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Two Dreams for the Sake of One

Rav Jonathan Mishkin
21.09.2014

 

     At the end of this week's parasha, Genesis chapter 40 tells the story of Joseph in prison and the Hebrew's encounter with two of Pharaoh's courtiers.  One night, both the chief cupbearer and the chief baker each have unusual dreams which Joseph interprets for them.  As Professor Nechama Leibowitz points out, these dreams fall between Joseph's own dreams in chapter 37 whose meanings are obvious to all who hear them, and Pharaoh's dreams in the next chapter whose interpretation has significance for all of civilization.

 

A curious feature that links all three sets of dreams is that each episode contains a pair of visions.  Joseph first dreams that his brothers' sheaves of wheat are bowing down to his, and then sees the sun, moon and stars similarly paying him homage.  Pharaoh first sees seven gaunt cows swallow seven sturdy cows, a prophecy followed by seven healthy ears of grain eaten by seven thin ones.  Joseph explains that "Pharaoh having had the same dream twice, means that the matter has been determined by God, and that God will soon carry it out" (41:32).  The Talmud uses this case to formulate a rule: a dream which is repeated will be fulfilled (Berakhot 55b).

 

The dreams in our parasha seem at first to fit the pattern except for one major difference: the two dreams have completely opposite messages.  The cupbearer's dream foretells his pardon and release from prison; the baker's dream illustrates his upcoming execution.  There is no rule, of course, which says that a dream must be repeated to have significance - Jacob's ladder dream, for example, is seen just once.  We might, in fact, argue that there are two dreams in this parasha not for the purpose of emphasizing a prophecy, but to confirm Joseph's gift at dream interpretation.  Joseph's skill lay in his ability to distinguish that although the two dreams were similar in structure, one was a promise and one a warning.

 

But besides this possible lesson, we are faced with an interesting question.  It is quite clear that from the Torah's perspective, Joseph's entire Egypt adventure is being mapped by God.  Joseph himself explains to his fellow prisoners that his ability is guided by God - "Surely God can interpret!  Tell me your dreams" (40:8).  We are left to assume that the ministers who confide in Joseph were allowed a glimpse into their futures for the sole purpose of moving Joseph along in his destiny.  The cupbearer will evenutally assist in freeing Joseph, who will quickly become Prime Minister of Egypt, leading to the descent of Jacob's family to the land.  Thus, in order for the eventual slavery of Abraham's descendants to take place - a condition foretold in Genesis 15 - a simple bartender had to have a dream.  This is not to say that God could not have brought about the slavery in some other manner; just that He chose to move Joseph up from the depths of Egypt's jails to the highest levels of government using the cupbearer as His agent.

 

But what then of the baker?  How does he fit into this story?  His dream is interpreted correctly and he is killed, no longer figuring in the narrative.  Would the cupbearer not have rememebered Joseph to Pharaoh had Joseph not also accurately understood another man's dream?  Is the baker's sole role to convince the cupbearer that he has met a man of exceptional insight?

 

My immediate answer to this question is - yes, the only purpose for the baker's dream was for the benefit of the wine-pourer.  Let us imagine for the moment, what would have happened had only the cupbearer had a dream that night.  The next morning along comes Joseph and sees his friend uneasy and fidgety, big bags under his eyes.  Joseph asks his superior what's bothering him and hears about the dream.  Joseph rattles off some interpretation and - lo and behold! - within three days, the dreamer is back at his bar.  Now, how might the cupbearer understand what Joseph did?  "Given a chance to advance himself," reasons the cupbearer, "this kid Joseph obsequiously tells me I'm on my way out of the joint.  Right!  He's a dream interpreter like I'm King Tut!"  And the cupbearer would be right - by promising the minister that he'll soon be free, Joseph would be taking little risk.  If in fact the cupbearer is not freed, Joseph could merely amend his interpretation, perhaps extending the time frame, keeping the cupbearer hopeful and perhaps happy.  If, on the other hand, Joseph had warned that the cupbearer would be executed and instead he is freed, Joseph himself might be punished or killed.

 

Now, what really happens is that Joseph takes a risk: he predicts rescue for one and death for the other.  Not only is he right on both accounts, but the cupbearer realizes that the interpretation that Joseph gave him was not a fluke or a ploy to find favor in the cupbearer's eyes.  He sees that Joseph had the courage to tell the baker about his death without worrying for his own safety.  When Joseph asks the cupbearer to remember him in the future, the cupbearer knows that Joseph was true and honest to him, and was not asking for favors based on a pretense.

