Former Shaliach in Washington (2003-4) and Memphis (2010-12)
Currently CFO at World Torah MiTzion
While this is not the first time we have encountered dreams in Sefer Bereshit, Yosef’s narrative is unique in the pivotal role the dreams have in unfolding the plot. But how should we interpret the effect of the dreams on the events described? There are 2 possible answers.
- The dreams created a pre-determined course of events. There is a divine plan, a known end-result which is the true driving force behind the events. From this perspective, reading the story becomes predictable, even boring, because we already know what will happen. We know that Yosef will survive the pit and that eventually Yosef’s brothers will bow down before him.
- The dreams are merely catalyzers for the free choices the actors will make. The events lead naturally and logically one to another, based on the choices made, including a system of “mida keneged mida” (a measure for a measure) in which actions lead to reward or punishment in the future (such as the ‘fairness’ of the ramifications of Yosef’s arrogance; twice he brags about his dreams to his brothers and twice he is thrown in the pit, losing all his status and rights).
Of course, these viewpoints manifest in the way each and every one of us perceive our personal and national lives; some people see history as predetermined; either by our genes, economy, nature or fate, something external to us is the true decider.
On the other hand, the Tanach is replete with examples of a system of moral/religious sin and punishment; Avraham is righteous and is therefore blessed, Yaakov cheated his father and therefore his sons cheat him. Yosef sins with pride and is therefore punished. This system leads to a cause an affect, logical development based on choices and their ramifications. Had Yaakov not ‘stolen’ the blessings, for example, our history would have taken a totally different course (for better or for worse).
The concept of dual dimensions within a national, as well as a personal, history, is one of the most important fundamental ideas arising from biblical historiosophy.
In our story both options converge around the dreams. A dream is on the one hand similar to a prophecy, in that it is predetermined, but on the other hand it is also a riddle that can be interpreted differently based on personal fantasies and hidden emotions, so that the same dream can lead to different results.
Yosef is called ‘Ba’al Hachalomot’. This can be interpreted in two ways: ‘dreamer’ or ‘master of dreams’. Yosef’s challenge is to mature from a dreamer to the master of his dreams. And that is our challenge as well.
Yosef begins the narrative with a deterministic mind set: He remains passive. He viewed his dreams as ‘fate’ – a divine, pre-determined future that had to be. Yosef fails to ask himself the correct questions: “What is this telling me? What is the dream charging me to do? With which mission is it entrusting me?” This was his mistake and his sin. He shares his dream with his brothers, expecting them to accept it automatically, and the dream to just fulfill itself.
The Greek tragedies tell of the hubris, pride, of men who try to escape their fate as was revealed by the oracle. Fate, they claim, is unavoidable. Ultimately, there is no free choice and thus no true responsibility for ones choices. Modern day society still espouses the same claim, using social-economic background, genetics, and parents, to name a few, to release people from responsibility for their actions.
The Torah completely rejects this opinion. It teaches us that dreams, like prophecies, do not reveal the future in order to say ‘what will be’, but rather in order that we will know what we must do in relation to it. Very generally we may say of the prophets of Israel that they prophesized in order that their prophecies will not be fulfilled. The threat of punishment is always a call to repentance, which in turn will nullify the punishment. Yosef’s dream was not a call to greatness, but rather a call to action, which could lead to greatness.
The moment when Yosef understands that his quasi-prophetic ability is not meant to give him a personal advantage, or just to bring him success, but rather assigns him a mission, is the turning point where Yosef ceases to act as a dreamer of the future and starts acting as a ‘prophet’, a ‘master of dreams’. This transition also changes Yosef’s behavior in relation to his dreams from egocentric (hence sinful) to moral and responsible (thus making him worthy of his prophecy).
The challenge faced by Yosef is relevant for us till today – how do interpret events around us, both on a personal and national level. How will we react to difficulties and tragedies? Will we give in to despair? Will we accept what happens as unchangeable fate? Or will we rise to the challenge, and take responsibility to make the world a better place?