God plays central role in meaning of Josef’s dreams

BY RABBI JOSEF DAVIDSON

Dreams play an important role in the story of Josef. It is his own grandiose dreams which contribute to his brothers’ contempt for him, a contempt so intense that they propose first to kill him and then to sell him as a slave to a caravan of merchants on their way down to Egypt. While these dreams lead to his degradation, others’ dreams lead to his elevation.

Last week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev, concluded with Josef’s correct interpretation of the dreams of the Pharaoh’s chief butler and chief baker. As each came to pass, Josef pleaded with the chief butler to remember him to the Pharaoh, however, the chief butler, elated to be back in service rather than to have shared the fate of the chief baker, who was executed, quickly forgot about the Hebrew slave he met in the prison. At the end of two years’ time, however, something happens which jars the chief butler’s memory.

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This week’s Torah portion is entitled Miketz (at the end of two years), for it is after two more years that the Pharaoh, himself, has a couple of very strange dreams. They become more bothersome to him as not one of his advisors, viziers or counselors is able to interpret them. It is then that the chief butler remembers the young, bright Hebrew slave who so accurately interpreted his and the chief baker’s dreams during their short stay in prison. Hearing of this dream interpreter, the Pharaoh commands that Josef be brought to him immediately, so that he might interpret these disturbing and bizarre dreams.

Josef correctly interprets the two dreams, which are really one dream in two forms. They indicate that Egypt (and the entire region) will be blessed with seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, and the famine will be so severe that it will cause everyone to use up all of their resources and forget the years of plenty.

Josef does not stop with mere interpretation, however. He suggests to the Pharaoh a plan.

The Pharaoh is so impressed with the young Hebrew that he offers Josef the position that the latter suggested was needed in order to conserve enough from the years of plenty to supply Egypt and the entire region with provisions during the years of severe famine. One moment Josef is a Hebrew slave brought up from the prison, where he languished for a crime he did not commit, and the next he is elevated to a position second only to the Pharaoh himself — all without the hassle and gamesmanship of The Apprentice!

Josef turns out to be an excellent businessman. He follows through on his plan to stock the Pharaoh’s silos with as much produce as possible each of the seven plentiful years, so that Egypt will be prepared for the famine that is to come. When the famine strikes, Pharaoh, literally, cleans up under Josef’s supervision, until Pharaoh owns all the land of Egypt making the Egyptians mere indentured servants. In addition there is enough to make a good profit from sales to other people in the region, including Josef’s own family of origin.

What is clear in the story of Josef is that the author/editor of the story viewed the events of Josef’s career, from his favoritism with his father through the dreams which so incited his brothers’ anger to his placement in Potiphar’s house to his imprisonment and his subsequent redemption from prison through the medium which landed him in Egypt in the first place, viz., dreams, through lenses which perceived God in everything that happened. God’s Providence is always at work, even during times when it probably seemed to the young Josef that God had hidden from him and forgotten him. Each step along the journey was carefully planned by God for a higher purpose.

Whether or not this is the manner in which God governs the world and all the creatures, human beings often have to create a context for the events of their lives which includes Providence. It is impossible for human beings to consider that their lives and the events which occur during the course of their lives might not have any meaning or purpose to them. As most people look back over their lives, they perceive God’s hand, even if only as a blur, because by so doing there is meaning imputed to their lives. At the time that Josef sat in the prison, one wonders whether or not he was able to see God in that godforsaken place. It will take the completion of the story for him to be able to acknowledge that, as it unfolds in next week’s Torah portion, Vayigash. In the midst of a crisis, it is difficult to see God, to find meaning, to find purpose in the experience. Only in retrospect may one truly possess the objectivity to see beyond the moment, to see the larger picture. The events of Josef’s life fit together very nicely; the pieces seem to have been cut out of a life portrait as a puzzle is produced from a picture. Other pieces fall into place as well from the portraits of the lives of others — Jacob/Israel and Judah. Yet, as will become evident in three weeks’ time, the story is only beginning.

Last Tuesday evening the celebration of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, began. It, too, is part of the story of the descendants of Israel, specifically those whose tribal ancestor was Judah. It, too, demonstrates that it is possible for the weak to overcome the powerful, for the righteous to defeat the corrupt, for the few to be victorious over the many. It is a story of faith in God and in oneself. It is the story of making the most of whatever resources one has. It is a story of freedom won through exercising responsibility.

The kindling of the candles in the hanukkiyah increase in brightness as they proclaim the miracles of Hanukkah and of Jewish existence uninterrupted since the time of the Patriarchs and of the story read this week. Whether it is Josef or Judah the Maccabee or one of the modern heroes of Jewish history, someone is inspired by God to insure that the Jewish people, Judaism and Torah remain vital and vibrant players in the story of humankind.

Rabbi Josef A. Davidson is a retired rabbi residing in the St. Louis area and a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.