In the last few chapters of Genesis there is a very striking recurrence of the dream as a tool to predict the future. In few other places in Biblical literature is there equal recognition of the importance of dreams, and in those few stories in which dreams are recounted, there is never tantamount emphasis on the interpretations. There certainly is no other story in which we are told of over five dreams occurring one after another. Joseph has two dreams of domination that cause his brothers to resent him, he interprets the dreams of both the cupbearer and baker while imprisoned in Egypt, and this week we see Joseph interpret Pharaoh’s dream leading to his freedom from prison and promotion to second in command of the Egyptian empire.
Clearly, in a society with an appreciation of dreams, the interpreter is a respected position. This is because interpreting dreams is simply a way of predicting the future. Ancient Egypt was known as a place of magic. The story of Moses turning the staff into a snake and the attempts of Egypt’s magicians to mimic the plagues brought upon by God exemplify this phenomenon, that magicians seem to be high ranking in Pharaoh’s kingdom. A dream interpreter, who can use dreams as a means to predict the future, is a revered magician.
When Pharaoh is perturbed by the two dreams recounted in the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, he does not seek out a common man for interpretation. Rather, as the Torah tells us, Pharaoh “sent for all the magicians of Egypt, and all its wise men.” One could venture to say that the double language of “magicians” and “wise men” simply emphasizes the importance of this task, requiring the aid of all of the top thinkers of the empire.
This brings us to the character of Joseph, one of the most intriguing characters in all of the written Torah. Joseph’s story always seems to be linked with dreams. In fact, it seems as if all of the critical events in his life have dreams associated with them. As mentioned above, his very dreams cause his brothers to envy him, which causes his initial downfall and sale into slavery. According to the Talmudic Sages, Joseph sees a dreamlike vision of his father, which is what keeps him away from sinning with the wife of Potiphar. Then, his interpretation of the baker and butler’s dreams ultimately gets him the chance to meet with Pharaoh, where his interpretation of a Pharaoh’s pair of dreams allows for his rise to power. From a historically practical perspective, there is a simple explanation for the Bible’s emphasis on the dream. Every era in history has its science, and its innovative school of thought. For instance, the Greek era was focused on rational, then later metaphysical, philosophy. The 18th and 19th centuries were revolutionary in their contribution to political theory. This specific Egyptian era had an emphasis on magic, and specifically predicting the future. Therefore, the interpretations of dreams and astrological phenomena became very significant abilities.
The ideal Jew must gain the recognition of his peers in the world as their role model, thus accomplishing the clause: “a light unto the nations.” Joseph was not only a physical leader to the Egyptians, but he was intellectually a role model as well. This is precisely the point that the Torah is emphasizing: Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams allowed for his life to be filled with Kiddush Hashem, or the sanctification of God’s name. This is one of the central contributing factors to Joseph’s righteousness.
This impact of Joseph on the environment around him is shown through comparison of verses. Upon Pharaoh’s interactions with Joseph in Chapter 41, Pharaoh explains: “I have heard it said of you that for you to hear a dream is to tell its meaning.” If you carefully examine the next set of verses, you will notice that after each section of Joseph’s conversation with Pharaoh, he mentions the name of God, for a total of four times. We see the effect that this had when examining Pharaoh’s reaction to Joseph’s interpretation: “Could we find another man like him, a man in whom is the spirit of God?” Pharaoh switched the focus from the glory of the man to the glory of God. How great is this Kiddush Hashem? Joseph was able to show one of the most powerful individuals in the world at the time, that true wisdom comes from God!
This same phenomenon is echoed in the Haftara, the section of the Prophets that is read with the weekly torah portion (This week we happen to be reading a different Haftara for Shabbat Chanukah, but in general the Haftara from this week’s Parsha is from Kings). King Solomon’s wisdom not only leads to his leadership in the Jewish nation, but as it is shown in I Kings Chapter 5, the entire world accepted his wisdom. How great of a Kiddush Hashem! Solomon was able to take a universally respected ideal, and show its origins to be divine.
Today, we live in a world with an extraordinary emphasis on science and innovation. If we, the Jewish nation, can excel in these areas, and attribute our success to God, how much more so can we sanctify God’s name in the world! This is true on a personal and national level. The modern state of Israel in some ways is the largest Kiddush Hashem the world has seen in ages. Israel is among the top in the world in terms of economics, democratic values, technological innovation, and humanitarian aid – and all in the name of God! On a personal level, we must strive every day to succeed in the modern world, but we must attribute wisdom to God. This way we can live in the example of our leaders, and inspire the world through our actions. God has given us the tool of the intellect in order to decipher his world, and we must make sure that we show the people of the world that the universe has divine origins, and live with the goal of Kiddush Hashem.
Jonathan Levine grew up in San Diego, California, and was part of the West Coast NCSY Regional Board in high school. He was very active in NCSY and in JSU throughout his time on the West Coast. He is currently studying in Yeshivat Hakotel in Jerusalem.