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Dvar December 28 2019: Vayeshev/Mikketz

In our two most recent parshiot: vayeshev and mikketz, the Torah makes clear that dreams have meaning. In Vayeshev, Joseph has two dreams: 1: “He said to them: hear this dream which I have dreamed. There we were binding sheaves in the field when suddenly my sheaf stood up and remained upright; then your sheaves gathered around and bowed low to my sheaf.” Joseph’s brothers took this dream to mean that Joseph would reign over them. And 2: shortly after Joseph has another dream: “Look, I have had another dream. And this time, the sun, the mood, and eleven stars were down to me.” His father and brothers took this dream to mean everyone in his family is to bow before Joseph. Two dreams, both interpreted as prophecy. Later in the portion, he has two more dreams, both determining the fate of the Pharoah’s cupbearer and baker, both in the court prison with Joseph.


In our Torah portion this week, Miketz, we have a final set of dreams, but this time Pharoah has the dreams while Joseph interprets them. Joseph has gone from a receiver of dreams, not sure of what they mean, to now pure interpreter of dreams, no longer have to experience the dreams firsthand, himself.


In Pharoah’s first dream “He (Pharoah) was standing by the Nile when out of the Nile there came up seven cows, handsome and sturdy, and they grazed in the reed grass. But, presently, seven other cows came up from the Nile close behind them, ugly and gaunt, and stood beside the cows on the bank of the Nile; and the ugly gaunt cows ate up the seven handsome sturdy cows.”


He dreams a second time: “Seven ears of grain, solid and healthy, grew on a single stalk. But close behind them sprouted second ears, thin and scorched by the east wind. And the thin ears swallowed up the seven solid and full ears.”


Joseph is called, due to his expertise, to interpret these dreams. He prophesizes that Egypt will experience 7 years of prosperity followed by 7 years of famine. From this interpretation, Joseph elevates his status in Egyptian society and begins his job as overseer of all resources in preparation for the famine, which later in the Torah portion allows him to come into contact with his brothers again ultimately culminating in being reunited.


Dreams, so what does Judaism think about dreams. Clearly from the Torah, dreams are prophetic, they have power, they can give us power. A rabbinic saying has it that a dream is a sixtieth of prophecy (Brachot 57b). Maimonides (Guide of the Perplexed, 3.36-8) develops his theory that in the dream the imaginative faculty is awakened, without which prophecy is impossible.


Talmud also says that dreams are completely up to the interpreter and “no dreams are without nonsense.” (Brachot 55a)


There was even a rabbinic scholar: Jacob of Mervage (13th century) would fast, dream and ask halachic questions in his dreams in order to find their answers.


Rabbi Yochanan Zweig, a contemporary Aish Rabbi, makes the distinction between prophecy and dreams: “Prophecy means that a prophet is standing here today being told what will occur tomorrow. “Tomorrow” is thus no longer indeterminate. It has been established already today; free will has been compromised. Dreams, by contrast, are an experience in which the dreamer actually experiences the future. Dreams are a beyond-time experience. The future has not been announced and brought down to the present. It is still the inchoate future, and so by definition – since free will exists – it can happen in more than one way.”


In other words, Joseph must present his dreams in order for him to “actualize his future potential.” Given the rabbis understanding of dreams, both from our historic sages and sages today, we can gather that dreams are what we make of them. While rabbis differ as to the significance and holiness of dreams, “the rabbis of the Talmud were united in understanding that dreams possess a power to prompt introspection and to provide new insights into human behavior and its consequences.” (Bedside Torah, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson)