Thursday, 07 Dec 2017

Written by Roberta Harris

Joseph is a man of dreams.   They occur at several important junctures and, even if they are not about him, they augur well for him.  The exceptions are, of course, the two dreams he had as a very young man, which he was silly enough to tell to his family – the first to his brothers and the second to his father and brothers – instances of how NOT to win friends and influence people.  In the first dream it was harvest time and he and his brothers were tying up stooks of grain in the fields.  Suddenly those of his brothers stood up and bowed low to his own sheaf.  Not unnaturally the brothers were somewhat put out to think that they were all subordinate to Joseph, the youngest of them all (except for Benjamin).  The second dream had the sun, moon and stars bowing to Joseph and when he told this to his family, Jacob’s reaction was  predictable: if the sun and moon represented Joseph’s parents, did the child really think they were going to bow to him?

But these were true dreams and Joseph interpreted them correctly, as he did all the other dreams he was to be told later.  Nevertheless you have to be either very young or very silly to tell your family that they were to be subservient to you.  And Joseph was both, as Rashi points out, when he comments on two words from Genesis 37, verse 2, “vehu na’ar”.  In Rashi’s opinion these words mean not only ‘ he was a youngster’, but also “and he behaved stupidly”.  Hard to gainsay!

But Joseph learned fast and grew up to be a man of considerable abilities, with what one might call today exceptional managerial skills.  He was an efficient steward in Potiphar’s house; he was an excellent manager of the prisoners in the prison where he was confined, accurately interpreting the dreams of Pharoah’s Master Butler and Master Baker: and eventually he became the virtual overlord of Egypt, after correctly interpreting Pharoah’s twin dreams of fat and lean cattle emerging from the River Nile, and fat and blasted ears of wheat.

The text says “ he went out over [ie. ‘in charge of’ / ‘governing’] all Egypt (Genesis 41: 45).

So Joseph had two strings to his bow – he could correctly interpret dreams (a magical skill which he says was given him by God) and he was a great practical administrator (also a gift from God, but a rather more prosaic one).

In our own day, perhaps, we would only recognise the latter as a valuable gift since most of us have lost the ancient reverence for God-given dreams.  At least for the dreams that come in our sleep, which, unless we cultivate the skill of remembering them (which some people still do) we generally forget.  But ‘to be a dreamer’ holds another meaning for us.  Remember Herzl’s words, “If you will it is no dream”?  And 70 years ago from 29th November last, the United Nations voted for the partition of Palestine, so that Jews could have their own state.

It seems that for any great project to come to fruition, such as the State of Israel itself, it does, indeed, have to be dreamed.  Herzl himself is sometimes called the ‘Dreamer’ or ‘Envisioner’ of the State.  And in Der Judenstaat he also wrote

‘ Dream and deed are not as different as many think.

All the deeds of men are dreams at first. . . .’

Having dreamed the existence of a state for the Jewish people and proposing it at the First Zionist Congress in Basel in August 1897, he was convinced that it would come into being, were it to take five or fifty years.  And, of course, he was right, although he did not live to see it.

Thus we learn that having a dream – an ambition, a goal – in life, is really important. It could be personal – like a young man dreaming of his own shop mending mobile phones, or a young woman dreaming of owning a chain of them – or it could be something for the community, perhaps establishing a new synagogue.  Or even grander still, perhaps someone might dream of cleaning up all the plastic in the sea or finally fully developing renewable energy and other measures so that we will no longer pollute the good earth.  Dreaming the gift of life to the planet – that would be a great dream indeed.

So it seems that without a dream we cannot succeed; not that all dreams turn out the way we want them.  Take Israel for instance: has what Herzl dreamed really come to pass in all respects?  In the words of the Liberal siddur

‘  Inspire its [Israel’s] leaders and citizens with faithfulness to the aims of its founders: to develop the land for the benefit of all [1] its inhabitants and to implement the prophetic ideals of liberty and peace.  May they live in harmony with one another and in peace with their neighbours.’

That has not happened yet, has it?  Or not all of it and not for everyone, anyway.

Perhaps if we all dream together that dream of justice and security for all [2] the people of Israel and Palestine, then maybe we will find a way for Herzl’s dream to become our reality. As it says in the Book of Joel (3:1) –

‘ Your sons and your daughters shall prophecy

Your old men shall dream dreams

And your young men will see visions’

Let’s try to turn the dreams and visions into facts on the ground, so that Israel can flourish, as we all wish her to, in peace.

Student rabbi Roberta Harris


[1,2 ] The underlining is mine


The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.