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Jason Lever’s Sermon Saturday 9th December 2023


This long Parasha is the story of Joseph – and the family dynamics with his father, Jacob, and brothers – from a precocious youth lording over his jealous, elder siblings who  abandon him in a pit; to fulfilling his own dreams of a great destiny as Pharaoh’s right-hand man governing Egypt.

I think few would disagree that the golden thread in Joseph’s story, running through the key episodes of his life, is that of dreams and dream interpretations.

As I’m currently learning from my great teacher, Yiscah Smith in Jerusalem, from her own teacher, Rav DovBer Pinson:

“A dream has prophetic possibilities, prophecy in terms of deeper insight into life and into oneself. The reason why prophetic insight is more accessible in sleep than in waking life is because in sleep the “I”, the ego, with its survival and pleasure-based instincts, is quieted.”

But does Joseph possess a special gift of prophecy or clairvoyance? Or, instead, is he uncommonly shrewd and calculating? Or – on the third hand, to paraphrase Tevye – is this all academic, since Joseph’s hokmah (his wisdom) in dream interpretation is patently all the Almighty’s.

The verses we read focused on the contrasting fates of two of Pharaoh’s servants – the cupbearer (like a royal taster, sometimes called the butler) and the chief baker (his court apparently enjoyed 37 varieties of bread, even more than in Juergen’s new book on baking!)

Both of these men had fallen out of Pharaoh’s favour and were languishing in jail, alongside Joseph who had – as I’m sure you remember – fallen prey to the false testimony of spurned Potiphar’s wife.

Joseph correctly predicted two very different outcomes – for the butler (to thrive) and the baker (to die). Symbolic of the precarious situation Joseph was in himself, to become a forgotten prisoner or could he redeem himself.

This is the middle of three times that Joseph interprets his or others’ dreams: the first backfires when as a young lad he shares a vision of his brothers bowing down to him, and the last provides for his (and ultimately his brothers’) redemption when he deciphers the meaning of Pharaoh’s dream of the cows and ears of grain - seven years of plenty and the same of famine.

Unlike the dark arts of divination or soothsaying that we learn are strictly prohibited in the book of Devarim, dream interpretation is permissible in our Biblical narrative with Joseph and later the prophet Daniel. Why so? In other societies of the time there were professional dream interpreters selling their services to any rulers seeking to know which ways the winds from their gods were blowing. Today, we call them economists.

In the part of this Parasha we just read, Joseph says to the butler and baker when they say they have had puzzling dreams: “Surely interpretations are in God’s domain; but go ahead and tell them to me”. Later, this is echoed when saying to Pharaoh: “it is not in me, God will see to Pharaoh’s wellbeing”

As Leon Kass argues in ‘The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis’, Joseph is “aligning himself with divine activity, [but] is he doing so “as vessel or imitator”?

Is he a true diviner, with (as Kass says) “his own pipeline to God’s plans” – or more of an opportunist, quick to think on his feet to come up with a plausible way of explaining others’ dreams? Perhaps he’s showing here, and later with Pharaoh’s dream, keen abilities in discerning hidden anxieties and ambitions.

You could say he’s the “imitator” if you take the view that he never considers the possibility that there might be a reason why God is sending Egypt a famine. Perhaps Pharaoh and the people of Egypt need to reform their ways. Like with the destruction to be wreaked by God upon the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah or Ninevah.

And the butler when recounting to Pharaoh that his old cellmate, the Hebrew slave, evokes Joseph as a seer with very special gifts to read dreams.

Plus, this is Joseph whose own youthful dream was the sun, moon and stars all bowing down to him!

But I think the better fit for the story of Joseph is that he is more of a “vessel”.

As Rabbi Plaut puts it, Joseph and Daniel “both give the credit unreservedly to God”. They are not the ones with special powers of interpretation. Rather they deployed their imaginations to share images of things already ordained by God.

This is the age old conundrum in our Tanakh of the balance between that which is divinely directed versus the influence of our free will, and in Joseph’s case I think this can be seen as tilted towards God’s plan all along.

In this light, Joseph is less of a protagonist in his own story since the key moments in his life turned on his dream interpretations and the results – which were the products of an unfolding of the Divine destiny for him and the Israelite people.

If he’s seen as “the hero [who] overcomes all obstacles” (in the words of Rabbi Hammer), it’s more of a journey of improvement than great feats of action or morality. Such as we get with Abraham, Moses or Joshua.

From being at least naïve, at worse insensitive and arrogant in disclosing his dream of future success to his brothers; through to learning humility and self-control in Potiphar’s household – despite the allure and beckoning of Mrs P (we never learn her name); and ultimately being a mensch with his family, after putting his brothers to the test so they reflected on their own bad conduct.

Finally, perhaps the clinching proof in the text (with thanks to Leon Kass) is in what role Joseph was elevated to by a grateful Pharaoh. It wasn’t as his “chief of dream interpreters”. A diviner like Balaam to Balak, the King of Moab, who Moses later contended with.

Rather, it was a more exalted and practical role, effectively running the country. Deploying great skills of administration. Giving civic leadership. Showing tenacity. And not a degree of ruthlessness, when stockpiling all the grain of the country for seven years.

He paved the way for the longer-term destiny of the Israelites, after their escape from later slavery in Egypt and passing their test of faith in the wilderness years, to be equipped to govern themselves when they reached the Promised Land.

And on that journey of preparation for life in Canaan, remember they took with them the bones of Joseph, to me emblematic of that journey of improvement that they themselves were on.

But what of us Israelites now? What about if we have puzzling dreams? Sages in the Talmud suggested the following:

One who saw a dream and does not know what he saw should stand before the priests when they lift their hands ‘changing’ (for ‘duchaning’) the Priestly Blessing and say the following:

“Master of the Universe, I am Yours and my dreams are Yours, I dreamed a dream and I do not know what it is. If the dreams are good, strengthen them and reinforce them like the dreams of Joseph. And if the dreams require healing, heal them like the bitter waters of Mara by Moses our teacher, and like Miriam from her leprosy. And just as You transformed the curse of Balaam the wicked into a blessing, so transform all of my dreams for me for the best” (Berakhot 55b:11).

And he should complete his prayer together with the priests so the congregation responds amen.

I’ll leave that idea with Rabbi and the Avodah Committee!

Of course, elsewhere in this Talmudic tractate, it says that if you dream of nuts or cucumbers, know that this means that the thing you wanted has come to pass.

Shabbat shalom.



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