When I was little I would always make sure that my leg didn’t dangle from the bed when I went to sleep – I would tuck it up nice and tight in the covers before drifting off. Why? Because the monsters hiding under my bed might just want to reach up and take hold of my small foot as it dangled – oh so temptingly – over the side of the bed. In my imagination – and I’m sure in the imaginations of many of us as children, the dark was a scary place, full of unknowable and unknown dangers. Our imaginations would run riot as we pictured the monsters that were just waiting for their chance to come and get us if we were not careful – that was until Pixar took this common dream of childhood and changed it. They took our fears and instead gave those monsters that were hiding under our beds and in our cupboards, blue fur, smiles, and endearing personal hang-ups. They reinterpreted our dreams and our nightmares and transformed them into something that we could once again share, but this time with a happy ending. The shadows in the darkness had become backlit and we were reassured that the threats that we saw lurking there were merely misinterpretations; misperceptions. Our dreams – the vehicles by which we gave voice to our anxieties – had been turned into a sweetened pastiche, sanitised and now available for consumption.
In this week’s parashah as we meet Joseph about to be released from prison we see that dreams and their interpretation remain a powerful motif in the trajectory of his life. As a young man he regaled his brothers and father with his dreams. He tells – one may even say, boasts – of how his brothers are represented as sheaves of wheat and as the stars in the sky – all of which bow down before him. Indeed it could be surmised that it is Joseph’s rather arrogant and tactless retelling of his dreams that is the last piece in the jigsaw that results in his brothers committing the unthinkable and casting him down into a pit. A pit from which he cannot escape alone and in which Joseph is left to his fate. At this stage of the story Joseph’s dreams of grandeur have been transformed into a nightmare of betrayal and abandonment.
At the very end of last week’s parashah we left Joseph once again interpreting dreams; this time not his own but those of the butler and the baker who were confined in the prison alongside him. Unlike the dreams that he told to his brothers – these dreams, the dreams of the baker and the butler, are to become the vehicle by which Joseph would become famous and thus attain his ultimate release. And, unlike the last time where he had been the teller of dreams, we now find him in the position of interpreting the dreams of others. And, unlike Pixar who managed to make the monsters cuddly- Joseph doesn’t sugar coat the story, at least not for the poor baker. Yet despite Joseph’s pleading that the butler upon release remember him to the Pharaoh, the butler forgets and Joseph is left alone in prison for a further two years – another dark and frightening place much like the pit his brothers threw him into.
Which is where we find him at the beginning of this week’s parashah. Faced with the failure of the court magicians to successfully interpret his dreams, Pharaoh asks who else has the skills to decipher what these strange and disturbing visions might mean. It is now that the butler remembers that Joseph had patar tov – that he had offered a good interpretation of his own dream two years earlier. Rashi commenting on this small phrase patar tov writes that far from understanding it as a good interpretation, what is more accurately meant is that it was a correct interpretation. And so on this recommendation; enter stage right, Joseph.
If we now consider Joseph’s role in this saga of dreams, in the light of providing a correct interpretation, maybe far from being an interpreter, he is actually more accurately acting as a provider of knowledge. Joseph, in deciphering the dreams for the Pharaoh, is not influencing the future – in providing the meaning of Pharaoh’s dreams he is in no way changing the ultimate the outcome (any more than he changed the futures of the butler and the baker), after all, what will be will be; but, what he does do is enable Pharaoh, the receiver of this new knowledge, to decide how he will react to the new information that he just been given. Unlike the court magicians Joseph is able to recommend a course of action to adjust to the new reality. By providing Pharaoh with information about the impending years of famine and the hard times ahead, Joseph has given him the knowledge that he needs to make some big decisions. He is able to plan for the future. As Pharaoh says “ein navon ve’chacham c’mocha” – there is none as wise and discerning as you.
Joseph has matured. He has moved from the youth who paraded his self inflated grandiosity in front of others, to one who is able to not simply discern what might lie ahead, but then sensitively understand just what action can then be taken. He sees the monsters lurking in the dark but he does not try to diminish the threat that they pose or suggest that they are anything other than what they are. For having spent time in the dark himself he also now understands that action needs to be taken.
Unlike Pixar who made our monsters friendly and unthreatening, Joseph knew just how threatening the monster was that Pharaoh and the people were facing. – and now so too did the Pharaoh himself.
So maybe the question for us then is do we also need to know what our threats might be and from which direction they are coming? If we sugar coat that which is intrinsically frightening in order to comfort ourselves are we really helping? Or are we maybe simply indulging in a delusion from which we cannot escape unscathed?
We cannot always change the outcome as there are times when some things are simply beyond our control. But maybe we can control how we are going to face it. Even when the information we are given is disturbing and frightening, we can nonetheless decide what strategies we are going to put in place to deal with the inevitable:
For just maybe Pixar had got it wrong and not all the monsters under my bed were actually blue fluffy and smiley – just maybe there were one or two who were not so amenable – and actually tucking my feet up tight under the blanket was not such a bad idea after all.
Student Rabbi Kath Vardi
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.