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.