Parashat Vayeishev tells of the tensions that arose between Yosef and his brothers as a result of the preferential treatment Yosef received from their father, tensions which were exacerbated by Yosef’s dreams which foretell his future stature of authority over his brothers. The Torah emphasizes that although the brothers despised Yosef even before he told them of his dreams, their hatred was intensified after he described to them his visions of ruling over the family (“va-yosifu od seno oto” – 37:5,8).
The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 84:10) draws an intriguing parallel between Yosef’s reporting his dreams to his brothers, and the prophets’ communication of their prophetic messages to Benei Yisrael centuries later. Yosef, after beholding his first dream of leadership, approached his brothers and announced, “Shim’u na ha-chalom ha-zeh asher chalamti” – “Hear, if you please, this dream which I dreamt” (37:6). The Midrash notes that the phrase “shim’u na” was also used by the prophet Mikha (6:1) in introducing one of his scathing prophetic message criticizing Benei Yisrael for their conduct. Based on this parallel, the Midrash says that Yosef told his brothers, “So will the prophets admonish you” – foreshadowing the harsh condemnation that Benei Yisrael would hear from their prophets, using the same words Yosef used in telling about his dreams.
Similarly, the Midrash later (Bereishit Rabba 84:11) draws a connection between Yaakov’s reaction to Yosef’s dreams and a Jewish leader’s reaction to one of the prophets. The Torah tells that after Yosef reported his second dream to his father and brothers, he father reprimanded him – “va-yig’ar bo aviv” (37:10). During the time of the prophet Yirmiyahu, one of his leading adversaries – Shemayahu Ha-nechelami – called upon the kohen gadol to publicly censure Yirmiyahu for prophesying the fall of the Judean Kingdom – “lama lo ga’arta be-Yirmiyahu” (Yirmiyahu 29:27). In light of this textual parallel, the Midrash comments that God said to Yaakov after his angry response to Yosef, “So will you reprimand your prophets.” Just as Yaakov reprimanded Yosef after his dreams, similarly, the Jews would reprimand the prophets for their harsh criticism of the people’s conduct.
How might we explain this connection between Yosef’s dreams of leadership, and the admonitions of the prophets, and between Yosef’s family’s angry response to his dreams, and the people’s angry response to the prophets?
Possibly, the Midrash here teaches that our instinctive resistance to criticism stems from the same source as the brothers’ instinctively hostile response to Yosef’s dreams. Often, when we hear criticism, it strikes us as an attempt to assert superiority. We rush to defend ourselves because we do not wish to subject ourselves to the “rule” of the criticizer, just like the brothers angrily and dismissed the prospect of their subservience to Yosef. And thus the Midrash compares Yosef’s reports of his dreams to the prophets’ harsh messages to the people, and it compares the brothers’ reaction to the people’s reaction. The point being made is that words of criticism often strike our ears the way the news of Yosef’s dreams of kingship struck his brothers’ ears, and this is precisely why we tend to angrily and impulsively dismiss and resent criticism. If so, then the Midrash here perhaps teaches us that we must learn to distinguish between the content of another person’s critical remark, and what this remark might say about our status vis-à-vis that person. The discomfort we intuitively feel when we hear criticism should not affect our reaction, which should be determined solely by the content of the criticism, by whether or not it has merit. We should keep our ears and minds open to the words of even the self-proclaimed “prophets” who criticize what we say or do, and we should try to honestly and objectively assess whether there is truth to their criticism, uncomfortable as it may be for us to hear it.