2000This week's Sedra goes into great detail about Pharaoh's dreams. They are an interesting contrast to Joseph's dreams of the past Sedra. Let us examine the difference between the two men's dreams.
Pharaoh's Dreams. Joseph's Dreams. Our Dreams.
"And Joseph dreamed a dream and he told it to his brothers: 'Hear this dream which I dreamed: We were binding sheaves in the field, and my sheaf arose and stood upright, and your sheaves gathered and bowed to my sheaf....'
"Then he had another dream and told it to his brothers, and said, 'I have dreamed another dream: I saw the sun and the moon and eleven stars bow down to me.'" (Genesis 37:5-9)
"And it came to pass two years later that Pharoah dreamed that he stood by the Nile. And there came up out of the river seven beautiful, fat cows, and they fed in the reed-grass. And then seven other cows came up out of the river, ugly and lean, and stood by the other cows upon the bank of the Nile. And the ugly and lean cows ate up the seven beautiful and fat cows. So Pharoah awoke.
"And he slept and dreamed a second time: seven fine, good ears of grain came up on one stalk. And after them sprouted seven other ears, thin and blasted by the east wind. And the thin ears swallowed up the fine, full ears." (Genesis 41:17-24)
Why the Dreams? Why are these dreams recounted at such length? What can we learn from the differences between their dreams? Do they represent a fundamental difference between the worlds of these two men? Why did Joseph's power relate to dreams?
The Differences Between the Dreams
Our rabbis tell us that Joseph's dreams emanated from the realm of holiness; Pharaoh's did not. Joseph's dreams begin with an image of effort -- food earned by labor -- "We were binding sheaves." Pharaoh's food appears to come without any effort. In order for blessing to come to us from God, we have to make an effort. Our efforts open the conduits or channels for blessing to be conferred on us. That which we receive without effort lacks the activation energy that is necessary to make us partners with God (as is God's plan.) That which comes without effort is not wholly good.
Joseph's dreams progress from the lower to higher -- sheaves of wheat - to the cosmic -- sun, moon and stars. Pharaoh's come in the reverse. The cows (animal, higher) to the ears of grain (vegetable, lower). Joseph's dreams denote growth while Pharaoh's show decline.
The Difference Between Joseph and Pharaoh
The distinction between the Jew and non-Jew is the distinction between Israel and Edom. Our rabbis explain that the Torah charges the non-Jewish world (Edom) with responsibility for the physical world and the Jew with the responsibility for the spiritual. Our "chosenness" to be the "ohr lagoyim" a "light unto the nations" is not one of arrogant superiority, but rather, the charge to be "metaken olam" or as we in Hillel like to say, to do "tikkun olam," to perfect the world.
"Tikkun olam" means doing our utmost to correct the immorality and injustices we find in the world. As is patently apparent, the "blemishes" of this world are less physical than spiritual/moral. Hunger and poverty are not innate to physical existence, but more often than not, the failure of people to take care of each other. Abuse and violence are not natural phenomena, but perpetrated by immoral people. There is an even greater responsibility that the Jewish people have to
It seems that Joseph's act of greatness was not only his foretelling of the famine to come, but his genius in being able to guide Egypt – representing the entire civilized world at that time -- to planning for and regulating the supply during the famine itself.
It is an obvious truth that the wellbeing of this world is dependent on the ethical and moral behavior of its citizens. We Jews also believe that our (collective) physical wellbeing is dependent on our moral well-being (cf. The daily "Shma"). Thus it is a deep tenet of Judaism that "tikkun olam" is not just a "nice thing to do" but that the well-being of this world is dependent on us, the Jewish people, fulfilling our mission, what we were "chosen" to do.
And so we now understand Joseph better. He was known as "Yoseph Hatzaddik" Joseph the righteous. He had attained such a personal moral level that he was fit to received "Nevuah" - prophecy - from God by way of dreams (as was true of subsequent prophets). Joseph was charged to be the one to save the entire civilized world because he - as opposed to Pharaoh, who was preoccupied with himself and his own personal physical well-being - had the moral sensitivity to treat and feed everyone equitably. He felt personally and imminently answerable to God, with whom no one can play games or morally equivocate.
We are the inheritors of Joseph "the righteous'" legacy. We are charged to continue in his way. The physical has its place and importance, but the world is dependent on the values that we transmit to others around us and to the next generation, the students we work with.
Joseph's dream was realized. Transforming this world - "tikkun olam" – is a realizable dream. It is our dream and is the dream of all our forebears. May God bless our efforts in Hillel, that we may fulfill our collective dream soon.
Prepared by Rabbi Ian Azizollahoff, Director, Hillel at Baruch College