Parshat Vayeshev

Torah Reading for Week of December 14-December 20, 2008

“Dreaming of Wholeness”

By Yolande Bloomstein, PhD, LCSW
AJRCA Professor of Chaplaincy Studies

Parshat Vayeshev begins with the account of Joseph’s two dreams. In the first, he and his brothers are binding sheaves of grain. Joseph’s sheaf stands erect and the sheaves of his brothers encircle his sheaf and bow down to it. In his second, Joseph dreams that the sun and the moon and eleven stars bow down to him.

Just as Joseph’s two dreams are recounted in this parsha, Pharaoh’s two dreams introduce the next, Parshat Miketz. In Pharaoh’s first dream seven fat cows are consumed by seven exceedingly lean and weather-beaten cows. In his second dream, seven fat ears on a stalk are consumed by seven very thin and mangy ears of grain. Joseph tells Pharaoh that the two dreams are really one, foretelling a period of seven years of plenty to be consumed entirely by seven years of unprecedented famine. He adds that the theme is repeated in Pharaoh’s second dream so soon after the first to let him know that the events foretold in the dream would occur very soon.

Although Joseph’s second dream, like Pharaoh’s, appears to have exactly the same meaning as the first, there is a striking difference in the symbolic content of the dreams of Joseph and of Pharaoh. Pharaoh’s dreams are both materialistic, reflecting not only his material concerns, but also his psychological orientation. Since dreams reflect inner struggle, Pharaoh’s repeated nightmare reflects his fear of being consumed by his material responsibilities without any spiritual underpinnings. His dreams reveal his disowned spiritual self, which his own spiritual advisors appear to have overlooked. This is perhaps why Joseph’s mention of the role of God resonated with him no less than Joseph’s practical advice. The symbolism of Joseph’s dreams is both physically grounded and also spiritually elevated. In the first dream he sees sheaves. In the second he sees heavenly bodies.

Perhaps the contrast between Joseph’s dreams and those of Pharaoh are meant to teach us how a Jew should dream. Judaism does not deny the blessings of the physical. Poverty is not considered to be a Jewish virtue. But embracing the blessings of the material world, like Joseph, the Jew is to gaze heavenward by imbuing the physical with spiritual significance. This applies in the realm of ritual, but it also applies in the realm of interpersonal relationships. Joseph’s synthesis of heaven and earth is our roadmap for meaningful growth. By embracing both our physical and spiritual selves, we actualize the whole self.

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