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the reality of dreams

“Here comes the dreamer,” say Joseph’s brothers as they plot his murder. Others dream in the Bible, but only Joseph is called the “dreamer”. Indeed, of the 9 dreams described in the five books of Moses, Joseph is associated with 6 of them. These six dreams, in three pairs, give a revealing insight into the personal development of Joseph, and at the same time give us an interesting clue as to when and how dreams are actually fulfilled.

The first pair of dreams in the story of Joseph are those that he dreams as a young man, and tells his brothers. These dreams of his brothers’ sheaves bowing before him, and then stars representing all his family doing the same, are what enrage his brothers and lead them to sell him as a slave into Egypt.

The second pair of dreams are those of Pharaoh’s butler and baker, locked up with Joseph in an Egyptian prison. Joseph interprets their dreams, and, as he predicts, the baker is hanged and the butler is restored to his position. But the butler forgets his promise to remember Joseph, and he remains in prison.

The final pair of dreams are those of Pharaoh: seven thin cows eat fat cows and seven thin ears of corn eat fat ears of corn, but none get any fatter. Joseph interprets these dreams, winning Pharaoh’s confidence. The result is that he is appointed second-in-command over all Egypt and oversees the implementation of his plan to save Egypt from famine.

These three sets of dreams chart a clear progression in Joseph’s development from a self-centered youth to an adult with social awareness and a sense of responsibility.

  • The first pair, which he dreams himself, reflect his own personal ambition, and his desire to be greater than his brothers.
  • The second pair are dreamed by his fellow prisoners, and deal with their fate; Joseph is developing an awareness of the needs and concerns of those close to him.
  • The third pair are dreamed by Pharaoh, the head of state, and address the welfare of society as a whole.

At the same time, the series of dreams also charts a progression in terms of Joseph’s own commitment to implementing his vision: His own dreams, he simply tells to his brothers. The dreams of the butler and baker, he actively interprets. And Pharaoh’s dreams he not only interprets, but actually implements as the vice chancellor of Egypt.

It is only when Joseph has completed both of these progressions, and has developed both a sense of social awareness and a commitment to act on it, that his dreams can be fulfilled.

The lesson that Joseph learns is that only when he expands his circle of concern, from himself to the whole of society, and only when he increases his commitment, from simply boasting about his dreams to actively working to implement them, will his dreams actually be fulfilled.

This may be a lesson for us in Israel today too. The modern state of Israel has been called a “coalition of dreams” – a society established by many different groups within the Jewish world, all with their own vision of the way the society should look. The dreams of the Joseph story remind us that the more inclusive our dreams are, and the more we are prepared to actually work to implement them, the greater the chance they will actually become a reality.

In others’ words

Judge Louis Brandeis, the United States Supreme Court judge, was a major supporter of the early Zionist movement. Hosting a reception for Nahum Sokolow in Boston in March, 1913, he responded to Sokolow’s description of the dream of a Jewish state:

“We have listened to the unfolding of a wonderful dream. The great quality of the Jews is that they have been able to dream through all the long and dreary centuries; and mankind has credited them with another quality, the power to realize their dreams. The task ahead of them is to make this Zionist ideal a living fact. If they wish it, they can by service bring it about.”

On a lighter note

Chaim was talking to his psychiatrist. “I had a weird dream recently,” he says. “I dreamed that you were my mother. I found this so worrying that I immediately awoke and couldn’t get back to sleep. I got up, made myself a slice of toast and some coffee for breakfast, and came straight here. Can you please help me explain the meaning of my dream?” The psychiatrist kept silent for some time, then said, “One slice of toast and coffee? You call that a breakfast?”

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