 

But what would have happened if the baker had told Joseph his dream first?  Joseph would have heard all about the baskets of food and the feasting birds and would have warned him that he will soon be dead.  Turning next to the cupbearer, Joseph would ask, "and you, didn't you have a dream too?"  Turning blue in the face, the cupbearer would stammer "Ha!  You know, how when you wakeup, a dream goes - poof! - right out of your head?  I seem to have forgotten just what my dream was."  Hearing Joseph's dire prediction for the baker, the cupbearer would have been reluctant to tell Joseph his own dream.  This is because one way of dealing with dreams in the ancient world was to believe that their interpretation in fact determined the outcome of the dream.  The responsibility for the dreamer's future thus rested on the interpreter.  This idea is stated in the Gemara in the formula "all dreams follow the mouth" (ibid.).

 

Many commentators explain that the baker in our story believed in this power which is why, having heard how Joseph interpreted the cupbearer's dream, proceeded to relate his story in the hopes of also hearing a good fortune.  Verse 16 states "when the chief baker saw how favorably he had interpreted, he said to Joseph..."  The original text uses the phrase KI TOV PATAR, and it is widely explained that the word TOV here means favorably.  It is therefore possible that had the baker gone first leading to Joseph's prophecy of doom, verse 16 may have read "when the chief cupbearer saw KI LO TOV PATAR - how unfavorably he had interpreted, he kept quiet."  Joseph never would have heard the cupbearer's dream, never would have been recommended to Pharaoh, and God would have had to have found some other way of getting Joseph out of jail.  Thus, although the baker's dream turned out to be useful in persuading the cupbearer of Joseph's authenticity, showing the baker a dream was somewhat of a risk as well.

 

There are two ways of getting out of this predicament.  Firstly, if we assume that God was moving events along according to His will, He could have found some way to push the cupbearer to speak first.  Secondly, had the baker indeed spoken first, perhaps Joseph would have given him the positive interpretation, predicting the demise of the cupbearer instead.  The favorable interpretation therefore, would still have been given first.

 

The problem with this idea is that given the story-line as we have it, there seem to be details in the dreams themselves which suggest why Joseph chose to condemn one man and exonerate the other.  One explanation, proposed by Rabbi Avigdor Nebenzahl (20th century), sees an element of faithfulness to Pharaoh in the actions of the cupbearer which is absent in the baker.  In his dream, the cupbearer takes the initiative approaching the vine (which is not described as belonging to Pharaoh) and pressing grapes, unbidden, into Pharaoh's cup.  The baker, on the other hand is carrying baskets of Pharaoh's victuals on his head, but allows birds to eat the food without shooing them away.  The behavior of the two men illustrate the character of Pharaoh's servants leading Joseph to predict how the King will treat them in the future.  Therefore, had the sequence of the telling been switched, Joseph still would have sentenced the baker to death.

 

There is another way to understand the dynamics of our story which helps explain why the baker's dream was necessary; an interpretation unhampered by the question of sequence.  Before I introduce this idea, allow me to mention one flaw in the understanding of KI TOV PATAR discussed above.  The Maharsha (Moreinu HaRav Shmuel Edels 17th century) argues against TOV meaning favorably, reasoning that although the baker heard Joseph give a positive interpretation to the cupbearer's dream, he had no reason to expect that he too would receive a good interpretation.  True, he may have thought that Joseph was in a good mood and was therefore dispensing nice thoughts to everyone in the prison that morning, but that might not have been sufficient an impetus for the baker to tell Joseph about his vision.  The Maharsha, therefore, supports a different meaning for the adjective TOV that appears in Berakhot 55b and which was made famous by Rashi's (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak 11th century) interpretation on the Torah.

 

The Talmud explains that what really happened the previous night was this: each minister dreamt the dream that he told Joseph, as well as the interpretation of the other man's dream.  The cupbearer therefore saw himself making wine for Pharaoh and the baker being killed.  The baker saw baskets of food on his head accompanied by dining birds, followed by a vision of the cupbearer being set free.  When the stewards talk to Joseph, however, they only tell him the parts of their dreams that relate to themselves.  Once Joseph interprets the cupbearer's dream, the baker, who had seen the cupbearer being pardoned, knows that Joseph is clairvoyant.  The phrase KI TOV PATAR therefore means that the baker saw that Joseph had interpreted correctly, not favorably.  This theory, by the way, explains why the Torah says VA-YAR - the baker saw how Joseph interpreted - he saw Joseph's interpretation in his own subconscious.  If TOV means "favorably" the Torah should have said that the baker heard - VA-YISHMA - Joseph's interpretation.

