateuch, and all are in Genesis. Joseph is connected with six of them. He has two of his own (37:7, 9) and interprets two of the chamberlains of Pharaoh (40:9-19) and two of Pharaoh (41:1-36). Dreams and Judaism intersect in Joseph - so do the concepts of inevitability and totalitarianism.

Through dreams, G-d may enable a person to see a reality in his own life that attains a spiritual existence before a physical existence. A reality is just around the corner, so to speak, and it is revealed by G-d through a dream. This kind of dream -- a vehicle of spiritual awareness -- occurs to many people. G-d occasionally opens a portal to a personal future through a dream.

This kind of dream, though spiritual, is radically different from the dreams of prophecy. They yield clarity and have occurred only to a limited number of people. An ordinary person's spiritual dream is different from prophecy -- specifically, from Joseph's dreams and his interpretation of others' dreams.

  • As messages from G-d to an ordinary person, dreams may not involve any discomfort. As prophecy, however, dreams are "night terrors." Prophecy, in Maimonides' words, occurs only through a "dream, a night vision" or, if at day, through a "deep sleep." Day or night, a prophetic dream is accompanied by "trembling limbs, a weakened body and disrupted thoughts," leaving the mind "free to understand what it sees" (Yesodei ha-Torah 7:2).

  • As messages from G-d, dreams may be difficult or impossible to decipher. Freud already noted that dreams consolidate different events and displace one person for another. Dreams may be so confusing as to be meaningless.

    PROPHECY, HOWEVER, always has meaning, but not because it is free of symbols. In Maimonides' words: "Messages made known to a Prophet in the prophetic vision may come in the form of a visual parable [i.e., a symbol], with the correct interpretation of the symbol immediately engraving itself on the Prophet's heart.... Sometimes the Prophet records only the symbol... All Prophets prophesy with symbols and puzzles" (Yesodei ha-Torah 7:2).

    Prophetic visions, such as Jacob's ladder or Jeremiah's staff, are symbolic references to the presence of G-d. They are vehicles of G-d's transmission of His message, especially in its highest, unutterable form. The message is innate in the prophetic symbol, just as a message is innate in a mathematical symbol. One need only know how to read, for example, a plus or minus sign. The same is true of the symbols in Prophets' dreams.

    The Joseph story is the longest in Genesis, stretching across 11 chapters and three Torah portions. The story begins with Joseph's dreams. If understood as prophecy, these dreams constitute an exegetical key to much of the narrative. If understood as Divinely revealed symbols with clear meaning, rather than confusing personal messages, these dreams render many of the otherwise baffling twists and turns in the narrative coherent. The narrative is riddled with puzzles.

    But first, the basic story line: Joseph's jealous brothers contrive to sell him down to Egypt and deceive their father, telling him Joseph was killed by an animal. Joseph ends up in Pharaoh's court; is thrown into a dungeon after being falsely accused of having designs on the wife of Potiphar (Pharaoh); interprets two dreams of Pharaoh's chamberlains in the dungeon; is released to interpret two dreams of Pharaoh; is, as a reward for interpreting these dreams wisely, made viceroy of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh himself.

    In interpreting Pharaoh's dreams, Joseph foretells a worldwide famine and is appointed to prepare large granaries in advance. Joseph's brothers, like everyone else, are caught in the famine and come from Canaan to Egypt to buy grain. Here we reach the puzzles that punctuate this week's Torah portion. Joseph's two dreams are the exegetical key to understanding why Joseph subjects his brothers to multiple levels of abuse as they appear before him to buy grain.

    SPECIFICALLY, why does Joseph, immediately upon seeing his brothers, call them spies (a charge thrice repeated)? As his brothers offer the seemingly innocent response that they are ten brothers, with another back in Canaan (Benjamin) and another "gone" (Joseph), why does Joseph tell them they will never leave Egypt unless their younger brother appears before him? Why does Joseph tell them they need to send one of their own to fetch Benjamin and, meanwhile, to sit in jail? Why does Joseph then lock them all up for three days, but change his mind, take one brother hostage, give the rest grain and let them return to Egypt to fetch Benjamin?

