The Story of Joseph

  • Rav Tamir Granot
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Parshat HaShavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


This parasha series is dedicated
in memory of Michael Jotkowitz, z"l.

********************************************************

This shiur is dedicated in memory of Hillel ben Yechiel Reiter z"l,

whose Yahrzeit will be observed on the 24th of Kislev.  May his soul be among the Righteous in Gan Eden.

*********************************************************

This shiur is dedicated in memory of Israel Koschitzky zt"l, whose yahrzeit falls on the 19th of Kislev. 

May the world-wide dissemination of Torah through the VBM be a fitting tribute to a man

whose lifetime achievements exemplified the love of Eretz Yisrael and Torat Yisrael.

*********************************************************

 

PARASHAT VAYESHEV [1]

 

THE STORY OF JOSEPH

By Rav Tamir Granot

 

 

I.          Introduction

 

            The center of our parasha is, of course, the story of Yosef.  On the literary level, the story of Yosef occupies at least three parshiyot, with its embroilments ultimately finding their solution only when Yosef reveals his identity to his brothers in Parashat Vayigash.  The division of the parshiyot also takes into account considerations of reasonable length: after all, the parasha needs to be read publicly in the synagogue, and therefore the division comes at the expense of literary considerations.

 

            From an exegetical perspective, the entire story may be regarded as a single, lengthy unit.  The most prominent motif running throughout the story of Yosef is dreams.

 

There are three pairs of dreams:

·                      Yosef's dreams

·                      The dreams of Pharoah's ministers

·                      Pharoah's dreams

 

There can be no doubt that in order to understand the full significance of the story of Yosef, we must understand the function of the dreams in the story.  We refer here not just to the interpretation of each individual dream, but to the very view of the dream as a central factor in the development of the events, and the fact that the Torah chooses to recount the events through the prism of dreams.

 

            There is no other narrative in Tanakh in which dreams play such a critical role, and therefore attention should be paid to the special aspects of this specific narrative.

 

II.        The relationship between the three pairs of dreams

 

            Before addressing this issue, let us first review several facts pertaining to the dreams:

 

·                    All of the dreams in the story are realized almost in full.  Working backwards from the end of the story, Pharoah dreams are realized in the form of seven years of plenty and of famine; the dreams of his ministers are likewise realized, as we read, "And it was, as he interpreted for us – so it was; I was restored to my position and he was hanged."  Yosef's dreams, too, are realized: his brothers and his father bow down to him as master of all of Egypt.

 

·                    Yosef's dreams serve as a framework for the other two pairs: the story as a whole is built around his dreams.  They are presented at the very outset (Bereishit 37), and it is Yosef's revelation to his brothers and their recognition of their dependence on him that bring about the realization of his dreams (especially the second one) and the conclusion of the story.  The other pairs of dreams – those of the ministers and those of Pharoah – catalyze different stages of the story by allowing Yosef to reveal his special wisdom and thereby to attain the status of Pharoah's second-in-command.

 

·                    Yosef is called "ba'al ha-chalomot" (the "dreamer," or – literally – "master of dreams") – the name itself testifying to the centrality of dreams in his personality.  This title has two different meanings, as we shall see further on.  The first is what the brothers mean when they use it: i.e., that Yosef habitually experiences dreams and recounts them.  The other meaning is that he knows how to interpret dreams, but this becomes apparent only later, in Egypt.

 

We must draw a distinction between the different pairs of dreams, as follows:

 

Pharoah dreams: One interpretation covers both.  Each of the two dreams uses a different set of parallel symbols, but they mean the same thing.

 

Yosef's dreams: The general message of the two dreams is the same – i.e., the relationship of submission of the brothers – and even their parents – to Yosef.  But their historical interpretation is apparently manifest in two separate events, as the Ramban explains.  The dream of the sheaves speaks of the brothers' economic dependence on Yosef, with Yosef represented in the dream – like all of his brothers – as a sheaf of corn.  In other words, the characters do not appear "personally" in this dream, but rather are represented symbolically.  The realization of this dream comes with the arrival of the brothers in Egypt to stand before the "mashbir" (distributor of food) – who later turns out to be Yosef, but meantime Yosef hides his identity from his brothers.  Their subservience to him at that moment arises from his economic power, his ability to distribute sheaves; hence, this represents the realization of his dream of the sheaves.  Neither the dream nor the reality feature Yaakov or the matriarchs; this is further proof that this situation is indeed the fulfillment of the dream.

