The First Two Dreams
Pharaoh has a dream. He is frightened and agitated, yet not one of his advisors can interpret his dream:
And it came to pass in the morning that his spirit was troubled; and he sent and called for all the magicians of Egypt, and all its wise men; and Pharaoh told them his dream; but there was none who could interpret them to Pharaoh. (Bereishit 41:8)
Why was this dream so troubling to Pharaoh? It seems to speak of produce and agriculture, subjects that would occupy a monarch's mind for a significant part of his working day; it should come as no surprise when these elements bubbled to the surface while he slumbered:
And it came to pass at the end of two full years that Pharaoh dreamed; and, behold, he stood by the river. And, behold, there came up from the river seven cows sleek and fat; and they fed in the reed grass. And, behold, seven other cows came up after them from the river, gaunt and thin; and stood by the other cows upon the brink of the river. And the gaunt and thin cows consumed the seven sleek and fat cows. And Pharaoh awoke. And he slept and dreamed the second time; and, behold, seven ears of grain came up as one stalk, plump and good. And, behold, seven thin ears, blasted by the east wind, sprung up after them. And the seven thin ears devoured the seven plump and full ears. And Pharaoh awoke, and, behold, it was a dream. (Bereishit 41:1-7)
Pharaoh's dreams do not seem overly difficult to understand. It seems strange that all the wise men of Egypt could not muster any suggestion or interpretation which would satisfy Pharaoh. In order to understand the source of their difficulty, let us consider the dreams through Egyptian eyes.
Pharaoh has two dreams which are similar, one focused on cows and the other on stalks of grain. To the modern reader these seem like innocuous, healthy symbols of a time and place where man was more connected to the land and nature: These are the basic symbols of the woop and warf of agricultural life, of the farmer and the shepherd. Yet the Egyptians may have viewed these symbols in a very different fashion. Yosef actually points out to the cultural divergence when, years later, he prepares his brothers for their meeting with Pharaoh:
And Yosef said to his brothers, and to his father's house, 'I will go up, and explain to Pharaoh, and say to him, "My brothers, and my father's house, who were in the land of Canaan, have come to me; And the men are shepherds, for their trade has been to raise cattle; and they have brought their flocks, and their herds, and all that they have." And it shall come to pass, when Pharaoh shall call you, and shall say, "What is your occupation?", you shall say, "Your servants' trade has been keeping cattle from our youth until now, both we, and also our fathers." that you may live in the land of Goshen; for every shepherd is an abomination to the Egyptians. (Bereishit 46:31-34)
Rashi explains that because the Egyptians regarded animals as deities, they considered it an abomination to herd, domesticate or cultivate flocks or herds.
Is an abomination to the Egyptians - for they were deities for them. (Rashi, Bereishit 46:34)
The Ibn Ezra explains that it is not dissimilar to India in his day: These people worshiped cows and would not eat their meat or drink their milk, hence those who raised cows and ate their meat and milk were shunned by the Egyptians.(1) The Riva goes even further, pointing out that practices necessary for tending flocks were abhorrent to the Egyptians, who could not bear the use of force on their deities.(2) The B'chor Shor interprets Yosef's comment differently, reading it as a condemnation of Egyptian idolatry: the word 'abomination' refers to the Egyptian deities, and Yosef is passing a value judgment on Egyptian sensibilities and their worship of four-legged creatures.(3)
The word that Yosef uses to describe the clash between Egyptian and Jewish sensibilities is "toeva" ('abomination'), and this same word elsewhere in Yosef's story in another context: When the brothers unknowingly stand before Yosef and are invited to dine with the Prince of Egypt, the Torah describes a strange seating arrangement: the brothers are seated by themselves, Yosef by himself, and the other members of the Egyptian court by themselves:
And he washed his face, and went out, and controlled himself, and said, 'Set out bread.' And they served him by himself, and for them by themselves, and for the Egyptians who ate with him, by themselves; because the Egyptians would not eat bread with the Hebrews; for that is an abomination to the Egyptians. (Bereishit 43:31-32)
Some commentaries(4) see this as an indication of the arrogance and haughtiness of the Egyptians, who were not willing to eat with "lowly" strangers, yet this would not explain Yosef's exclusion. Other commentaries refer to the Egyptians' disgust at the profession of these guests; again, this would not explain the exclusion Yosef, a highly respected member of Pharaoh's court.(5) It might be possible to apply the same definition of the word toeva to this passage for a better understanding: One could posit that the word here also indicates a deity. The passage should then be interpreted along the lines suggested by the Bchor Shor: "for the Egyptians would not eat bread with the Hebrews, for this was (another) toeva, another idolatrous practice of the Egyptians." Eating bread, certainly publicly, went against Egyptian religious sensibilities.(6) This may provide us with a window into the religious world of Pharaonic Egypt: this was a slave-based society, developed not as a result of great affluence but as an outcome of a religious system that rejected all forms of physical labor. Egypt needed slaves - because the Egyptians themselves rejected the concept of physical labor. The production of bread required arduous work, and the Egyptians may have found all types of work and, by extension, those who were engaged in physical labor, an offense to their religious beliefs.
