You can tell a lot about people because of the dreams they dream. Even in ancient times it was understood that dreams were somehow a reflection of the dreamer – that dreams are never entirely from the outside, they are a reflection of what is on the inside.
So when Yaakov (Jacob) rebukes Yosef (Joseph) for his dreams –
מָה הַחֲלוֹם הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר חָלָמְתָּ
What is this dream that you have dreamed?
What he is saying (according to the great commentator the Ramban, Nachmanides) is; “how dare you dream these dreams?”
Yosef is responsible for these dreams – if they aren’t exactly an explicit choice on his part, they are certainly a window into his soul.
Yosef’s dreams are fascinating because they leave behind a trail of jealousy and hatred, bloodshed, violence, emotional pain and unbearable suffering.
But what are these dreams?
Why are they so threatening?
Of course, on one level, they are about the brothers bowing down to Yosef . They are about position, authority, and leadership – and there is enough there to alienate his family. Without question Yosef erred in being so non-diplomatic in telling his dreams – but Yosef knew that his dreams mattered, and that they contained a message that could not be suppressed.
Yosef dreamt, first, about sheaves of wheat. About the brothers farming in the field, and about how all the sheaves of wheat belonging to the other brothers bowed down to his.
Many symbolic meanings have been suggested for this dream.
In a famous address delivered in 1962, The Rav, Rabbi Yosef Ber Solovetchik, explained why he had joined Mizrachi, the religious Zionist camp, and had left the more conservative Aguda, the ultra orthodox camp in which his family had its roots.
And he used the dreams of Yosef to explain his move. Yosef understood, deep in his soul, that the Jewish people, his family, was going to have to prepare itself for new realities – that the old ways, being shepherds in the land of Israel, weren’t going to last forever. G-d had already told Avraham (Abraham) that his children would go into exile. Yosef dreamt about his family as farmers, growing food, not shepherds, because he was deeply concerned about how his family and way of life would survive in exile. And he knew the old way of life would have to change.
But his brothers were outraged by this dream.
“We should be farmers? G-d forbid! We are shepherds – our father Yaakov is a shepherd, indeed, great grandfather Avraham himself was a shepherd! That we should ever conceive of a different path, even if it might save us in the future, is unthinkable.”
And so the brothers were scandalized. They were challenged by that dream. Tthey hated that dream and the one who dreamt it. They could not conceive of ever changing. “Shepherds we are, and shepherds we will stay – if we have faith, the world will stay the same, progress will pass us by and leave us unscathed” they declared.
But I want, with the greatest respect, to pose a question on the Rav’s analysis, and, based on his words, offer a different insight.
Its true that Yaakov and his sons were shepherds, and its true that Avraham had been a shepherd, but not Yitzchak (isaac). Yitzchak had been a farmer.
When a famine occurred in the land of Israel, and Hashem told Yitzchak to dwell in the land and not go to Egypt. Instead, he planted a crop and, despite the famine, he realized a huge yield and became fabulously wealthy as a result.
So Yosef isn’t dreaming about something new at all – sheaves of wheat, farming the land – that’s not foreign territory, it was already in his family.
So why were the brothers so threatened? Why was this such a threatening image, as the Rav says?
Let me try to explain.
When Yaakov stole the blessing from his brother Esav, when he dressed up and tricked Yitzchak, it was a very specific bracha that he received.
וְיִתֶּן-לְךָ, הָאֱלֹהִים, מִטַּל הַשָּׁמַיִם, וּמִשְׁמַנֵּי הָאָרֶץ–וְרֹב דָּגָן, וְתִירֹשׁ.
So God give thee of the dew of heaven, and of the fat places of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine.
Yitzchak’s blessing was that his chosen son should be a farmer, and should enjoy the blessings of the land of Israel. Yitzchak knew the fulfillment of the Jewish destiny was to dwell in the land of Israel, not as nomads or shepherds, moving from place to place, but as farmers, to dig, to plant and to grow.
And that’s the blessing he handed over, the blessing that Yaakov stole.
When Yaakov came back to the land, after more than 20 years of exile, he does not become a farmer. He becomes a shepherd.
And, moreover, when he seeks to appease his brother, Esav (Esau), from whom he has taken the blessing, he tells him –
עִם-לָבָן גַּרְתִּי, וָאֵחַר עַד-עָתָּה.
וַיְהִי-לִי שׁוֹר וַחֲמוֹר, צֹאן וְעֶבֶד וְשִׁפְחָה;
I have dwelt with Lavan and delayed until now, and I have cattle and donkeys, flocks and servants.