 

The dream of the heavenly bodies: After Yosef reveals his identity to his brothers, their dependence on him is no longer economic; they are subservient to him as the second-in-command to the king – and also the de facto head of the family.  Here Yaakov, Leah and the handmaids are included in the subservience to Yosef, and likewise in the dream: "Behold – the sun and the moon and eleven stars prostrated themselves before me" - ME myself, not a symbolic representation.  This may hint at the appropriate continuation and realization of the dream is that they bow down to God – for the heavenly bodies bow to no-one but God.  This may be hinting at the quasi-deific status of the King of Egypt, which Yosef attains de facto.  While it seems that Yosef himself did not predict this, events ultimately gave this interpretation to the dream: "Without you [your instruction] no man shall lift his hand or foot throughout the land of Egypt."

 

The dreams of the ministers: These, of course, are two completely separate dreams, presented in symmetrical form.  Thus in literary terms the dual structure is maintained.

(The interesting question of how Yosef understood what these dreams meant will be discussed in next week's parasha.)

 

III.       The meaning of the dreams

 

            Let us now return to the fundamental question that we posed at the outset: what is the role of the dreams in the story and its message?

 

            If we analyze the dreams within the framework of the plot, we see that in fact they fulfill three different roles, on three different levels:

 

1.                  The first has already been discussed: the dreams foretell what will happen in the future.  In fact, in our story, everything that happens – in a general sense – is known in advance.  Everything is predicted in the dreams.  In this sense, the dreams create the impression of a series of events whose outcome is planned from the outset.

 

2.                  The dreams are a factor in the real development of the plot.  The dreams of Yosef himself – and especially the fact that he decides to tell his brothers about them – are the cause of their jealousy and hatred towards him, they are the reason for him being cast into the pit and eventually being sold – in short, they are the source of all the action.  The dreams of the ministers turn out, after the fact, to be the catalyst for Yosef's dazzling move from the dungeon to the king's palace.  And Pharoah's dreams allow Yosef to demonstrate his psycho-metaphysic capabilities as well as his practical wisdom, leading to his appointment as the king's second-in-command.

 

3.                  Yosef's dreams are also an important factor on the level of moral retribution.  In other words, within the framework of the Divinely-ordained rules of sin and punishment, the dreams are an act of arrogance and provocation, and Yosef is punished accordingly – measure for measure.  Attention should be paid to the perfect structure of the story. Twice Yosef offended his brothers and aroused their jealousy by recounting the dreams, in which he enjoys supreme status over them.  Correspondingly, Yosef is twice cast into a pit – the one in Shekhem, the other the dungeon in Potiphar's house, where he becomes a servant devoid of any honor; the exact opposite of what he dreamed.  Obviously, this in no way nullifies the veracity of the dreams themselves, but publicizing them brought about the opposite result, at first, until Yosef had come to see the error of his ways.

 

            In other words, the use of the dream as a central motif in the story makes it possible to present – via the same motif – the three dimensions in which the story takes place:

 

1.                  The first dimension is the deterministic one, where everything is known in advance.  The significance of this dimension is that everything that happens is part of the great Divine plan.  From a broader perspective it is clear that the story of Yosef, as a whole, is a realization of the prophecy of the Covenant Between the Parts, in which Avraham is told, "Your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs."  It is through the story of Yosef that this difficult situation comes about.  None of the characters – neither Yosef, nor his brothers, nor even Yaakov – is aware that they are all actors in a great plan, but there can be no doubt that to us (familiar as we are with Sefer Bereishit all the way to its conclusion) this is clear.  The dreams show, as we have said, that this is more than just a series of causes and effects; rather, the end is determined in advance.  Yosef himself tells his brothers, near the end of the story: "For God sent me before you to preserve life, to make for you a remnant in the land and to save your lives by a great deliverance."  He understands that he is an instrument in the hands of Divine Providence, to fulfill its plans.

