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There are two characters developed in the Torah reading of Vayeishev: there is Yosef, and there is Yehudah. Each of them, through their development, demonstrates a type of leadership that is critical to the Jewish people.

When Yosef has his first dreams, he doesn’t interpret them, he simply repeats them. It is the brothers and Yaacov himself who jump to pronouncements of meaning. Unfortunately, they fundamentally misunderstand those meanings.


In the first dream, the sheaves bow to Yosef’s sheaf. And in the second, the sun and moon and stars bow to Yosef himself. The family interprets these dreams as a single package: Yosef, a self-confident young man (putting it nicely), is predicting his own domination. But Yosef says nothing of the sort. In hindsight, we can understand the dreams. The gathered sheaves refer, quite literally, to the collection of food. The brother’s collection of food becomes dependent on Yosef’s; their efforts must bow to his in acknowledgement of his effort’s preeminence. When the sun and moon and stars bow to Yosef, it isn’t the actual family bowing. Aside from Rachel being deceased, Yaacov himself never bows to his son. Instead, we can see those heavenly bodies referring to the heavenly reality of the family’s members. We are to be like the stars of heaven. That spiritual reality is dependent on the earthly efforts of Yosef. That is why the stars bow to Yosef himself – and not to his star. These are not dreams of subjugation, but of dependence. Of course, Yosef leaves the interpretation open, and the result is his attempted murder.

This reading is bookended by a second set of dreams. Here, the wine-steward and the bread-maker come to Joseph. Immediately, Yosef tells them what their dreams mean. After three days, the wine-maker will go out and Phaorah will lift his head and return him to his office and he will put Pharaoh’s cup in his hand like the law that existed at the beginning when the wine-maker was his waterer (shakah). As for the bread-maker, the interpretation is somewhat more dire. After three days, Pharaoh will lift up his head from upon him and hang him on a tree and birds will eat his flesh from him.

In hindsight, both of these interpretations are accurate. But his words seem to hint at but avoid another obvious explanation.

In the ancient world, Egypt was famous for its bread. They were the ones who cultivated yeast and grains that made rising breads. This is one reason why we avoid chometz on Pesach: we are boycotting the symbol of Egypt. On the other hand, the land of Canaan was famous for wine. Just this year, a 3,700 year-old royal wine cellar was discovered in Israel. This is one reason why we drink wine during the Seder.

If the three days could be three centuries, then an alternate explanation is created. In the third century after their arrival in the prison of Egypt, the children of Israel will go out and the king will lift their head (the same words used for counting in the census) and return them to their office. In the reading of Haazinu, we see grapes referred to as having blood. They can animate the body. We also see, from the sin of the calf onwards, that the Jewish people are compared to a stream, carrying the water of Hashem’s holiness. When the Jewish people give the cup to Hashem and serve as His waterer, they are animating His presence in the world, and spreading His truth, as intended from the beginning.

On the contrary, in the third century of Egyptians’ imprisonment (caused by Joseph taking all the land from the private citizens of Egypt and turning the people into serfs), Egypt will go out and the King will lift up their head and hang them publically for the world to witness. Scavengers will pick at the flesh of Egypt.

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Joseph Cox is the author of the City on the Heights ( and an occasional contributor to the Jewish Press Online