In this context, the two elements of Pharaoh's dream are of great symbolic importance inasmuch as they relate to "idolatrous" practices. Two additional elements of the dreams buttress this thesis: the "river" and Pharaoh himself. Both of these elements were also perceived as deities - the Nile was seen as the life-force of Egypt, and Pharaoh, who claimed to be the god of the Nile:
Son of man, set your face against Pharaoh king of Egypt, and prophesy against him, and against all Egypt; Speak, and say, Thus says the Almighty God: Behold, I am against you, Pharaoh king of Egypt, the great crocodile that lies in the midst of his streams, who has said, 'My river is my own, and I have made it for myself.' (Yechezkel 29:2-3)
Only when we appreciate that all the elements in the dreams may have been perceived as deities to the Egyptians can we understand the silence of all of Pharaoh's advisors. They must have perceived in these dreams a foreboding message of a major cataclysm that could shake Egypt to its very core.
These same dreams may be understood in a completely different fashion in light of the ideological and religious worldview represented by biblical symbols. In this context, Pharaoh's two dreams represent an ancient dichotomy which has persisted from the very first day of man's existence. This may be concisely described as the dichotomy between man's perfect state of existence before the sin and man's post-Eden existence.
Before eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam named the animals. This seems to have been the extent of the "work" with which he is charged:
And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the Garden of Eden to cultivate it and to keep it. (Bereishit 2:15)
After the sin, Adam is instructed to work the ground; sustenance, symbolized by bread, would now emerge only when man exerts himself:
In the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread, till you return to the ground; for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust shall you return. (Bereishit 3:19)
This same dichotomy is evident in the different orientations toward work in the next generation:(7)
And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering to the Almighty. And Abel also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat of it. And the Almighty harkened to Abel and to his offering. (Bereishit 4:3-4)
Cain and Hevel take different paths in their pursuit of God's Will, and these paths are expressed by their vocations. These enduring symbols of mankind's relationship to nature and to our place in the post-Eden reality were surely familiar to Yosef. Clearly Pharaoh and his advisors did not think in these terms, and Yosef's interpretation of Pharaoh's dreams ignores the biblical symbolism, while simultaneously steering clear of the minefield of Egyptian deities. The interpretation Yosef puts forth is firmly embedded in economics, in pragmatic planning which will enable Egypt to take advantage of the good years ahead in order to protect itself when the difficult times follow. This is an interpretation that does not threaten Pharoh or the religious system of which he is the apex, and Yosef is immediately catapulted to a position of power that enables him to implement the plan he had outlined.
* * *
TWO MORE DREAMS
Yosef's pragmatic interpretation of Pharaoh's dreams must be seen as part and parcel of his interpretation of a previous set of dreams - dreams that actually laid the foundations of his own liberation. As he languished in an Egyptian prison, Yosef interpreted the dreams of two fellow inmates:
And they dreamed a dream both of them, each man his dream in one night, each man according to the interpretation of his dream, the sommelier and the baker of the king of Egypt, who were confined in the prison. And Yosef came to them in the morning, and looked upon them, and, behold, they were sad. And he asked Pharaoh's officers who were with him in the custody of his lord's house, saying, Why do you look so sad today? And they said to him, We have dreamed a dream, and there is no interpreter of it. And Yosef said to them, Do interpretations not belong to the Almighty? Tell them to me, I beg you. (Bereishit 40:5-8)
And the chief sommelier told his dream to Yosef, and said to him, 'In my dream, behold, a vine was before me; And in the vine were three branches; and it was as though it budded, and its blossoms shot forth; and its clusters brought forth ripe grapes; And Pharaoh's cup was in my hand; and I took the grapes, and pressed them into Pharaoh's cup, and I gave the cup into Pharaoh's hand.' And Yosef said to him, 'This is the interpretation of it: The three branches are three days, and within three days shall Pharaoh lift up your head, and restore you to your place; and you shall deliver Pharaoh's cup into his hand, after the former manner when you were in his service. But think of me when it shall be well with you, and show kindness, I beg you, to me, and make mention of me to Pharaoh, and bring me out of this house; for indeed I was stolen away from the land of the Hebrews; and here also have I done nothing that they should put me in the dungeon.' When the chief baker saw that the interpretation was good, he said to Yosef, 'I also was in my dream, and, behold, I had three white baskets on my head; And in the uppermost basket there were all kinds of baked food for Pharaoh; and the birds ate them out of the basket upon my head.' And Yosef answered and said, 'This is the interpretation: The three baskets are three days, and within three days shall Pharaoh lift up your head off you, and shall hang you on a tree; and the birds shall eat your flesh off you.' And it came to pass the third day, which was Pharaoh's birthday, he made a feast for all his servants; and he lifted up the head of the chief sommelier and of the chief baker among his servants. And he restored the chief sommelier to his stewardship again; and he gave the cup into Pharaoh's hand; But he hanged the chief baker, as Yosef had interpreted to them. Yet the chief sommelier did not remember Yosef, and forgot him. (Bereishit 40:9-23)
