Of all the “what were they thinking” stories we have in Tanach, the story of Yosef definitely takes the cake. He knows his brothers hate him and should not be messed with. And yet he begs, “Please hear my dreams, in which you all bow down to me.” His brothers have to be thinking, “Are you kidding me?” Indeed, is Yosef so terribly clueless that he can’t read his tenuous social standing? And, if for some reason he didn’t catch the scent of hatred before he related his dream, how could he miss it after the first dream? Why in the world would he tell them another dream? It’s almost as if Yosef has a death wish, and his brothers are only too happy to oblige. Everything we know about Yosef seems to point to an astute observer with very strong people skills; how could he have misread his brothers feelings so miserably?
One possible answer is that Yosef realizes his dreams are prophetic. He knows that prophets are commanded to reveal their prophecies, and thus feels compelled to do so, no matter the danger to his person. However, this raises a slew of questions. What is the purpose of his prophecy? What constructive purpose could there possibly be in telling his brothers that he would rule over them? Additionally, we know that the only prophecies that have everlasting significance are recorded. Why record Yosef’s if the only message is that his brothers would bow down to him?
I have also always wondered why Yosef’s brothers never realize that the man standing before them in Egypt is Yosef. The Talmud tells us that they do not recognize him because he now has a beard. But that only explains why they do not recognize him immediately. It does not explain why after being presented with hint after hint that this is Yosef, they still remain in the dark. He knows their ages, doesn’t eat with the Egyptians, probably didn’t look Egyptian. Was it so hard to realize who this was? And, when Yosef finally does reveal himself, why are they shocked speechless? Their reactions should have been, “Stupid us, how did we miss this?”
To explain the brothers’ reaction to Yosef’s revelation the Midrash Rabbah relates the following lesson:
Abba Kohen Bardela said, Woe onto us from the day of judgment, woe onto us from the day of reproach. Yosef was the youngest of the brothers, yet the brothers were unable to withstand his admonishment, as it says, “And his brothers could not answer him.” How much more so will this be the case when Hashem will come and admonish each and every one of us for what he is, as it is written, “I will rebuke you and set the matter before your eyes.”
The Midrash is perplexing. When does Yosef scold his brothers? Yosef only says five words, “I’m Yosef. Is my father still alive?” This could hardly be considered a harsh criticism of his brothers’ behavior. And, what does this have to do with the Day of Judgment?
To answer we must begin by analyzing Yosef’s dreams. What do they mean? What is Yosef’s message? And, why two dreams? What does the second dream add?
If we look at the dreams we realize that a few things change between the first and second. First, in the second dream the brothers do not appear; they are only represented by a number. Second, in the first dream there is no representation of his parents; in the second they appear as the sun and the moon. Third, the brothers’ reaction to the first dream is hatred; the reaction to the second is jealousy. Why?
Everyone understands that the meaning of Yosef’s dreams is that his brothers would bow down to him. Hence we ask: Why is that significant for the brothers to know? What is amazing about Yosef’s dreams is that, in fact, his brothers never bow down to him! Even in the first dream when the brothers are standing right there they do not bow; only their sheaves bow. Yosef never meant to say that his brothers would bow down. Unfortunately, the brothers misunderstand his prophecy as saying exactly such, and hate him for it. So Hashem sends another dream, another prophesy, in order to make the message clearer, and help them understand he does not mean them. Therefore, they are taken out of the dream and only represented by a number. In addition, his father (who obviously Yosef would never dream would bow to him), and his mother (who had died) are represented. The message should have been clear, “I don’t mean you!”
So, what does he mean? The most obvious answer is the simplest one. He means exactly what he dreamt. In both dreams what bows to Yosef is Nature. The message of Yosef’s dreams is that nature bows to man; man does not bow to nature. In effect, this is the message of the Yosef story. Yosef represents the paradigm of one who faces a series of unfortunate events that conspire to crush him and relegate him to a life of slavery. Nature demands that Yosef bow low before its powerful influence. Yosef refuses. Nature bows to man, he declares, not the other way around.
What Yosef wants his brothers to understand is that if he, little Yosef, could rise above any and all natural limitations, so that more powerful influences (represented by his brothers and parents) would come under his control, then his brothers, of much greater stature, could most certainly do so. By the second dream the brothers start to get the message and their hatred is now mixed with jealousy. While his father scolds him for his words, he waits and looks forward to it happening (Rashi).
This may explain why Yosef’s brothers never want to believe that it is Yosef standing in front of them in Egypt. For if he is Yosef, if he has risen to such an exalted position, what does that say about them? They cannot stand the obvious implications of such a reality, so they live in denial – until Yosef gives them no choice but to own up to their own failure. Two words bring their lives, and the belief that they had realized their potential, crashing down around them: “I’m Yosef.” With everything that you and others did to me, it never stopped me, never slowed me down. Look at what I’ve become, you should have been even greater! But they cannot not answer him. There is no answer. The shock is too great.
This is what the Midrash is telling us. This is Yosef’s reproach and criticism of his brothers. And, continues the Midrash what will happen when Hashem reproaches each of us, in the words of the Midrash, according to what we are. For Hashem knows the abilities we have, the amazing potential latent in each one of us, and how we fail to realize it. The Midrash concludes, “I will reproach you by showing you your value.” Perhaps the greatest criticism we could ever hear is Hashem saying, “I’m not mad at you, I’m disappointed with what you did with the potential I gave you.”
Yosef’s dreams are a prophesy for the ages. The words, “I am Yosef” should spur us all towards the greatness that lies inside. Instead of seeing challenges as an excuse for failure we should use them as an opportunity for growth. That’s what Yosef would have done.
About the Author: Rabbi Karmi Gross is a resident of Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel, where he serves as the Rav of the Bialle Shteibel. He is also the founder and Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshivas Derech Chaim. Rabbi Gross has been active in the field of Jewish education for the past thirty years and is currently the curriculum director for Yeshivas Eitz Chaim in Toronto and Yeshivah College in Johannesburg, South Africa.
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