Parshat Vayeishev: Prophetic Dreams Contain Elements of the Imagination

Prophetic dreams contain elements of the imagination

And he told it to his father and to his brothers. His father scolded him and said to him, “What is this dream that you have dreamt? Will I, your mother and your brothers, come to bow down to you to the ground?” (Beresheit 37:10)

The Torah relates two dreams that occurred to Yosef. In the first, Yosef and his brothers are in a field binding sheaves of wheat. Yosef’s sheaf rises up and is surrounded by the sheaves of his brothers. The brothers’ sheaves then bow to Yosef’s sheaf. In the second dream, Yosef sees the sun, the moon and eleven stars bowing to him.

The first dream he shared with his brothers. The second dream he told to his brothers and to his father. Yaakov rebuked Yosef for attributing any significance to these fantasies. He pointed out that Yosef’s mother –Rachel – had passed away. The second dream, in which the moon represented Rachel, was therefore clearly inaccurate and was not prophetic.

Rashi comments that, in fact, Yaakov took these dreams very seriously. Although he pointed out that the second dream was inaccurate, he felt that the dreams could nonetheless be prophecies.[1] Rashi also explains that even a prophetic dream inevitably contains nonsensical elements.[2]

The inclusion of inaccurate and even fantastic elements provides an insight into the phenomenon of the prophetic dream. In a normal dream such elements are not at all unusual. Modem psychology theorizes that the typical dream reflects the fantasies and deep desires of the dreamer. Often the dream utilizes a representational format to express such thoughts.

The inaccuracies and nonsensical material in the prophetic dream indicate that these inspired visions contain the elements of the typical dream. The basic theme of the dream is prophetic and inspired. However, ridiculous or fantastic elements, expressing the personal wishes of the dreamer, are also present.

Yaakov recognized that Yosef s dream, although prophetic, indicated an inflated sense of self-importance. This was dangerous. The leader of the Jewish people must be humble. He or she must place the interests and needs of the Jewish people before personal needs. Therefore, Yaakov quickly pointed out to Yosef the egotistical element within his dream. He encouraged Yosef to recognize his fantasies and to work towards achieving humility.

Yosef’s brothers reacted differently to his two dreams

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.[3]

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.[4]

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.[5]

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.[6]

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 bothers 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 the 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, in 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.

They took him and threw him into the pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it. They then sat down to eat bread, and they lifted their eyes and saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, their camels carrying wax, balsam and resin to take down to Egypt. (Beresheit 37:24-25)

Our parasha discusses the conflict that developed between Yosef and his brothers. Ultimately, this conflict led the brothers to sell Yosef into slavery in Egypt. The parasha begins by describing the tension that existed among the brothers. Yosef believed that he would be the future leader of the family. The brothers distrusted Yosef’s motives and resented his aspirations. When the brothers were presented with the opportunity to eliminate Yosef as a threat, they took advantage of it. How did this opportunity arise?

Yosef and his brothers were shepherds. On this occasion, the brothers were shepherding Yaakov’s flocks in the vicinity of Shechem. Yaakov had some concern regarding their welfare and sent Yossef to Shechem to check on the brothers and to report back.

Yosef found his brothers. At first, they considered killing Yosef. However, Reuven suggested a more indirect approach. He advised the brothers to place Yosef in a pit from which he would not be able to escape. As they were eating, they saw a caravan. Yehudah suggested that rather than letting Yosef die, they should sell him to the merchants. His advice was accepted by his brothers. Eventually, the merchants brought Yosef to Egypt.

Our pasuk tells us that while their brother was imprisoned, they sat down to eat a meal. What is the significance of this detail?

Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin – NeTZiV – suggests that this pasuk reflect the righteousness of the brothers. They were not at ease with their decision to kill Yosef or allow him to die in the pit. They were sitting on the ground and eating a meal. From their position, it should have been difficult for them to see very far. Yet, they observed a caravan approaching. This suggests that they were looking around and seeking an alternative course of action. When the caravan appeared they seized the opportunity and formulated a less drastic solution to their problem.[7]

However, Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno suggests that in order to answer this question, we must consider two issues. First, the brothers were willing to adopt extreme measures to rid themselves of Yosef. Initially, they considered killing him. They spared his life because they felt that selling him into bondage would eliminate him as a threat. What was their fear and how did they justify the actions that they took against their brother?