    The clue is in the first verse of Joseph's meeting with his brothers. "And Joseph remembered the dreams he had dreamt about them, and he said to them, 'You are spies!'..." (Genesis 42:9).

    Joseph remembered his dreams. In his first dream, Joseph saw himself and his brothers binding sheaves in a field. Suddenly Joseph's sheaf rises and his brothers' sheaves gather around it, then bow down to it. The second dream is similar, but with a significant change in detail. Joseph saw the sun, moon and 11 stars bowing down to him. Here, in the second dream, the number of the brothers bowing down to him is specified.

    As prophecies, these dreams must come true. Joseph's brothers must bow before him, all 11 of them. Therefore, when Joseph's brothers first appear before him in Egypt and only 10 bow down (because Benjamin is back in Canaan), the prophecy is unfulfilled. Benjamin must appear and bow, too.

    We reach the key to Joseph's apparent abuse. He must impose a set of conditions, no matter how harsh, that will make the dreams come true. Joseph accuses his brothers of spying because this will keep them from snooping around Egypt and discovering his identity. Joseph imprisons his brothers to intimidate them -- to make certain they will return with Benjamin. To prevent the effects of his intimidation from wearing off when his brothers are back in Canaan, Joseph changes his tactics and takes one brother hostage. Now his brothers have no choice but to return with Benjamin when they need more grain. Then all 11 brothers will bow down to Joseph and fulfill his prophetic dreams.

    JOSEPH IS COMMITTED to inevitability. Because his dreams are prophecy, they must come true. Was Joseph, then, a revolutionary?

    Sir Isaiah Berlin has written how two opposite conclusions flow from the idea of inevitability. The conservative conclusion maintains that historical inevitability is comparable to a river, which is "useless and perilous to resist or deflect, and with which you [can] only merge your identity." The radical conclusion -- Joseph's? -- maintains that although history, like a river, is a rushing force that cannot be controlled, the individual may nonetheless perceive the direction in which history is moving. He may sense "the pangs of [the] new world struggling to be born"; "the crust of the old institutions... about to crack under." His perception may lead him to identify with the inevitable revolutionary flow and therefore to murder anyone who resists, and therefore impedes, the inevitable, glorious future.

    On the ideal of hastening the inevitable triumph of the proletariat, Soviet Communism's Stalin justified the murder of millions of peasants and "counterrevolutionaries"; on the ideal of hastening the inevitable triumph of the master race, Hitler justified the murder of millions of Jews and others. Totalitarians of both the left and the right committed history's worst crimes all because of a beautiful, inevitable future. Was Joseph -- who manipulated his brothers to hasten a prophesied, inevitable future -- also a totalitarian? Did Joseph play with fire? Is prophecy dangerous?

    Joseph differed from totalitarian dictators in two senses. First, Joseph never lost his human qualities. In dealing harshly with his brothers he never resorted to violence; for Joseph there were no irreversible means (murder, permanent imprisonment, permanent exile) that justified the ends. He was harsh, but not irreversibly so. Second, Joseph never brutalized the present for the sake of a future. Joseph's harsh behavior was designed to restore peace to his family in the present; he sacrificed no one for an imagined (and imaginary) future.

    IS PROPHECY DANGEROUS? If so, it is not because Biblical Prophets were totalitarians. Only Joseph intervened to actualize his prophecies and, as we have seen, his harshness did not compromise his essential humanity. Other Prophets did hammer at the social order, but not to hasten or even predict its inevitable disintegration. Prophets railed against injustice to cure it peacefully, not to end it dangerously. Their intent was to stir self-scrutiny, to arouse Israel to remedy injustice. Prophecy was dangerous only when Israel failed to heed Prophets' warnings and G-d, indeed, overturned unjust societies.


    Rabbi Hillel Goldberg is the executive editor of the Intermountain Jewish News and the author of several books on Jewish themes. With this issue, his philosophical approach to the weekly Torah portion becomes a regular feature.

    © 1997, Rabbi Hillel Goldberg