Parshat Vayeishev: The Two Dreams of Yosef

“And his brothers were jealous of him. And his father studied the issue.” (Bersheit 37:11)

Yosef had two dreams. In the first dream he and his brothers were in a field. They were binding grain into sheaves. Yosef’s sheaf arose and stood. The brothers’ sheaves surrounded Yosef’s sheaf and bowed to it. Yosef told his brothers of his dream. The Torah tells us that the brothers’ hatred for Yosef was heightened by this dream. Yosef’s second dream involved the sun, moon and eleven stars. Yosef envisioned these bodies bowing to him. Again, he related the dream to his brothers. He also retold the dream to his father. The Torah tells us that after hearing this second dream the brothers were jealous of Yosef. Apparently, the brothers had different reactions to the two dreams. They hated Yosef after the first dream. After hearing the second dream, they were also jealous. Why did the dreams evoke these different reactions?

Rabbaynu Avraham ben HaRambam addresses this issue. The brothers understood the first dream as an expression of ambition. Yosef’s dream reflected a desire to dominate his brothers. They rebuked Yosef for his ambition. They accused him of wishing to rule over them. They hated him for this desire. However, they believed that the dream was only an expression of Yosef’s fantasies. They did not believe that the dream was prophetic or a harbinger of the future. Therefore, they had no reason to actually feel jealousy toward Yosef. The second dream produced a different reaction in the brothers. Now they became jealous. Jealousy implies an actual fear. The brothers suspected that the second dream represented more than a mere fantasy. They detected some element of truth in the second dream. Their hatred was now accompanied by jealousy. Our pasuk tells us that Yaakov studied the issue suggested by the dream. This indicates that Yaakov also suspected that the second dream was prophetic. In addition, the Torah implies that even Yosef distinguished between the two dreams. Yosef retold both dreams. The Torah uses different verbs for the two instances. In Yosef’s retelling of the first dream, the Torah uses the verb “vayaged”. This term means to tell or impart information. It does not indicate that the speaker has any particular expectation from the audience. In the second instance, the Torah uses the verb “vayesaper”. This term also means to tell. However, it is used in the Torah in a completely different manner. It indicates that the speaker expects the audience to carefully consider the material.

A few examples will illustrate this point. Eliezer returns with Rivka. He tells Yitzchak of the wondrous events that resulted in the selection of Rivka. He wants Yitzchak to listen carefully so he can appreciate the providence involved in his marriage to Rivka. The Torah uses the verb vayesaper to describe Eliezer’s retelling of the events. Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, joins Bnai Yisrael in the wilderness. Moshe tells Yitro of all the miracles experienced by Bnai Yisrael. He wants to impress Yitro with these events and their implication. Again, the verb vayesaper is used.

Apparently, Yosef did not attach tremendous importance to the first dream. He viewed it as an interesting curiosity. However, the second dream made an impression upon him. He felt this dream had meaning. He carefully described it to his listeners. He asked them to consider it carefully and help him interpret its meaning. This leaves one question. What property of the second dream indicated its prophetic nature? Both seem to be expressions of ambition. Why did Yosef, his brothers and his father suspect the second dream contained, at least, an element of prophecy? This is a difficult question to answer. However, there are two crucial elements in the second dream that may suggest a response. In the first dream, only Yosef and his brothers were represented. The brothers had a long-standing suspicion of Yosef’s desire to dominate them. This dream only confirmed their critique of Yosef’s personality. The second dream included Yosef’s father and mother. Yaakov had dotted over Yosef. They shared a loving relationship. The brothers did not ascribe to Yosef any desire to dominate Yaakov. This indicated that the dream was not merely an expression of personal wishes. Yaakov reinforced this interpretation. He pointed out that the message of the dream was that Yosef’s brothers, father and mother would bow to him. The dream did not imply that Yosef would assert himself over the family. It indicated that the family would acknowledge Yosef’s leadership. In other words Yaakov did not assume that the dream expressed a desire to dominate. Instead, it foretold that future events would somehow conspire to place Yosef in a position of authority. The brothers realized that this was not an absurd possibility. Second, in the first dream the brothers were represented by sheaves. In the second dream the brothers were represented as stars. Yaakov was the sun and Yosef’s mother was the moon. This dream venerated the brothers, Yaakov and Yosef’s mother. This representation was not consistent with mere rivalry and a desire to overcome the brothers. Perhaps, these characteristics of the second dream distinguished it from the first. As a result it was not as easily dismissed.

“And Midyanite men ­ merchants ­ passed. And they drew Yosef from the pit. And they sold Yosef to the Yismalites for twenty pieces of silver. And they brought Yosef to Egypt.” (Beresheit 37:28)

Yosef’s brothers travel to Shechem to graze their flocks. Yaakov sends Yosef to Shechem to check on the brothers. Yosef finds his brothers. They devise a plan to rid themselves of Yosef. Their initial plan is to simply kill Yosef. However, Reuven convinces the brothers that they should not directly take Yosef’s life. Instead, they throw Yosef into a pit. They will allow Yosef to waste away. A caravan of traders approaches. Yehudah suggests that they should not kill Yosef directly or indirectly. He suggests that the brothers sell Yosef to these traders. The merchants are traveling to Egypt. The brothers expect that the merchants, when reaching their destination, will resell Yosef as a slave. Gershonides explains that the behavior of the brothers was a reaction to their fear and jealousy. The brothers suspected that the dreams might contain an element of truth. They decided to protect themselves from the message of the dream. In order to accomplish this, they conspired to place Yosef in a position that would prevent his ascension over the family. Selling Yosef to the merchants accomplished this end. As a slave, Yosef would have little opportunity to gain power. Even if Yosef could overcome this obstacle, he would be far away from the brothers. He would not be able to bring his brothers under his rule. However, the brothers’ actions had the opposite affect. In Egypt, Yosef achieved power and authority. When a famine struck the region, Yosef prepared Egypt for the ordeal. The brothers were forced to travel to Egypt to seek sustenance. There, Yosef’s dream was fulfilled.

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Rabbaynu Avraham ben HaRambam, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 37:11.

Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 37:11.

Sefer Beresheit 24:66

Sefer Shemot 18:8.

Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1994), p 221.