Sforno writes that Yosef’s brothers did not sin in the actions that they took against him. They looked upon Yosef as a devious, egotistical foe, determined to destroy them. He had admitted to dreams of grandeur and dominance. On numerous occasions he had attempted to undermine their position with their father. Yosef used his relationship with Yaakov to accuse his brothers of wrongdoing. The brothers saw in these actions and fantasies a consistent and determined plan to destroy them. The Torah tells us that if one is accosted by someone who wishes to take his life, then the threatened person may take the life of his pursuer. In capturing Yosef and ridding themselves of their enemy, they acted to protect themselves.[8]

But were the brothers correct in their conclusions or were they deceived by their own jealousy into thinking the worst of Yosef? Sforno points out that it seems that even years later – after the brothers had ample time to reconsider their actions toward Yosef – they still believed that they had made the proper decision. Years latter, the brothers did conclude that they had acted improperly. However, they did not conclude that their analysis of the danger posed by Yosef was incorrect. Neither did they conclude that the action that they had taken against Yosef was improper. Instead, they were critical of themselves for being callous towards Yosef.[9],[10]

This leads to the second issue we must consider. The reaction of the brothers is difficult to understand. In what way were the brothers insensitive? What did they do that indicated this insensitivity? Sforno explains that our pasuk provides the answer to this question. The brothers sat down to eat a meal while they were contemplating and planning the destruction of their brother.[11]

However, Sforno recognizes that this explanation presents a second, more difficult problem. The brothers remained convinced that their analysis of Yosef was justified. If this is the case, why was their eating a meal an act of insensitivity? They had no reason to question their decision. They were confident that they were acting properly. Why should they have refrained from eating?

And his sons and daughters rose up to comfort him. And he refused to be comforted. And he said, “I will go to my grave mourning my son.” And his father cried for him. (Bereshiet 37:35)

Sforno suggests that the answer lies in appreciating another incident in our parasha. The brothers deceive their father into believing that Yosef was killed by a wild animal. Yaakov refuses to be comforted. He declares that he will mourn Yosef for the remained of his life.

It seems that Yaakov’s reaction was unreasonable. We are required to mourn the loss of a relative. But we are also required to limit our mourning to appropriate boundaries. Why did Yaakov insist that these boundaries did not apply to him?

Rashi seems to suggest that Yaakov was not completely convinced that Yosef was dead. When we know we have lost a loved one, we mourn the person and eventually come to terms with our loss. However in order for this process to take place, we must be certain that the person has been taken from us. If we merely conclude that his death is likely – but remain unsure – it is difficult to move on. We cannot completely abandon hope. With this lingering hope comes the continue pain of separation.[12]

Rashi’s explanation is somewhat difficult to reconcile with the actual wording of the passage. Yaakov seems to say that he is justified in mourning Yosef for the rest of his life. He does not allude to any doubt as a justification. Instead, he seems to assert that his attitude is justified by the gravity of the tragedy. But it is difficult to understand this justification. Of course, the loss of a son is a terrible tragedy. But are we not required to eventually end our mourning and move on?

Sforno suggests that Yaakov was deeply bothered by his role in this tragedy. He had instructed Yosef to travel to his brothers. He believed that Yosef had been killed by a beast while fulfilling these instructions. In other words, he had – to some extent – played a role in Yosef’s death. Sforno explains that although tragedies do occur, the righteous do not want to be the cause of these tragedies. Ideally, Hashem’s providence protects the righteous from such roles. Yaakov concluded that his role in this tragedy was a reflection on his own shortcomings. He had not received the benefit of Hashem’s providence in this instance. He had not been spared playing a role in this disaster.[13]

Sforno contrasts Yaakov’s reaction to the attitude of the brothers. He explains that the sin of the brothers was that they did not realize the tragedy of these events. They may have felt compelled to sell Yosef into slavery, but they did not grasp that this act of violence against their brother should be a source of sorrow and mourning. Rather than bemoaning the tragedy that had befallen them, the brothers indulged in their afternoon meal.

The brothers should have recognized that Hashem’s displeasure with them was implicit in their situation. How could He allow the children of Israel to destroy one of their brothers? How could Hashem allow fraternal strife among Yaakov’s children? Certainly, He had turned his back upon them, and was punishing them for some sin. Yet, the brothers showed no introspection or regret.[14]

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

[2] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 37:10.

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

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

[5] Sefer Beresheit 24:66

[6] Sefer Shemot 18:8.

[7] Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (Netziv), Commentary Hamek Davar on Sefer Beresheit 37:25.

[8] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 37:18.

[9] Sefer Beresheit 42:21.

[10] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 37:18.

[11] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 37:24.

[12] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 37:35.

[13] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 37:35.

[14] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 37:25.