These dreams contain symbols of the dichotomy we have discussed: The baker is actively involved in the process of making bread. The deeper connection with the post-Eden state of mankind, as well as the thematic connection with Pharaoh's dream, should not be overlooked. The wine steward, who is entrusted to discern good wine from bad, represents a major element of the sin committed in the Garden of Eden: according to many commentaries, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was none other than a grape vine, whose fruit causes confusion.(8) The wine steward's job, then, is a delicate one: he must, in his way, unravel the confusion of man's first sin.
The baker, on the other hand, performs his task by adhering to the rules of engagement in a post-sin world in which bread is brought forth by the sweat of man's brow. While both wine and bread are the results of a long process of fermentation which produce a finished product that is a vast improvement over the raw materials used to create it, Yosef sees only one of these processes carrying through to a successful finish: The sommelier will be returned to his former glory, which is analogous to a world before sin, before confusion. The baker's death seems to indicate a far weaker commitment to the post-Eden experience: Pharaoh has no interest in perpetuating 'bread', takes no responsibility for a world of work, of patient toil, and of death. These are left for the Egyptians' slaves to contend with, and it should come as no surprise that the Egyptian economic system eventually becomes dependent on slave labor. As a living representation of the human condition after the sin, the baker is doomed. He, his profession - and what that profession symbolizes - are an abomination to Egyptian theology, just as the Hebrew shepherds would be.
For Yosef, bread was also a troubling symbol. The Torah stresses that his brothers sat down "to eat bread" after they cast him into the pit. Later, 'bread' helped land him in prison: When he starts he career in the house of Potifar, we are told that Yosef is entrusted with all of his master's possessions - save one:
And he left all that he had in Yosef's hand; and he knew not what he had, save for the bread which he ate... (Bereishit 39:6)
Later, this statement is clarified: When his master's wife tries to seduce Yosef, the "bread" is a symbol of something far more personal:
But he refused, and said to his master's wife, 'Behold, my master knows not what is with me in the house, and he has committed all that he has to my hand; There is none greater in this house than I; nor has he kept back anything from me but you, because you are his wife; how then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God? (Bereishit 39:8-9)
The one thing that was off limits to Yosef, earlier described as 'bread', was, in fact, Mrs. Potiphar. Yosef was accused of "eating another man's 'bread' ", and he was thrown into the pit once again. Once again, Yosef had not, in fact, partaken of the bread. He alone among the brothers did not eat bread when he was in the pit, and he remained a tzaddik in the house of Potiphar, despite the temptation to partake of the "feast". We may go so far as to say that Yosef is a throwback to man's purest state, to a point before the sin in Eden, to a time before man began to eke out his sustenance by the sweat of his brow, before eating from the Tree of Knowledge - before Adam "knew" his wife, before bread replaced knowledge.(9)
* * *
Yosef's vision remained unclouded, unconfused. He correctly interpreted the dreams of his fellow prisoners, as well as Pharaoh's dreams, while discerning within them a message that transcended the lives and times of the dreamers of these dreams. When the two former ministers reveal their dreams to him, Yosef's interpretation bears similarities to his interpretation of Pharaoh's dreams. In both cases, Yosef understands that God is revealing the future. But Yosef also sees much more. Yosef saw the hand of God touching his own life, and he believed that when God spoke to the staff of Pharaoh's palace, there was also a message for him in that communication. He heard within the wine steward's dream a harbinger of his own salvation. He understood from Pharaoh's dream the reason he had suffered all of the trials and tribulations that brought him to the position of HaMashbir HaGadol, the great sustainer of Egypt and of his own family. Perhaps Yosef connected these two pairs of dreams with yet another pair of dreams: his own dreams, the dreams that caused his brothers to hate him enough to wish him dead.
