Inside Yosef’s Mind

And he dreamed another dream. He told it to his brothers. He said: Behold, I dreamed another dream. It was that the sun and the moon and eleven stars are bowing to me. (Sefer Beresheit 37:9)

I. Yosef’s dreams and his brother’s reaction

Parshat VaYeshev describes the interactions between Yosef and his brothers. Yosef was favored by his father. Yaakov’s overt preference for Yosef provoked the brothers’ animosity. Yosef’s behaviors added to their resentment. Their intense bitterness toward Yosef eventually led them to sell him into slavery. 

Yosef had two dreams that he shared with his brothers. In his first dream, Yosef saw all the brothers in the field. They were binding sheaves of grain. Yosef’s sheave arose from the ground and stood. The brother’s sheaves surrounded Yosef’s standing sheave and bowed to it. 

Yosef’s brothers interpreted this dream to reflect Yosef’s ambition to dominate them. They ridiculed the dream. They were dismissive of it but the dream added to their antipathy toward their brother. 

Yosef’s second dream is described in the above passage. Also, this dream featured the brothers. They were stars. A new element was added. This dream included Yosef’s father and mother. They were represented by the sun and moon. Yosef saw the sun, moon, and stars bow to him.

Again, Yosef described his dream to his brothers. He shared it also with his father. Outwardly, Yaakov expressed his skepticism concerning the dream. He dismissed the possibility that it was a prophetic vision. Privately, he harbored the belief that it might be a harbinger. The brothers were further provoked against Yosef by the dream.

And he told [it] to his father and brothers. His father rebuked him and said to him: What is this dream that you have dreamed? Will it truly come to pass that I, your mother, and your brothers will bow to the ground [before] you? (Sefer Beresheit 37:10)

II. Two interpretations of Yaakov’s rebuke

In the above passage, Yaakov rebukes Yosef. He tells him that his dream is outrageous. It’s impossible that Yosef’s father, mother, and brothers will bow to him! Why was this impossible? Rashi explains:

“Will it come to pass… Has not your mother already died? And he did not know that the things related to Bilhah who had raised him as a mother.” (Rashi, Sefer Beresheit 37:10)

Yosef’s mother Rachel passed away giving birth to Binyamin. Yaakov proved to Yosef and the brothers that the dream was not prophetic. He argued that the dream contained an element that could not possibly occur. Rachel would not bow to Yosef. 

Yaakov was wrong. The dream was prophetic. This creates a problem. How could a prophetic dream contain an inaccuracy? Rashi responds that the dream was completely accurate. Yaakov misinterpreted the dream. After Rachel’s death, her maidservant Bilhah raised Rachel’s children – Yosef and Binyamin. The mother-figure in the dream who bowed to Yosef was not his departed biological mother. It was Bilhah who had taken on the role of his mother after Rachel’s death. 

Rashi offers another explanation of the dream’s inaccuracy:

And our Sages learned from here that there is not a dream that does not [include] meaningless elements. Yaakov intended to remove the matter [of the dream] from the heart of his sons so they should not be jealous of him. Therefore, he said, ‘Will it truly come to pass… Just as it is impossible concerning your mother, so too the remainder is meaningless.’” (Rashi, Sefer Beresheit 37:10)

The dream referred to Rachel. It contained an inaccuracy. However, even prophetic dreams include such elements. Rashi adds that Yaakov realized this. He understood that Rachel’s inclusion in the dream did not prove that it was not prophetic. He did not share this knowledge with is sons. Instead, he dismissed the dream. He declared it was a fantasy. He hoped that by repudiating the dream, he would reduce the conflict and tension between his sons. 

Let us summarize these two explanations for an apparent inaccuracy in a prophetic dream. According to Rashi’s first explanation, all elements of Yosef’s dream were prophetic and true. Yaakov misunderstood the dream and concluded that it was inaccurate. According to Rashi’s second explanation, a prophetic dream includes meaningless, even nonsensical elements. Yaakov understood this. He did not dismiss the dream because he believed it to be untrue. He ridiculed it attempting to moderate the conflict between his sons. 

III. Prophetic and normal dreams

Why does a prophetic dream include meaningless elements? There are two ways to understand the phenomenon of prophetic dreams. 

·      A prophetic dream is a message from Hashem. It is the same as a prophetic vision. The only difference between the two is that a prophetic dream occurs during one’s sleep.

·      A prophetic dream is a message communicated through the natural dream process. Everyone dreams. A prophetic dream is a manipulation of the normal dream process to create a prophetic message. 

What is the practical difference between these two interpretations? If the first explanation is correct, then a prophetic dream should not contain meaningless or nonsensical elements. If the second is correct, then the prophetic dream will likely or inevitably include nonsensical elements. A normal dream includes many such elements. The prophetic dream is a manipulation of the natural process. It will have some of the characteristics of a natural dream – including nonsense. According to Rashi, our Sages adopted the second explanation of prophetic dreams. We should expect the dream to include some element of nonsense. 