 

2.                  The second dimension is the real one – for the events certainly have this aspect too.  One event follows the next; choice after choice is made.  People bring their fate upon themselves.  Foolishness and pretentiousness at the start – which are transformed, in Yosef's case, into wisdom and humility at the end, are the source for understanding everything that has happened between himself and his brothers.

 

3.                  The third level is that of Divine moral causality.  Yosef sins; therefore he must be punished.  In the familiar manner of the Torah, the punishment comes to him "on its own," as it were: "Wisdom was asked: One who sins – what is his punishment? Wisdom answered: Evil pursues sinners." In other words, from the perspective of the Divine significance of events, too, a distinction must be made drawn between the level of the Divine plan, fixed in advance, and the level of sin and punishment, which exists altogether in the present.

 

            The crux of the message of the story, then – as conveyed by the dreams – is that these three dimensions, which theoretically are quite distinct and independent, all in fact coexist within the same events, with no borders.  There is no better medium than a dream – which is also vision, emotion, a riddle for the wise, as well as a manifestation of personal fantasies – to express the different layers embodied, ultimately, within the very same reality.

 

            The concept of dual – sometimes, as in our case, even triple – dimensions within general as well as personal history, is one of the most important fundamental ideas arising from biblical historiosophy.  To a large extent it is also the basis for our understanding of individual and national life in general, which are perceived through categories of faith.  Hence the importance of the story of Yosef, and the centrality of the dreams within it.

 

IV.       The turning point

 

            We noted previously the dual significance of Yosef being the "master of dreams." He is on one hand the dreamer; on the other hand – the interpreter of dreams.  An examination of the development of the story reveals that its turning point is the stage where Yosef turns into the "interpreter of dreams," and thus his status is "upgraded" – to the point where ultimately, at the end of this process, he is appointed second-in-command to the King of Egypt.  The event in which the crux of this "turning point" takes place is the interpretation of Pharoah's dreams.  Until this point Yosef has not been a personality who determines his own path and is active within the events; rather, events have acted upon him.  He is "a dreamer."  He is dispatched by his father, he is cast into a pit, he is sold, he is appointed head of Potiphar's household, he is drawn towards sin and then thrown again into a dungeon.  It is only when he proposes to Pharoah's ministers that he will interpret their dreams that the beginning of a change makes itself felt.  The dramatic turning point is, obviously, where he not only responds to Pharoah's demand that his dreams be explained, but also advises him – in a way more appropriate to a Minister of the Treasury or a Prime Minister – what he should do in order to prepare his country for the years of famine: "Let Pharoah act to appoint officers over the land….."

 

            In other words, the transition from passivity to activity in relation to dreams – from "dreamer" to "interpreter" – is likewise reflected in a transition from passivity to activity in relation to reality – from "determined" to "determiner."  Yosef, who has been pushed around at the mercy of his environment, now becomes its director.

 

            The understanding of this turning point in Yosef's personality and activity is important for an understanding of his story as a whole.  It also gives rise to several questions:

 

1.                  What is it about Pharoah's dreams – or the context in which they are interpreted – that causes this change of heart on the part of Yosef, who arrives unaided at the understanding that he must now take the reigns? How does he change his situation from "fate" to "destiny," using the classic terminology of Rabbi J. D. Soloveitchik? [2]

 

2.                  How did Yosef act when he understood that he must guide history rather than being at the mercy of his fate? How did he understand his destiny?

 

3.                  As to the three levels of significance discussed above – the Divine, the moral, and the real – on which of these levels does Yosef's turning point take place, and what is its significance on each level?

 

            These questions will remain open for now, since they require in-depth discussion principally in parashat Miketz.  We shall elaborate on them further next week.

 

Notes:

 

[1] This shiur and the following ones – especially Parashat Miketz and Parashat Vayigash – constitute an integral thematic and exegetical unit.  That which is omitted in one shiur will be made up in another.

[2] See his article "Kol Dodi Dofek."

 

Translated by Kaeren Fish