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From Dreamer to Interpreter

Rav Michael Hattin



Last week, we began to examine the theme of dreams and their centrality to the story of Yosef.  Our initial introduction to Yosef, which described the confrontational relationship between him and his brothers, revolved around his two dreams of sheaves and stars.  These initial dreams were indicative of his immaturity and egocentricism, as well as of his great potential.  Later on, as Yosef's life unfolds, the centrality of dreams again becomes evident.  Unjustly accused by the wife of Potiphar and unceremoniously thrown into prison, it is through the medium of dreams that Yosef sees an opportunity to secure his release. By correctly interpreting the dream of the baker and especially that of the cup bearer, Yosef establishes his aptitude in the area and is called to mind when the memory of the cup bearer is finally jogged.  By interpreting the dreams of Pharaoh in this week's Parasha, Yosef wins the appointment to the office of Viceroy.  Clearly then, it is the motif of dreams which seems to be so significant to the story of Yosef, as the pivotal episodes in his life are conditioned by these visions.  Why do dreams play such an important role in the unfolding of his story?  How and why does Yosef become transformed from a dreamer into an interpreter of dreams?


It will be recalled that last week's discussion concluded at the point of Yosef achieving success and acclaim in the house of Potiphar.  Through diligence, effort and industry, Yosef slowly advances his ambitions until Potiphar places the entire household under his watchful administration.  Although the Torah repeatedly emphasizes that God is abetting Yosef's endeavors and blessing them with success, Yosef continues to be insensitive and unaware of any direct Divine role in his life.  What is clear to Potiphar and everyone else, that Yosef's transformation from a lowly Semitic slave boy to a powerful and respected administrator is only comprehensible against the backdrop of Heavenly involvement, remains for Yosef an obscure and inscrutable mystery.  If anything, Yosef regards his envious attainments as his own, alone.  No one else has assisted him, no one else has guided his efforts and he has only himself to thank for achieving so much.  Or, to again quote the Midrash that concluded last week's discussion, "Yosef was beautiful in form and appearance" implies that he was preoccupied with his own beauty and charm.  "Am I not a hero?" he seemed to exclaim for everyone in the marketplace to hear, "am I not a self-made man?"



Potiphar's Wife


"It came to pass immediately after these things that the wife of his master desired Yosef, and said 'sleep with me.'"  Suddenly, but not unexpectedly, Yosef is cast into a charged situation.  Potiphar's wife has taken a liking to the young, handsome and ambitious chief executive and he has no other romantic attachments or family responsibilities to hold him back.  Will he or will he not succumb to her wiles?  "He refused, saying to the wife of his master 'behold, my master supervises nothing in this household, having given it entirely over to my responsibility.  You alone, being my master's wife, have been withheld from me.  How shall I perpetrate this great evil and transgress against God?!'  Daily, she attempted to sway his heart, but he would not listen to her to lie with her and be with her."  How admirable is Yosef's conduct, how effortlessly does he seem able to brush off her advances!  "He refused" the Torah observes, but the careful reader will detect a distinct note of wavering in that refusal.  It is not an absolute, uncompromising negation, for Potiphar's wife is not deterred.  There is equivocation here, a quickened pulse and a desirous heart that lurks behind Yosef's brave words. 



The Musical Allusions


In the text of the Torah scroll there are no indications of vowels or punctuation.  Nevertheless, oral tradition has supplied these things to facilitate correct and proper reading of the text.  In addition, tradition has devised a complex series of musical notes to allow for the text of Scripture to be sung.  The Shabbat morning chanting of the Torah portion follows these musical cues.  What is less well known, but obvious once the fact has been pointed out, is that the musical notes themselves constitute an important source of interpretive material.  Clearly, there are defined grammatical parameters that determine the occurrence of particular notes in a given text, and it is beyond the scope of our lesson to examine this system in greater depth.  At the same time, however, it has long been recognized that the musical notes attached to a given  series of words impacts on the way that those words are broken up into phrases and understood, and can thus serve as an important source of  explication.   To be specific, Yosef's 'refusal' is marked by the note known as the 'shalshelet' or 'chain,' because the symbol for this note resembles a triple coil.  The musical value of the note is a long, quavering and sonorous tone consisting of three distinct inflections.  In other words, it is a note that conveys a sense of prolonged hesitation, vacillation and indecision.  There are only three other places in all of Chumash (the Five Books) where the note occurs:


