This week, in Parasha Vayeishev, we learn that having a special talent can be useful or harmful, depending on how you use it.
Joseph, one of 12 brothers, is the son of Jacob’s beloved Rachel. Jacob favors him, and even gives him a beautiful coat of many colors. His brothers, almost all of whom are older, resent Joseph for being their father’s favorite. Joseph is sometimes thoughtless in dealing with his older brothers. He tattles on them. And he misuses a gift in a way that brings him harm.
Joseph’s gift is the ability to understand dreams. The parasha tells us of two of his dreams. In one, he and his brothers are working in the wheat fields. Joseph’s wheat sheaf stands up straight, and the sheaves of his brothers gather around Joseph’s sheaf and bow down. In the second dream, the Sun and Moon (representing Jacob and Rachel) and 11 stars (representing the other sons) bow down to Joseph. The brothers mock Joseph by calling him the dreamer.
The brothers’ jealousy causes them to seize Joseph. Two of the older brothers, Reuben and Judah, keep the others from harming Joseph and try to arrange for his escape, but Midianite traders take Joseph away and sell him to Ishmaelites who take him to Egypt.
In Egypt, he is sold to a powerful official of Pharaoh’s court, Potiphar. Despite his best efforts to stay out of trouble, Potiphar’s wife accuses him of assaulting her, and Potiphar has Joseph imprisoned. In prison, Joseph meets two other court officials, the chamberlain of the cup bearers and the chamberlain of the bakers. Each of them has a dream, which Joseph is able to explain to them. He says that the cup bearer’s dream means he will be reinstated to power by Pharaoh, while the baker’s dream means Pharaoh will execute him.
The dreams come about as Joseph said they would. Next week we will see that Joseph’s gift will win him favor with Pharaoh, who also has a dream that he wants explained.
Joseph’s ability to understand dreams was quite a gift. When I dream, I usually cannot recall everything that happened, and what I do remember often does not seem to make sense. For Joseph to be able to remember everything in a dream, and then interpret it, was an important talent. So, what did Joseph do wrong with his gift?
When his dreams about his family gave him the appearance of being important, he boasted of them to his brothers. This was arrogant and angered his brothers. However, when Joseph became more mature and he explained people’s dreams, he attributed this ability to God. When the men of Pharaoh’s court asked Joseph to interpret the dreams of the chamberlains of the cup bearers and the bakers, Joseph said “Do not interpretations belong to God?”
Joseph’s dreams turned out to be true, but not because he was important. Joseph’s family bowed down to him because God’s gift impressed Pharaoh. When Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dream, Pharaoh told his court that Joseph has the “spirit of God”. Had the youthful Joseph understood his dreams better, he would have seen that he was not going to be powerful on his own, but because God gave him his talents, and they were to be used to help his family. Had he explained his dreams to his brothers this way, perhaps they would not have hated him.
But then, how would he have gotten to Egypt, where the rest of our story unfolds?
Shabbat shalom and happy Hannukah!