Yosef, Dreams, and Parshat Miketz

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Akedat Yitzhak, Sha’ar Twenty-Nine, Second Part

Getting Back to Yosef

Yosef’s different interpretation of the butler and baker’s similar dreams shows R. Arama what we saw him say last time, Yosef focused on more than the content of the dream, took account of what he knew of the two men, their position with the king, what had landed them in prison. He gave the baker a negative interpretation because he knew the man, his foul temperament, his bad luck, and how much his sin had angered the king. It’s also why the same person can bring a dream to two interpreters and receive different interpretations—they know him better or worse, and factor in whatever they know.

(Dreams predict the future, R. Arama insists, yet to read them properly requires detailed knowledge of all the dreamer’s circumstances.  The exact same dream by two people might carry starkly different messages.)

As support, he notes Par’oh calls Yosef, tzafenat pa’aneah, revealer of the hidden. Yosef excelled at finding the divine truth in dreams, at knowing the people and the symbolisms well enough to understand the whole of the dream’s message. It was an excavation process, uncovering what was there, not inserting ideas or thoughts.

Inductive or Deductive Reasoning

The skillful interpreter built a picture out of the details of the dream. Extra details can confound the interpreter, who will not know how to incorporate them all into the construct. Prophets work from the big picture down to the specific instance. They hear from Hashem (R. Arama refers both to the “heavenly order,” an idea he does not elaborate but sounds as if he thinks the prophet can look at world events and already have some sense of what would happen, and to Gd’s intent, what Gd chooses to share with the prophet), as Amos 3;7 says, Hashem does not act before revealing the secret to a prophet.

Hard to read details are less of a problem for a prophet, who starts knowing the bigger picture (Gd’s general plan for the universe), the only news is the particular way it will express itself. It’s therefore easier for the prophet to distinguish vital from incidental, the meaningful from the redundant.

In Daniel, Nevukhadnezzar has a disturbing dream he refuses to share with his advisers, instead insisting they tell him both, dream and interpretation; R. Arama thinks Nevukhadnezzar sensed he had been given a proto-prophecy, therefore was willing to hear its meaning only from someone working with the more prophetic model, where the big picture tells him/her what was happening. [It’s a remarkable idea, Daniel was so in touch with how Hashem ran the world, he would be able to guess/intuit what Nevukhadnezzar had dreamed and what it meant. Unless he means Daniel had a literal prophecy telling him what was in the dream.]

Bereshit Rabba offered another idea, kings’ dreams apply to the whole nation or world, as if each individual citizen had had the dream. To build an interpretation from the details would be hopelessly compolicated, I think he means, and the king understood that. His sorcerers, etc. knew he sought a model of reading this dream they could not offer (as did Par’oh in the time of Yosef, R. Arama says a bit later). Daniel made clear he was offering only what Gd had shown him, which convinces Nevukhadnezzar when he heard Daniel’s reconstruction and explanation.

As Yosef always stressed as well, Hashem is behind all correct interpretation.

The Parsha Itself

His main point made, R. Arama turns to the parsha; we will look only at those of his points I found most remarkable. He thinks the repetition of the dream after a brief awakening alerted Par’oh to the special qualities of this dream; thinks Par’oh could not accept any of the interpretations his wise-men offered either because Gd did not let (he says Par’oh’s heart was in Gd’s hands, as in Mishle 23;1, the heart of a king is like waves of water in Gd’s hands, an idea that complicates what Gd means by hardening Par’oh’s heart during the Exodus, as we can consider when we get there) or because Par’oh himself sensed they missed the mark.

The butler tells Par’oh about Yosef’s dream abilities, including his having read two similar dreams as correctly different. He stressed Yosef’s being a Hebrew to assure the king he had no personal stake in Yosef’s success.

Yosef tells Par’oh what he needs to hear, carefully stressing to Par’oh he was not in this case interpreting, he was reflecting the divine message to the king. The dream’s portent of a famine, for example, must be a warning for the populace at large, as kings never suffer personal famines.

The doubling of the dream indicated the imminence of the events because Gd’s plans leave more of a mark on the world as they come closer to fruition. A doubled dream showed the events were close to reality. (R. Arama cited a verse in Yo’el 3, where Yoel predicts a future in which all Jews will have dream-visions, because the future will be so close to reality, it will impact more people than usual.)

Yosef volunteered his thoughts on how to prepare for the coming plenty/famine to show Par’oh he had moved beyond interpretation, had developed the further skill of knowing how to plan for the future signaled by a dream, knew the right advice for a situation, in this case the need for gathering and storage of excess food, as directed by a special royal appointee.

Crowning Yosef

Par’oh knows Yosef is the man for the job, as he tells his court, because Yosef has demonstrated his ruah Elokim, spirit of Hashem, a quality none of them had. He only consults with the rest of the court out of courtesy, in R. Arama’s view, although he then emphasizes to Yosef his power comes from Par’oh, because he was worried the people might take the idea as their own. (R. Arama thus thinks Par’oh was both enough of an absolute monarch to consult with his retinue only out of politeness, yet insecure enough to feel the need to remind Yosef of the source of his power. I like noticing where “absolute” monarchs are not as absolute as we imagine.)

Yosef does not get in touch with his father right away [a fact that led R. Yoel bin Nun to a fascinating idea about Yosef in Megadim 1, summarized here], R. Arama says because he was a) busy and b) knew he would have a chance when the famine hit. He also thinks Yosef waited for the famine to deepen before opening the storehouses, to wait to sell at a higher price [his financial acumen/manipulation will be a topic to see in a coming sha’ar, I believe].

The Three Keys to Our Special Light

In his concluding summary of the sha’ar, R. Arama reminds us of his view the light of prophecy/divine spirit only comes to Jews. As he lays it out, the Greeks of the Maccabees/Hashmonaim’s time sought to deprive the Jews of this by taking away the three underpinnings of Jewish exceptionalism, circumcision, the calendar, and Shabbat. His perspective of each of those differs from the way I have usually seen them described.

Circumcision, he says, is crucial to our belief in Gd (he calls it shoresh ve-ikar, the root and the main part, I think because a people would do this to their infant sons only if they believed they had been told to do so by Gd). The calendar reflects our belief in a Messianic future; we set our time by the moon to reflect our belief we, like the moon, will return to full strength even as we have gone down to almost nothing (he points out the prophets would speak of the Jewish people as being like the moon). Finally, Shabbat hints at the ultimate purpose, the World to Come, a world into which we have few insights (he refers to Berakhot 34b, which says even the prophets did not speak of the World to Come).

When the Greeks banned circumcision, they reduced Jews’ access to Torah, he thinks, because someone uncircumcised does not have the faith to study Torah (I think he means Torah is more special to those who have sacrificed for the faith that underpins it. Without, those who transmit it will not be able to give it the context and commitment it needs. He seems to think that’s true even if the reason for the lack of circumcision was beyond control.)

The miracles of Hanukkah responded to the Greek aggression, in ways we saw on a previous Hanukkah and will therefore not repeat, bringing us to the end of a sha’ar focused on the types of human wisdom, the role of dreams, and the ways to understand dreams as predictions of the future.

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