Bereishit 19:14 - 15 "As dawn broke, the angels rushed Lot saying 'take your wife and two remaining daughters and escape, lest you be swept away in the cities' destruction.'  LOT HESITATED, and the angels gripped his hand, his wife's hand and the hand of his two daughters (for God had mercy upon him) and they took them out and placed them outside of the city"


Bereishit 24:11 - 12 "The servant settled the camels outside of the city at the water well towards evening, at the time when the water drawers would come out.  HE SAID: 'Hashem, the God of my master Avraham, happen before me this day, and act with kindness towards my master Avraham"


Vayikra 8:22 - 23 "He brought the second ram, for the inauguration, and Aharon and his sons placed their hands upon its head.  (MOSHE) SLAUGHTERED it and, taking from its blood, placed it upon Aharon's right ear, right hand and right big toe"


Two of the three instances are already familiar to us.  The first is from the story of Sodom's destruction and the second is from the account of Avraham's servant returning to Aram to find a wife for Yitzchak.  In both cases the significance of the 'shalshelet' is obvious, for there is great uncertainty and hesitation in each of the situations.  Lot has been told to quickly leave Sodom, but to do so involves not simply physically departing, but also leaving behind everything that he has spent a lifetime constructing.   His heart is still in Sodom, not to mention his possessions as well as his two married daughters who refuse to believe the story of impending doom.  He has been told to escape, but he remains rooted to the spot, torn between the instinct of survival and the dreadful vision of everything that he holds dear and familiar being incinerated.


Eliezer, the servant of Avraham, has embarked on a journey to fulfill the oath placed upon him by his beloved master.  Avraham has invoked God's intervention to help the servant find a wife for Yitzchak, but Eliezer feels lost and in need of Divine assurance.  How will he find a woman to be Yitzchak's wife?  Will she be from his family?  Will she agree to leave her former life and return with him to the land of Canaan?  As evening falls and the tired servant rests the camels, his troubling thoughts and pensive doubts converge on the mission still ahead.  Looking heavenward, he haltingly offers a prayer for God's intervention, phrasing it in terms both hesitant as well as hopeful.


The third instance, from the ceremony of the Tabernacle's dedication, is least apparent. After many months of arduous effort, the building and its vessels have been completed.  It is ready to function as the focal point for the experience of God's presence.  Aharon and his sons have been designated to serve as the priests, and through a series of unusual sacrifices are to be invested with their new roles.  Moshe has watched the entire process unfold and is no doubt proud of the people and his brother.  It will be his special capacity on this day to offer the dedicatory oblations, but from this point onwards Aharon and his descendants will have exclusive right to the performance of the Divine service.  As Moshe prepares the final ram, perhaps a fleeting regret crosses his mind, for he knows that he will never again have the opportunity to serve in God's house.  Could this be the significance of the 'shalshelet' that accompanies his act of preparing the ram?



The Fateful Dilemma


Let us now attempt to reconstruct Yosef's thoughts as Potiphar's wife enchants him.  On the one hand, he has always dreamt of greatness and known that he would achieve it.  He has suffered the 'slings and arrows of outrageous fortune' but has persevered, to rebuild his life and to advance the self-fulfilling prophecy of his triumph.  He has achieved so much and at such an early stage of life!  No doubt he is the toast of Potiphar's household, held in high esteem and in awe by his subordinates.  His master has placed great trust in him, and Yosef has never disappointed his expectations.   Potiphar, it should be emphasized, is no petty bureaucrat but one of Pharaoh's chief ministers.  The possibilities for advancement, as Yosef sees them, are endless.   And now, it seems that fate has handed him the trophy of his desires on a silver platter!  Potiphar's siren has offered gratis the one thing that was denied him by his master, and being at home in the world of Oriental intrigue, her oath to secrecy can certainly be relied upon.   Should he not seize the moment and satisfy the desires that a young, handsome, outgoing success story such as himself has been entertaining for so long?  Perhaps by acquiescing to her words now, he can even enlist her support for a later time, to engineer the unsuspecting Potiphar's ouster and to wrest control of the household from his master's loosened grip?