And Yosef dreamed a dream, and he told it his brothers; and they hated him even more. And he said to them, 'Hear, I beg you, this dream which I have dreamed. Behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and, lo, my sheaf arose, and also stood upright; and, behold, your sheaves stood around, and made obeisance to my sheaf.' And his brothers said to him, 'Shall you indeed reign over us? Or shall you indeed have dominion over us?' And they hated him even more for his dreams, and for his words. And he dreamed yet another dream, and told it to his brothers, and said, 'Behold, I have again dreamed a dream; and, behold, the sun and the moon and the eleven stars made obeisance to me.' And he told it to his father, and to his brothers; and his father rebuked him, and said to him, 'What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall I and your mother and your brothers indeed come to bow down ourselves to you to the earth?' And his brothers envied him; but his father kept the matter in mind. (Bereishit 37:5-11)
Yosef himself has two dreams, and he tells his brothers and his father the content of the dreams but never offers them his interpretation. He is vilified by his brothers as a self-centered narcissist; they have obviously interpreted the dreams from their own jaundiced perspective. They understand the dreams to be an indication that Yosef dreams of ruling over them.
Significantly, there are elements of his dreams that appear to slip by the brothers, but should not go unnoticed by readers of the text: His first dream was of sheaves, a theme that is revisited in the other dreams we have analyzed, be it the chief baker's handiwork or the sheaves of Pharaoh's dream. In Yosef's dream, the sheaves speak of the larger issue that looms in the background of all of the dreams: sheaves are a symbol of an agricultural society, but Yosef and his brothers are shepherds.
On the one hand, we might interpret this vocation as an expression of their desire to identify with a "pre-sin" world, to identify with Hevel as opposed to Cain. On the other hand, we may attribute their source of livelihood purely to expediency: Although they live in Canaan, they are not masters of that land. Though the family lives in Hevron, the brothers travel a considerable distance to the north, to Shechem and Dotan, to graze their flocks. This has a distinctly nomadic ring to it: They do not own land, and therefore they cannot engage in farming. They may live in the Promised Land, but it is still just that - promised to them, not yet theirs.
For Yosef's dream of sheaves to be realized, their lives will have to change considerably. Does Yosef see the next stage of their lives as master of the Promised Land, or does his dream reflect a new phase of life in a different land?(10) The brothers never ask; they don't seem to care. As far as they are concerned, Yosef's dream is simply the product of his over-active, self-centered imagination. And as they reject his first dream, they hate him for his second dream. But did they pause to consider its message?
* * *
A VISION AND A DREAM
Yosef's second dream deviates from all the dreams which follow; he dreams of celestial bodies, of the stars, the sun and moon. Again, the brothers do not seem interested in the deeper meaning of Yosef's dream. Even his father interprets the dream as an expression of Yosef's self-image. They all overlook the symbolism used in this dream - symbolism which we should not, ourselves, overlook: There was another member of the family who had a vision which involved the stars. His name was Avraham:
After these things the word of the Almighty came to Avram in a vision, saying, 'Fear not, Avram; I am your shield, and your reward will be great.' And Avram said, 'Almighty God, what will you give me, seeing I go childless, and the steward of my house is this Eliezer of Damascus?' And Avram said, 'Behold, to me you have given no seed; and, lo, a member of my household staff is my heir.' And, behold, the word of the Almighty came to him, saying, 'This shall not be your heir; but he who shall come forth from your own bowels shall be your heir.' And He brought him outside, and said, 'Look now toward heaven, and count the stars, if you are able to count them'; and He said to him, 'So shall your seed be.' And he believed in the Almighty; and he counted it to him astzedaka. And He said to him, 'I am the Almighty who brought you out of Ur Kasdim, to give you this land to inherit it.' And he said, 'Almighty God, how shall I know that I shall inherit it?' And He said to him, 'Bring me a three year old heifer, and a three year old female goat, and a three year old ram, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon...' (Bereishit 15:1-10)
The stars symbolize the number of Avraham's descendents: Avraham, who was childless at this point, receives God's promise that he will be the patriarch of a great nation, with descendents too plentiful to count, who will inherit the Land of Canaan. We would have expected the grandchild and great grandchildren of Avraham to have seen the significance of Yosef's dream of stars. We might even have expected them to reinterpret the first dream in light of the second dream, to make a connection with the second part of Avraham's vision that dealt with inheriting the Land. How did they ignore these symbols? Why did they not realize that Yosef's dreams were somehow connected to the future of the Children of Israel, Avraham's descendents, in the Land of Israel? When hearing these two dreams(11) the brothers should have understood that Yosef described a situation which did not exist yet, a future time in which they and their descendents would be free to work the Land. They should have remembered Avraham's dreams, especially the dream which immediately follows his vision of the stars:
And when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Avram; and, lo, a fear of great darkness fell upon him. And He said to Avram, 'Know for a certainty that your seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years; And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge; and afterward shall they come out with great wealth. And you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. But in the fourth generation they shall come here again; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full.' And it came to pass, that, when the sun went down, and it was dark, behold a smoking furnace, and a burning torch that passed between those pieces. In the same day the Almighty made a covenant with Avram, saying, 'To your seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates; The Kenites, and the Kenazites, and the Kadmonites, and the Hittites, and the Perizzites, and the Rephaim, and the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Girgashites, and the Yevusites. (Bereishit 15:12-21)
Avraham dreams; he learns that the path to the Land of Israel will not be a short, direct route. The path his descendents will take will be a long, circuitous one which will take them far away from their land. This will be a 'descent for the sake of ascent', for when they return, the land will truly be theirs, earned through their labor as slaves. At that time, working the holy land as farmers will be perceived as the greatest blessing.
