Interpreting From The Outside
Joseph's status as an outsider, and the outsider status of the Jewish people, allow for critical insight into the deeper truths of the surrounding people and nations.
Provided by the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, a summer seminar in Israel that aims to create a multi-denominational cadre of young Jewish leaders.
We are now well into the Joseph story, and the theme of dreams and their interpretation looms large. The first dreams are Joseph's: He tells his brothers that in his dream he saw their sheaves of grain bowing down to his, and, in a second dream, the sun, moon and eleven stars bow down to him.
His Father's Favorite
Understandably, his brothers, already sensitive to the fact that he is their father's obvious favorite, hate him for these delusions of grandeur. He is after all, the youngest but one of the 12 brothers, and yet he dreams of them, and his parents, humbling themselves before him.
After his brothers sell him as a slave to Egypt, and he ends up in jail, Joseph interprets the dreams of Pharaoh's incarcerated baker and butler, correctly foreseeing the execution of one and the reinstatement of the other.
And then, in the dramatic scene which opens our parashah, Joseph is taken out of jail to interpret the dreams of Pharaoh--the seven fat cows and bushels in the dream are seven fat years, the seven lean cows and bushels are seven lean years. His interpretation rings true, and Pharaoh appoints him to oversee the country's efforts to save during the bountiful years in order to get through the lean ones.
By the end of the parashah, Joseph's own dreams start coming true, as his brothers, and next week his father, all bow before him, in his role as ruler of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh.
The obvious question is why are dreams, and their interpretation, so central to the Joseph story? What is their importance? What does it mean that Joseph is both a dreamer and an interpreter of the dreams of others?
First of all, everybody dreams, so the point is not so much that Joseph has dreams, but that he pays attention to them and talks about them to others. He takes them seriously. This explains his role both as a dreamer and as an interpreter of dreams.
The point is that he is in touch with, and open to, the meaning hidden within dreams. He is open to hear the message of the dream, the message of the unconscious, which others shy away from, deny, ignore, or refuse to understand. But what is it that gives Joseph this ability? What makes him able to interpret dreams, to articulate their meaning?
If we look at his role in Egypt, as interpreter of the dreams of others, an interesting explanation presents itself. Joseph, in Egypt, was the ultimate outsider. A Hebrew, a slave, a prisoner. And yet, it is he who understands the dreams of the insiders of Egypt, the King's butler and baker, and then, of Pharaoh himself.