On the other hand, a fading memory of an earlier different life and a contrasting set of values unexpectedly floods into Yosef's mind.  A long time ago, in a childhood whose reminisce seems now almost completely obliterated by layers of painful recollections and subsequent astounding triumph, Yosef was the apple of his aged father's eye.  What love his father had for him, what expectations of success!  Yosef, his father hoped, would continue the legacy of his illustrious ancestors.  They  had borne the burden of  God's truth with love and devotion, certain of their calling to unite humanity under the banner of ethical monotheism, and convinced of its ultimate ascendancy.  Yaacov had dreams of a different sort, of angels linking heaven and earth, of humanity and God joined in tender embrace, of devotion to a Divine law that was the only possibility of perfecting a world steeped in self-worship.  And Yosef had been part of that dream!  Although immature and full of youthful if not reckless abandon, his father had trusted in him;  with trembling hands, he had extended to him the coat of many stripes, for his father knew that Yosef's broadening shoulders would one day fill its expanse.  This is the true meaning of the Sages' claim that at his moment of weakness, seemingly about to succumb to the seductress, "the image of his father appeared to Yosef and said:  'Yosef, in the future your brothers' names will be inscribed on the onyx stones that are set in the epaulettes of the High Priest, and your name shall be among them.  Do you want your name to be erased from that inscription?" (Talmud Bavli Sota 36b.


Casting the terrible conflict in Yosef's mind in a different light, for the first time in his life Yosef is forced to make a moral decision with far-reaching implications.  To choose Potiphar's wife is to finally and irrevocably repudiate any acknowledgement of Providence, any involvement of God, any concept of a Higher Destiny that in one insightful flash could explain the convoluted and twisted series of 'coincidences' that have brought Yosef to where he is.  Conversely, to reject her advances is to at last surrender to the spiritual stirrings that have gnawed at the back of Yosef's mind since his fateful encounter with the stranger.  'Indeed, perhaps God has been guiding my steps all along, perhaps I have not been alone and abandoned to the whims of fortune, perhaps I have been chosen to fulfill a role that transcends material desire and selfish sensual gratification and reflects a higher purpose.'



Yosef's Acknowledgement of God


"He refused, saying to the wife of his master 'behold, my master supervises nothing in this household, having given it entirely over to my responsibility.  You alone, being my master's wife, have been withheld from me.  How shall I perpetrate this great evil and transgress against God?!'  For the first time since we have met him, Yosef vocalizes the name of God.  In all of his conversations with his brothers, his father, and the stranger, Yosef has never mentioned God's name, for as we suggested he has been willfully ignorant of His involvement.  By invoking it now at this critical juncture, torn as he is between two worlds and two visions that can never be reconciled, Yosef has exercised his God-given freedom of choice to redirect his life. From this point onwards, God's watchful providence will never be far from his mind.  Addressing the cup bearer, the baker, Pharaoh, and his brothers at their tearful reunion, God's name is never be absent from his lips. "Yosef said to them: to God belong interpretations, tell me your dreams" (Bereishit 40:8), "Naught is from me, God will answer Pharaoh's welfare" (Bereishit 41:16), "Do not be distressed or angry at yourselves, for God has sent me here to secure your survival" (Bereishit 45:5).


Significantly, we must note that it is not dread of his master which holds Yosef back, neither fear of detection nor of punishment, but only the awesome disquietude of betraying his master's implicit trust and 'sinning against God.'  Having cast the die and chosen what is right, Yosef must now suffer the consequences.  In a scene to be relived by many noble people throughout history, Yosef discovers that the 'reward' for moral action is not material success or the achievement of  one's desires, but rather quite the opposite.  Yosef, falsely accused of the very crime he has heroically eschewed, is summarily cast into prison and condemned to an ignominious end.  How swift is his downfall in the eyes of all of his admirers (and jealous detractors), and how unbearably shameful his undoing.


