Parashat Vayeishev 5783

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A D’var Torah for Parashat Vayeishev
By Rabbi Greg Schindler (’09)

Dedicated to the memory of my dear wife Barucha Esther bat Daniel v’Rachel (z”l)

Dream On

Dream on/ Dream on / Dream on
Dream until your dreams come true
– Steven Tyler (Aerosmith)

Did you ever have a dream that came true?

The Talmud tells us that a dream is one-sixtieth of prophecy. (Berakhot 57b) But the trouble with dreams is, they require interpretation.

Rav Hisda said, “A dream not interpreted is like a letter not read.” (Berakhot 55a) Dream interpretation is made especially difficult by the “red herrings” in dreams: “Just as it is impossible for the grain to grow without straw, so it is impossible to dream without idle matters.” (ibid.)

Moreover, the Sages claim that the actualization of a dream depends on its interpretation: “Rabbi Bena’a once told his dream to 24 dream interpreters. Although each gave a different interpretation, each came true, thereby fulfilling the principle, ‘All dreams follow the mouth.’” (Berakhot 55b)

The first reported dream in the Torah covers nothing less than the going down to Egypt and the Exodus:
“A deep sleep fell upon Abram …. ‘Know that your seed shall be a stranger (ger) in a land that is not theirs, and shall be enslaved and oppressed 400 years. But I will judge the nation they serve, and they shall come out with great wealth… In the fourth generation they shall return here.’” (Gen. 15:12-16)

In this week’s Torah portion, dreams take center stage.

“Joseph dreamed a dream, and he told it to his brothers; and they hated him even more. He said, ‘Hear this dream I dreamed: We were binding sheaves in the field. My sheaf arose and stood up, and your sheaves bowed down to my sheaf.’” (Gen. 37:5-7).

His brothers think they understand the meaning: “Shall you reign over us?” they exclaim. “And they hated him even more for his dreams.” (Gen. 37:8)

Joseph later relates a second dream to his family: “The sun and the moon and 11 stars bowed down to me.” This time it is his father who reprimands him: “Shall I and your mother and brothers bow down to you?” (Gen. 37:10). Rashi explains that Jacob emphasizes “and your mother” to make the dream appear nonsensical to Joseph’s brothers; after all, Joseph’s mother Rachel – the “moon” in the dream – was no more. However we then read, “His father kept the matter in mind.” (Gen. 37:11) Why would Jacob keep this (allegedly nonsensical) dream in mind?

Perhaps because Jacob knew a thing or two about dreams.
Especially ones having to do with the heavens.

Years earlier, as he escaped the wrath of Esau and headed to Haran, Jacob had a dream:
“A ladder set upon the earth and the top of it reached to heaven. Angels of G-d were ascending and descending on it. And G-d stood beside him, and said: … ‘The land on which you lie, I will give to you and your seed. Your seed shall be as the dust of the earth… I will guard you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land.’” (Gen. 28:12-15).

According to R. Joseph Soloveitchik, Jacob may have believed that he was now living out the realization of his dream and Abraham’s dream. Think about it: Jacob had been a stranger in Haran, endured a lengthy servitude, G-d judged Laban, Jacob left with great wealth, and now G-d had returned Jacob to the land in the fourth generation (Abraham – Isaac – Jacob – Joseph). Exodus over! Let’s eat![1]

Indeed, this week’s Torah portion begins, “Jacob dwelt (vayeishav) in the land of his father’s sojournings (migurei), in the land of Canaan.” (Gen. 37:1).  While his father was a mere sojourner (ger) in the land, Jacob sees himself as settled (yashav). And maybe – just maybe – if Joseph and his brothers had gotten along, he would have been right. However, as the Midrash tells us: “Jacob sought to dwell (leishev) in serenity in this world, and then the difficulties with Joseph arose.” The brothers cast Joseph into a pit, declaring, “We shall see what will become of his dreams.” (Gen. 37:19-20).

Dreams get Joseph into trouble, and dreams eventually get him out.

Imprisoned in Egypt, Joseph interprets the dreams of Pharaoh’s cupbearer and baker. (Gen. 40:6-19). The cupbearer sees three tendrils on a vine, the baker sees birds eating from three baskets atop his head. For the cupbearer, Joseph foretells that – in three days – he will be restored to his office. However, for the baker – in three days … not so much. Later, it is the cupbearer who recommends Joseph to Pharaoh to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. Consider this: If “dreams follow the mouth”, could the salvation of the cupbearer and the punishment of the baker have been the result of Joseph’s interpretations? After all, aren’t these the best interpretations for Joseph’s situation? If both officers were to be punished there would be no one left to recommend Joseph to Pharaoh. And if both were restored to office, he might appear as nothing more than a sycophant trying to curry favor with anyone who might help.

So much seems to hinge on the brothers’ interpretations of Joseph’s dreams – perhaps even the enslavement in Egypt. But were the brothers correct?

R. David Fohrman wonders why the brothers ignore the centrality of grain in Joseph’s first dream; if the family is in the shepherding business, what are they doing bundling sheaves? Further, it is the brothers’ sheaves that bow down to Joseph’s sheaf, not the brothers who bow to Joseph. Could the dream have meant that the brothers’ food supply (i.e. sheaves) would one day be subservient to Joseph’s food supply?

What about the sun, moon and 11 stars? R. Fohrman argues that these 13 heavenly bodies – like the tendrils in the cupbearer’s dream, baskets in the baker’s dream, and cows in Pharaoh’s dream – could mean periods of time. (ibid). Indeed, the Torah expressly tells us that Joseph was age 17 at the time of his dreams (Gen. 37:2) and age 30 when he rises up in Egypt (Gen. 41:46). 13 heavenly bodies for the 13 years? Or this possibility: According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the Egyptians worshipped 11 principal gods, and they also considered Pharaoh and his wife to be deities. Could Joseph’s dream have been about his ascendancy – not over his family – but over Egypt?

If interpreted in these ways, would the brothers have cast Joseph into the pit?

That’s the trouble with dreams: They require interpretation.

So what do we do about our own dreams?

·        First of all, interpret them positively!

·        Second, remember that all dreams have elements of straw mixed in.

·        Third, you can perform Hatavat Halom (“Making a dream good”) by saying before three friends, “I saw a good dream.’ And they reply, ‘It is good, and let it be good. G-d will make it good.” (Berakhot 55b)

·        Finally, you can even “transform” your dreams. When the Kohanim perform the Priestly Blessing (on Festivals in the traditional liturgy), you say: “Master of the Universe, I am Yours and my dreams are Yours. I have dreamed a dream but I do not know what it means … May you transform all my dreams about myself and all of Israel for goodness.” (Berakhot 55b)[2]

Dream on.

[1] If you’re the type of person who reads the footnotes, then you’re probably saying, “Wait, Jacob wasn’t in Haran 400 years!” Ok, it wasn’t 400 years. But Rashi tells us that the Children of Israel only spent 210 years in Egypt – counted as 400 according to “G-d’s time.” If 210 years was enough in “G-d’s time”, then why not 1/10th of that – Jacob’s 21 years in Haran?


Rabbi Greg Schindler received semikha in 2009 (5769). While at AJR, he was honored to serve as President of the Student Association. He is a community rabbi in Westport, CT where he conducts classes in Talmud and Tanakh. He has led Children’s High Holiday services for over 20 years. Each year, he writes and directs a new Yom Kippur comedic play based on the Book of Jonah , including “Jonah-gan’s Island”. “Batmensch”, “SpongeJonah SquarePants”, “Horton Hears an Oy” and more.