And his brothers said to him, “Will you truly be king over us? Will you truly rule over us?” And they hated him [even] more, over his dreams and words. (Sefer Beresheit 37:8)

IV. Dreams and fantasy

Do these nonsensical elements have any meaning or are they arbitrary? The brothers had a very clear opinion concerning this question and many psychologists would agree with their view. The brothers did not believe that the dreams were prophetic. But the dreams intensified their resentment of Yosef. Why? They believed that these dreams were Yosef’s fantasies.[1] They declared to Yosef, “Will you truly be king over us? Will you truly rule over us?” The brothers believed that the dreams expressed Yosef’s fantasy to dominate his brothers and control them. 

The brothers were very wise and their understanding of the meaning of dreams cannot be dismissed. Their understanding of dreams has a disturbing implication. 

According to our Sages, even prophetic dreams will contain nonsense. These elements are the product of the normal dream process. Rashi explains, in his second interpretation of the mother-figure in Yosef’s dream, that this figure was one of those nonsensical elements. These elements are the product of the natural dream process that is active even in a prophetic dream. The brothers believed that the natural dream process expresses the dreamer’s fantasies. Then, Yosef’s prophetic dream included a fantasy. Rachel bowing to him! Is the Torah telling us that Yosef HaTzadik – the righteous one – as a youth, fantasized dominating his father and mother? To answer this question, another issue must be explored. 

And, it was [in the dream] that we are binding sheaves in the field, and it was that my sheave arose and also remained standing. And it was that your sheaves gathered around and bowed to my sheave. (Sefer Beresheit 37:7)

V. The brothers’ interpretation

The above translation reflects Rashi’s understanding of the passage. Yosef’s sheave arises and remains standing. The brothers’ sheaves bow to Yosef’s sheave. This was a prophetic dream. The brothers believed that the dream represented Yosef’s desire to dominate them. Their conclusion that the dream was a fantasy and not prophetic was wrong. Was their interpretation of the dream’s meaning correct? It was not a fantasy of domination. Was it a prophecy of domination?

Yosef became the Paroh’s vizier. He was virtually the ruler of Egypt. His brothers came to Egypt to purchase provisions that would sustain them during a regional famine. Yosef did not reveal his true identity to his brothers. He allowed them to think of him as a mysterious, powerful minister of Egypt. During the period that he hid his identity, Yosef did dominate his brothers. But he soon revealed himself and conducted himself as their brother and did not seek to assert authority over them. The dream describes Yosef rising, remaining standing and the brothers bowing before him. Yosef arose as the vizier of Egypt. He retained that position until his death. But he only dominated his brothers for a very short period. Is this short period the fulfillment of the prophecy?

Yosef persuaded his brothers and father to come to Egypt and settle there. He never asserted authority over his father. If the bowing of Yosef’s brothers and parents in his second dream represented their submission to his authority, then the prophecy was not fulfilled!

Let us review these questions:

·      Did Yosef fantasize that he would dominate his father and mother?

·      How were these prophetic dreams fulfilled? Yosef only asserted authority over his brothers for a short period. He never asserted authority over his father?

VI. Yosef’s true aspiration

These questions suggest that the bothers’ understanding of the dreams had two flaws. First, the dreams were not fantasies. They were prophetic. Second, they misinterpreted the message in the dream. Yosef’s dreams did not depict his domination. They depicted the acknowledgment of his leadership.

Yosef and his brothers were engaged in a conflict. They resented him and resisted his leadership. Yosef’s dream was a prophecy. At some point, his leadership would become firmly established. His brothers, who had stubbornly resisted him would acknowledge his leadership. 

Yosef did not prophesize or fantasize about asserting authority over his parents. He prophesized that Yaakov with his brothers would acknowledge him. He also dreamed of his departed mother participating in this acknowledgment. He dreamed of Rachel seeing and acknowledging her grown son as an accomplished leader of a mighty nation and as the provider for the family. Rachel’s inclusion in the dream was a fantasy – one any son might have. 

VII. The tragedy of the brothers

The story of Yosef and his brothers is tragic. It is dominated by conflict and hatred. However, its most tragic aspect is that conflict and hatred were intensified by a misunderstanding. The brothers interpreted Yosef’s dreams as fantasies of dominance. Their resentment of him prevented them from considering an alternative interpretation. It did not occur to them that the dreams might be their ostracized brother’s dream of acknowledgment and acceptance. The dreams – interpreted more accurately – might have softened their attitude toward Yosef. Instead, their animosity toward Yosef led them to an interpretation that justified their hatred. The story is a lesson we can apply to our relationships. 

[1] Yosef shared the dreams with his brothers. He communicated to them that he took them seriously. Was their resentment intensified by the dreams or by Yosef’s attitude toward the dreams? The Chumash responds, “And they hated him [even] more over his dreams and his words.” (37:8) The brothers believed the dream revealed Yosef’s fantasies. They were further offended by his callous sharing of them.