Yosef, however, bowed but not beaten, is not long discouraged.  "God was with Yosef and was gracious to him, and he found favor in the eyes of the warden.  Yosef was put in charge of all of the inmates and oversaw all that they did.  The warden could find no fault with Yosef's conduct for God was with him, and all that he did God crowned with success."  In a deliberate throwback to his initiation into Potiphar's service, the Torah emphasizes that Yosef again shows his talents and abilities.  He can do no wrong as he slowly establishes himself as a capable administrator and wins the confidence of the warden.  This is not a carefully crafted faחade on his part but rather a reflection of Yosef's prodigious aptitude.  At the same time, the Torah makes it clear that God is behind his ongoing if somewhat muted success:  "God was with Yosef," "God was with him," "all that he did God crowned with success."  These expressions strike an analogous chord to the phrases that the Torah utilized to explain Yosef's brilliant but transient rise in the house of Potiphar, for a similar dynamic is again at work.


"After these events, the cup bearer and baker transgressed against their master the King of Egypt.  They were imprisoned in the ward of the Chief Executioner, the dungeon where Yosef was incarcerated.  Yosef was appointed as to serve them and a year passed.  Both of them had a dream" The cup bearer and baker are disturbed by their dreams:  "we have had a dream and there is no one who can interpret it," they exclaim alarmed.  "Yosef said to them: behold, interpretations belong to God, tell me what you saw."  It will be immediately noticed that Yosef is no longer cast as the 'dreamer,' but has in fact become the 'interpreter' of dreams.  What is the meaning of this metamorphosis? 



The Significance of Dreams


In the context of the Tanakh, a dream is not the frequently meaningless series of fleeting images with which we are familiar from our own experience.  Rather, it invariably reflects a form of Divine communication.  The personalities of the Hebrew Bible rarely experience direct dialogue with God.  Instead, God usually communicates with them through prophecy, inspiration, visions and dreams.  In the Book of Bereishit, for example, God speaks to Avraham, Avimelech, Lavan and Yaacov through dreams. The middle two personalities in the list experience a single Divine communication consisting of a vision of the night in which they are warned to follow a particular course of action.  Avraham and Yaacov, in contrast, often speak with God, and the dream is only one of a series of media by which He makes his will known to them. 


Yosef's boyhood dreams, therefore, are in fact intimations of a Divinely ordained destiny.  He will be a leader and his brothers will bow down to him, but that is only the superficial reading of the vision and the only reading that Yosef is capable of making in his immature state.  On a more profound level, the 'sheaves of wheat' indicate that Yosef will be the instrument for securing  sustenance for his family during the seven difficult years of famine soon to unfold, "for it was on account of grain that Yosef was elevated to the position of Viceroy" (Radak, 13th century, Provence).  The more prophetic reading remains beyond Yosef's horizons until he himself is able and willing to acknowledge the Divine element in his own life, the guiding hand that is orchestrating events to position Yosef for greatness. 


Suddenly, Yosef was thrust by Potiphar's wife into the uncomfortable situation of having to choose which model of 'human history' to adopt, and the consequences of that choice are staggering.  Will it be the mechanistic approach that denies a Higher Purpose and sees all of life's events as either self-authored triumphs and defeats, or else accidents of nature?  Or will it be the providential model that recognizes an all-powerful Deity Who created the cosmos with a purpose, Who quietly demands but also lovingly guides humanity and all humans to fulfill their unique roles in the larger world as well as within the microcosm of their own individual lives?  By finally choosing the latter, by acknowledging the deeper import of his own dreams, by surrendering to a Higher Purpose, Yosef has transformed himself into an interpreter of dreams.  With the dawning awareness of Providence comes a heightened sensitivity to the essence of events.  The Divine plan which seems to elude the cup bearer, the baker and the Pharaoh, is painfully obvious to Yosef, for he now understands the still, quiet voice of Destiny that reverberates through every insignificant fiber of our lives.



