Rabbi Andy Shapiro Katz, Conservative Yeshiva of Jerusalem, Director of North American Engagement
Sigmund Freud considered dreams the “royal road to the unconscious” – glimpses of the way we wrestle with repressed material our ego hides from our conscious minds. For Freud, it is the dreamer who is revealed to the dream interpreter.
It would appear that this is how Joseph’s brothers understand dreams – the bowing wheat and celestial bodies signs that Joseph wants to, expects to, or thinks he already does rule over them. So they resent him, mock him, and punish him, taking the one who thinks he is above them, and casting him down.
But perhaps the real reason the brothers seek Joseph’s death, and eventually sell him into slavery, is that they fear that Joseph’s dreams reveal the future itself, not just how the dreamer feels about the past or present. If so, the brothers’ act is their desperate attempt to avert the prophecy.
But did Joseph know that his dreams were visions of the future? When Joseph tells his brother about his dreams, he does so without interpretation, so it is unclear if Joseph has already seen how everything is to unfold. Our only evidence is his silence and inaction. Before leaving to find his brothers, he speaks with his father. When he reaches Shechem, he speaks to the man who find him there. But from the moment he finds his brothers to his being taken away to Egypt, he says nothing. He does not ask them what they are doing or why, he does not cry out for them to stop, and he doesn’t bemoan his situation. He seems to accept it all, if not expect it. Whether or not he has seen the specifics, he seems confident it will turn out alright.
For the cupbearer and baker, however, Joseph not only explains the general message of the dreams, but also how and when they will come true. He delivers the pronouncements flatly, and both the cupbearer and baker accept them wordlessly, further indication of their collective belief that the future cannot be altered – either due to its very nature or the limited options available to an imprisoned man with only 3 days to live.
For Pharaoh’s dreams Joseph again interprets both their meaning and the how and when they will come true. But here, something changes. Even though the dream says that the seven bad years will fully consume the good years, such that “no trace of the abundance will be left in the land because of the famine thereafter” and that “the matter has been determined by God” he convinces Pharaoh that it is nevertheless possible to avert the negative prophecy, if only he adopts Joseph’s plan and puts a certain guy in charge of it all.
But if human action can change Egypt’s future, that opens up the possibility that the brothers’ actions had altered Joseph’s future, and Joseph is roused to action. After meeting 10 of his brothers, he sets in motion a complex and convoluted plan to get them to bring Benjamin, the 11th (42:20). Why? Because in his first dream (37:7) ALL of the brothers’ wheat sheafs bowed down to his! When all of the brothers are present in Egypt, Joseph’s first dream has come true. But in order to make the second come true, Joseph must reveal himself to his brothers and get them to convince Jacob and Leah (and the rest of Jacob’s house) to come down to Egypt (45:9). Why? Because in his second dream (37:9) the Sun and Moon bowed to him as well!
Over the course of his life, Joseph goes from one who sees, to one who interprets, to one who acts. He understands that the future is not always given; human action can prevent a negative prophecy from coming true, a positive prophecy from coming true, and can even fix a prophecy that has been broken.
As Rabbi Akiva says in Pirkei Avot: “Everything is foreseen, and free will is given.” And as Rabbi Nachman of Breslov taught: “if you believe that you can damage something, believe you can fix it”.
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