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Parashat Vayeshev, 5778

December 5, 2017

The Dreams of Joseph and Solomon
A D’var Torah for Vayeshev
Rabbi Jill Hammer

Many have suggested that events in the Book of Genesis are intertextual with events in the Book of Samuel. For example, the ketonet pasim, the colorful striped coat that Joseph wears as his brothers betray him and sell him into slavery, has a direct relationship with the ketonet pasim, the colorful striped coat that Tamar daughter of David wears as her brother Amnon betrays and rapes her. In fact, in Tanakh there are the only two “striped coats” (the Hebrew word pas may mean “to divide into parts”).

Both coats are torn. Joseph’s brothers tear his in an effort to fake his death, and Tamar tears hers in mourning for what has happened to her. Joseph and Tamar, both betrayed by siblings, must be read in light of one another. It is not even clear which text we should read first. As author Jonathan Kirsch says, this might be because Genesis was written to reflect the events of David’s kingship. Or it might be that the Book of Samuel desires to reflect the events of Genesis. As the sages say, there is no before or after in the Torah.

This method of reading causes me to think in a new way about Joseph’s dreams. In the biblical story, Joseph has two dreams. In the first, he is binding sheaves with his brothers, and he sees his own sheaf stand up while the other sheaves bow low to it. In the second, the sun, moon, and eleven stars bow down to him. The brothers, hearing the dreams, anticipate how Joseph will see the dream, and perhaps how their father Jacob will see the dream. Joseph is meant to rule over his brothers.

These dreams rouse the brothers’ jealousy and ire to the point of violence. Of course, the dreams also prefigure Joseph’s nourishing of Egypt and his whole family via his storing of Egyptian wheat, but the brothers don’t know about that. They view him as an arrogant would-be usurper, not knowing that he will one day save them.

Joseph’s leadership continues to be intertwined with dreams. After being enslaved in Potiphar’s house and then imprisoned in an Egyptian jail, Joseph’s interpretation of his fellow inmates’ dreams wins him his freedom. Shortly thereafter, Joseph’s reading of Pharaoh’s dreams catapults him to second-in-command in Egypt. It is arguable that without his relationship to prophetic dreaming, Joseph could never have achieved leadership or saved his family. Yet it is Joseph’s ill-timed sharing of his dreams with his brothers that leads to many of his troubles.

Dreams are also significant in the life of King Solomon. Solomon has to fend off challenges to his leadership. His brother Adonijah, also a potential heir to the throne, is a threat to his life. Like Joseph, Solomon’s leadership is contested by his brother(s). Like Joseph, Solomon is elevated by his father although there are older brothers. As Solomon prepares for his reign, he goes to Gibeon, a Canaanite and then Israelite city, to a large shrine there, to make offerings (I Kings 3).

Solomon spends the night at the shrine and has a dream in which God asks Solomon what he wishes. Solomon speaks humbly, saying that he is a young man with no leadership experience, and asks for wisdom: “Grant, then, your servant a listening heart (or, an understanding mind) to judge your people, to distinguish between good and bad…” The Divine, pleased by Solomon’s humble request, offers him wisdom as well as riches and long life.

Solomon awakens from his dream, and gratefully returns to Jerusalem. Not long afterward, two women come to him with a living child and a dead one, and Solomon is able to render wise judgment in the famous case.

Both of these stories suggest that dreams—visions that intimate one’s potential—are a powerful phenomenon, and one that matters in the course of a person’s life. In both of these stories, a young person’s leadership is confirmed through his dreams. In both cases, the young person grows into the full potential of the dream. Joseph does become a leader of many people, and Solomon becomes a wise ruler.

Yet there are differences in the story as well. In the first case, Joseph tells the dream, perhaps prematurely, to people who reject his leadership potential, inviting their enmity. In the second case, Solomon expresses gratitude for the dream through ritual, and then waits, without announcing his dream, for God’s promise to unfold. Comparing the two texts, we might imagine that, when we have great dreams for what we will do in the world, a humble approach to our dreams may be best.

There are many dreams that have mattered to me throughout my life. I am particularly thinking, at this moment, of a dream in which I had to hunt for a blue jewel that would confirm my identity. I knew, in the dream, that I was the one meant to find the jewel—and, it was also a long and arduous journey to discover it.

Perhaps my dream holds a similar message to the stories of the dreams of Joseph and Solomon. The dream’s potential is real, and, the dream must unfold over time in order to reach that potential. It is not the telling of the dream that is the most important thing, but the living of it.

May we all find patient and dedicated ways to live out our dreams.

Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is the Director of Spiritual Education at the Academy for Jewish Religion.