The Cup Bearer's Forgetfulness


Still, there is another intermediate step that Yosef must take before the transformation is complete, for in the realm of spiritual development there is no such thing as reaching the summit.  "Yosef said to the cup bearer: this is the meaning of your dream.  In three days time, Pharaoh will release you from prison and return you to your original office.  You shall again serve him his cup as you were wont to do.  Remember me upon your release, and deal kindly with me.  Tell Pharaoh of my plight so that I may be released from this prison.  For I have been kidnapped from the land of the Hebrews, and I have done nothing to warrant being incarcerated."  The critical phrase in Yosef's impassioned plea is 'deal kindly with me' or 'do an act of CHESED with me' in the original Hebrew.  Does this expression not call to mind God's earlier involvement both in the house of Potiphar as well as in the dungeon?  "God was with Yosef and dealt kindly (CHESED) with him, giving him favor (CHEN) in the eyes of the warden," "Yosef found favor (CHEN) in the eyes of Potiphar and he served him."   In other words, although Yosef has made great strides in admitting God's ongoing participation, he has not yet fully comprehended its extent.  By pinning his salvation on the intervention of the cup bearer he in fact brings about the opposite effect, for "the cup bearer remembered not Yosef, but rather forgot him."  In the imaginative formulation of the Midrash, "all day the cup bearer made mental notes, but an angel came and erased them.  All day the cup bearer tied knots to remind himself, but an angel came and loosed them.  Said God: you may forget him, but I will not!" (Bereishit Rabba 88:7).  Try as he might, the cup bearer cannot remember his commitment to Yosef for God has expunged it from his conscience.  Yosef will remain imprisoned for two more years until Pharaoh will have his dreams, for it is God alone who can secure his release.  The delay will of course work in Yosef's eventual favor, for by interpreting the dreams of Pharaoh he will finally achieve his destined position of power.


"Pharaoh was sorely disturbed by his dreams.  He summoned all of the wizards and wise men of Egypt, but none of them could explain their import.  The cup bearer related: I hereby acknowledge my negligence" Yosef is recalled and quickly summoned from the 'pit' to stand before the mighty ruler of Egypt.  How striking that all of Yosef's trials and tribulations seem to be not only connected with dreams but also predicated on sudden, hasty and abrupt turns of events.  During his youth, Yosef had been enwrapped in the majestic coat of many stripes and was the envy of all.  In a flash, he was stripped of the garment and flung into the pit.  Arriving in Potiphar's house destitute and afraid, he is propelled to become the head of the household with alarming alacrity.  Unjustly accused by Potiphar's wife, he is just as suddenly cast into the next 'pit.'  On the morrow of Pharaoh's dreams, his fortunes are again hastily turned, for he is speedily summoned from the dungeon and almost immediately appointed Viceroy and clothed again in the majestic garb of leadership.  These singular swings of the pendulum  take place with scarcely a conceptual pause in between to catch one's breath.  What is the significance of this motif? 



The Motif of Haste


The Seforno (15th century, Italy) explains that Yosef is 'quickly' summoned from the prison "after the manner of all expressions of God's salvation which occur suddenlyWas this not the way of the Exodus when our ancestors were thrust out of bondage before their dough had time to rise?  Indeed, this shall be the model for the future redemption as well, as the verse states 'for suddenly the Master whom you are seeking shall return to His sanctuary' (Malachi 3:1).  Seforno understands that an abrupt change of fortune is the hallmark of Divine involvement in our lives.  God is constantly involved, but how easily we tend to overlook that fact until a situation is suddenly and unexpectedly altered.   The story of Yosef more than any other account in the book of Bereishit drives home these critical notions.  It is not enough to fulfill our dreams and live our lives on their lowest material level.  We must be cognizant of another, more exalted level of existence in which we strive to become not only dreamers but more significantly, interpreters of dreams.  And the way to that goal is through the exercise of a moral will that leads us to a heightened acknowledgement of God.


Shabbat Shalom


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