Yosef, like Avraham, sees the path to Israel. He understands that it will necessarily pass through Egypt. The dreams that he interprets teach him that it is there that he will rise to power, there that his family will become as numerous as the stars.(12) The wine steward's dream foretells his own redemption, and Pharaoh's dreams show him the path to the future. Yosef sees God's master plan unfold in the dreams of others; his own dreams speak of the time of their return to the land - not as a nomadic band of brothers but as a nation in possession of their Promised Land. His brothers never asked Yosef to explain his dreams; would they have understood the message had he revealed it to them? Did the brothers share Yosef's ability to see beyond the present, to discern and understand hundreds of years of history in the visions he is granted? It seems not; they saw their own personal rivalries and jealousies, and took no responsibility for the future. Yosef was, in more than one sense, a visionary: He saw beyond the present, and taught others to do the same. For Yosef, all these dreams are of one piece; they are all connected to the glorious dream of Avraham. Yosef understands that his own personal life story is a vehicle for Jewish history. Ultimately, this is his message to his brothers:
Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life… So now it was not you who sent me here, but God; and he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and a ruler throughout all the land of Egypt. (Bereishit 45:5,8)
Yosef helps them to understand what he has already come to know: His brothers are not the reason he is in Egypt. Their own personal interests are a part of something much greater than themselves. Our lives - all of our lives - are part and parcel of the covenant between God and Avraham: God brought the Children of Israel to Egypt as the final step toward their return, as a great nation, to the Land of Israel. Only then, only there, will the descendents of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, the Children of Israel, one day live in peace, prosperity and freedom.
1. Ibn Ezra Bereishit 46:34.
2. Riva Bereishit 46:34.
3. Bechor Shor Bereishit 46:34.
4. See Hizkuni and Seforno Bereishit 43:32.
5. See Targum Unkolus Bereishit 43:32.
6. See Daat Zekeinim m'Baalei Tosfot on Bereishit 46:34, who draws the connection between this verse and the word 'abomination' found in connection with Israelites' vocation.
7. For more on this theme, see Explorations, Chapter One.
8. See Talmud Bavli Brachot 40a.
9. Regarding the connection between bread and knowledge, see Talmud Bavli Brachot 40a, and Sfat Emet on Baha'alotcha, 5647: For it has been taught: R. Meir holds that the tree of which Adam ate was the vine, since the thing that most causes wailing to a man is wine, as it says,' And he drank of the wine and became drunk.' R. Nehemiah says it was the fig tree, thus they repaired their misdeed with the instrument of (that sin), as it says, 'And they sewed fig leaves together.' R. Judah says it was wheat, since a child does not know how to call father and mother until it has had a taste of wheat.
10. See Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik, The Rav Speaks: Five Addresses on Israel, History, and the Jewish People, lecture 1: "And Joseph Dreamt a Dream," p.27. The Rav notes the fact that Yosef and the brothers are shepherds, yet he dreams of agriculture, he concludes that Yosef's vision was of their impending exile and the lifestyle they would be forced to adopt in Egypt.
11. Combining the images of Yosef's two dreams - stalks on the ground and the stars, sun and moon in the heavens - creates a vision remarkably similar to his father's dream of a ladder, with its feet on the ground and its top reaching the heavens.
12. When Yosef collects and stores the wheat of Egypt, it is described as 'numerous as the grains of sand.' Bereishit 41:49.