 

Now let's look at what goes on in the cupbearer's mind throughout the story.  When Joseph tells him he's going to be released and given his old job back, naturally he's delighted, but he still might think that Joseph is merely talking to get in the cupbearer's good graces.  Next, he hears Joseph tell the baker he's going to be executed and he might have thought that Joseph was taking an awful risk threatening one of Pharaoh's servants (if the baker was a timid little weak man, it might not have been such a risk) or he might have thought that Joseph's bravery showed that he really knew how to interpret dreams.  But, if the cupbearer himself had seen the baker's future, he would have had no doubt that Joseph was the genuine article.  Joseph is not guessing or taking a shot at what the dreams mean - Joseph knows.  The cupbearer's own vision backs him up.

 

We now know why the baker had to have dreamt the previous night as well.  The baker has to dream in order to tell Joseph about the baskets and birds; this leads Joseph to predict the baker's death proving to the cupbearer who saw the baker's future that Joseph's talent is infallible.  When the cupbearer later stands before Pharaoh, his recommendation of Joseph is wholehearted; he has no hesitation in presenting Joseph to his master, because he knows that Joseph is a wonder.  According to the literal reading of the story (in which the ministers do not see each other's futures), the cupbearer's certainty must be qualified - Joseph may be a good interpreter - but he might not be perfect, or, Joseph may have simply gotten lucky.  When it came time to recommend Joseph to Pharaoh, he may have hesitated and all would be lost.  By showing each servant the other's interpretation, God is, at it were, hedging His bets.

 

This understanding of the story also is not bothered by the sequence of the tellings.  If the baker had related his dream to Joseph first, Joseph would have given him the death interpretation which the cupbearer would have known was correct.  He would not have been scared to tell Joseph his own dream fearing a negative fortune, because he knows that it is not the interpreter who effects the future - he himself also saw the baker's future.  Verse 16 would still read KI TOV PATAR - Joseph had interpreted correctly.

 

The double-dream reading of the story is supported by the text in several places which uses a singular form when discussing the dreams.  In verse 4, for example, the Torah says they dreamt a CHALOM - a dream, instead of CHALOMOT - dreams.  The singular indicates that each really saw the same two messages as the other - but the one that was explicitly stated in one dream was hidden in the other.  Verse 4 also states that each saw KE-PITRON CHALOMO, which suggests they were shown an interpretation of some sort.

 

Some commentators such as Rabbi Yitzchak Abarbanel (15th century) are bothered by this reading of the story and ask, logically: if each man saw the interpretation of the other, why did they need Joseph?  The Abarbanel favors the "favorably" meaning of KI TOV PATAR, and explains the usage of the singular when referring to the dreams, to mean that because the dreams were so similar, the two ministers believed that they had actually been sent the same message.  Because the baker thought his dream was the same as the cupbearer's, he fully expected to get a positive interpretation for his dream too - hence the favorable (TOV) first interpretation leads him to speak up.  We could, however, challenge this theory, by saying that if the baker believed his dream to be the same as the cupbearer's, he would not have needed a separate interpretation.

 

Some authors explain Joseph's role by saying that the men didn't actually see the other's future, just something resembling the future - they still needed Joseph to sort out the details for them and put it all together (see for example Siftei Chachamim of Rabbi Shabtai Bass 18th century).  This idea is supported by the text which says, in verse 4, that when they dreamt the solution - they saw KE-PITARON - something like the interpretation and not merely the PITARON (the prefix letter "Kaf" indicates "like.")

 

Another way to understand the need for Joseph's contribution is to simply say that although the two saw each other's future, they had not discussed their dreams with each other before Joseph came along.  When they tell Joseph in verse 8 that "there is no one to interpret [their dreams]," they must be saying that they believe their dreams to be indecipherable, rather than that they have asked each other and others for help.  Surely, if the cupbearer valued the baker's friendship he would not have told him that he dreamt about birds picking off the baker's flesh.

 

In conclusion, I would like to relate an unmentioned subplot running through chapter 40.  Several commentators suggest that Joseph's stay in prison was not entirely a negative experience.  His association with the cupbearer and the baker allowed him to learn much about court procedure and palace etiquette which would be useful to him in the next phase of his life.  Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, the 19th century author of the Meshekh Chokhma, adds that the reason the dreams happened only three days before their realization was because, had Joseph told the baker that he would be killed, say, in three years, the baker would have had no more to do with Joseph after that, and the Hebrew would have lost all that valuable training time.  Rav Ovadia Sforno (16th century) also emphasizes that Joseph must have had a relationship with these men prior to our story, since otherwise he would never have had the audacity to approach the King's ministers to ask them what's on their minds.  But because Joseph had the courage to quiz his superiors and to pronounce his bold predictions, he soon found himself the world's second most powerful man.

 

 

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