The Kedushat Levi, Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchiv, explains: Yaakov is saying to Esav “Please don’t hurt me. It’s true I took your blessing, but I haven’t used it. I have lived in exile from that day to this, and even now I am back in the land, I have shor v’chamor, animals. I am going to be shepherd, not a farmer. I took the blessing but I will not use it. Don’t hate me, don’t be angry with me. I promise I will stick to shepherding, I will not use the bracha, I will not become a farmer.”
Yaakov was afraid, he wanted to avoid confrontation. In fact, the Rashbam (Rabbi Shmuel Ben Meir) says that Yaakov tried to run away from Esav. He didn’t want to stand his ground, that’s why G-d sent an angel to wrestle with him.
Yaakov remained a shepherd. And when our parsha opens “Vayeishev Yaakov” (And Yaakov dwelt), the Sages criticize him: Beekesh Yaakov leyshev bishalvah (Yaakov wished to dwell in peace). Truly he did – so he shepherded. He moved from place to place, he didn’t want to take possession of his land.
And it’s that moment that Yosef dreams. A bold dream. A dangerous dream.
Lets stop being afraid! We should farm the land. This is our land. We don’t have to be afraid and we don’t have to be apologetic. G-d gave us this land. It is our land, we have every right to it. And its time we stopped apologizing for that fact, and pretending that if we don’t farm it, we won’t bother anyone.
Yosef’s dreams come at a critical moment for the Jewish people. G-d has stopped speaking to Yaakov and never speaks to his children. Nor do the children continue the past of building alters, calling out the name of G-d. The Jewish project seems to have stopped – it has got stuck. What are they supposed to do now?
And its at that moment that Yosef dreams dreams of a bold, unapologetic Jewish future – building the land, living the blessing.
But the brothers rejected those dreams. Because they were too “in your face”, too ambitious, too assertive … too Jewish.
And, sadly, we can say bi’yamim hahem b’zamn hazeh (in those days, in this time) – how true this is of our own jewish world.
So much effort is expended in the “Jewish Organization World” looking for the big Jewish idea. But we have the big idea. Its called Judaism. We just have to stop being afraid to dream our own Jewish dreams.
This past week, I read about how one of the largest Federations in the country ran a task force on outreach to intermarried families. This is, itself, a very important initiative – but the leader of the taskforce was quoted as saying: “We are not endorsing interfaith marriage or condemning it” which the eminent Professor Jack Wertheimer of JTS called a:
“devastating commentary on our times … In the name of “welcoming,” the Federation no longer asserts what Jews have understood for millennia: that leaving aside cases of conversion … intermarriage is bad for the Jewish people and for the perpetuation of Judaism.”
And, in an article about Tim Tebow and his tendency to pray, a rabbi in the Jewish Week column, wrote that he hopes that Tebow’s team doesn’t win the Super Bowl, because it will:
“… buoy his faithful, and emboldened faithful can do insane things, like burning mosques and bashing gays.”
To its credit, the paper removed this from the website because it was perceived as an attack on Christian groups, but it’s really an attack on religion and I find myself wondering: if a rabbi is instinctively hostile to religiosity and religious people, what does that say about our times?
And, without commenting on politics and candidates, and without necessarily agreeing with every word of his statement, why is it left to a non-Jewish politician to assert powerfully, clearly and proudly Israel’s right to exist far more assertively than our own Jewish leaders?
Who is leading our community? Yosef – with dreams not of extremism, but of pride of engagement, of eagerness to see Judaism flourish – or the brothers – embarrassed, cowed, awkward with all of this enthusiasm?
Why the embarrassment? To fit in with society?
As Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks remarks, in his experience, non-Jews are embarrassed by Jews who are embarrassed about Judaism.
I recently finished reading the monumental history of the Soviet Jewry movement – “When they come for us we will be gone.” The author recounts the fact that in the 1970s two non-Jewish congressmen were determined to link America’s foreign trade with progress on human rights, and passed the famous “Jackson Vanik” amendment. This was done explicitly to help Soviet Jewry, but much of the Jewish establishment was firmly opposed, and, indeed, horrified by the proposal – fearing that it was too assertive, too demanding, too high profile for Jewish tastes.
I mention this case, in particular, because this Shabbat we celebrate the bar mitzvah of a very special young man form a very special family. A family where the parents were raised in the dark days of Soviet oppression of the Jewish people. The grandfather was imprisoned, twice, for Jewish and Zionist activities – for dreaming Jewish dreams of going to Israel, and was only saved from execution by a miracle. The grandmother scrupulously kept kosher, despite the danger and the hardship. The father would covertly eat matza at university on Pesach (Passover). Proud Jews, Jews who dreamed of freedom, of Jewish life, even in the darkest days.
There is nothing wrong with Jewish dreams. Indeed, there are no dreams more beautiful.