This is the D’var Torah I plan to share at Shabbat morning services on December 16, 2023 for Parashat Miketz. It’s related to this one I gave in late 2020, when we could begin to think about reality after Covid vaccines.
I want to start by misquoting someone, specifically Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, on the subject of dreamers and cynics:
“Cynics are realistic in the short-term and realistic in the long-term. Dreamers are unrealistic in the short-term, but realistic in the long-term.”
Dr. Ben-Shahar is famous for being the most popular lecturer ever at Harvard College and for being a founder of what he now calls “Happiness Studies,” and yes he is Israeli, and no he didn’t say exactly what I said he What he did say is that pessimists are realistic in the short-term and realistic in the long-term, and optimists are unrealistic in the short-term but realistic in the long-term.
The reason I misquoted him is that he said this in a lecture called “Realizing Your Dreams”, and when he was talking about an optimist he was talking about a certain kind of dreamer, and that kind of dreamer is represented in the Torah by Yosef.
Yosef is called by his brothers ba’al ha-chalomot, the “master of dreams”, and they don’t mean that in a positive way. They mean it in the way that we contrast being a dreamer with being practical. They also mean that his dreams are not good for anyone, and in particular not good for them.
Yosef identifies himself as someone with a gift for understanding other people’s dreams, on top of having dreams of his own. And while the Torah talks about literal dreams experienced at night, it’s clear to me that the Torah is also talking about dreams in the metaphorical sense.
Yosef this ba’al hachalomot, this master of dreams in the Torah, is also a go-getter, an organizational and management genius, and a political operator. His ability to interpret other people’s dreams is a key to his achievements in the real world up to this point in the Torah. Not just getting appointed Par’oh’s right-hand man but getting to save the whole kingdom from being destroyed by famine.
But in our part of the Torah reading, Yosef struggles with his dreams, and in exactly the ways that Dr. Ben-Shahar says a person would, by being reminded that in the short-term his own dreams are not realistic and then having to figure out what to do with that.
The Torah brings up dreaming about a minute after Yosef sees his brothers in Mitzrayim for the first time, when they come looking for food. He hasn’t seen them for many years but he recognizes them immediately, and they don’t know who he. So the Torah says these things right away (Gen. 42:7-9):
Vayitnaker alayhem — he made himself strange to them
Vay’daber itam kashot — he spoke with them harshly
Vayizkor Yosef ayt hachalomot asher chalam lahem — Yosef remembered the dreams that he had dreamed for them
Vayomer alayhem m’raglim atem — he said to them, “You are spies.”
This is not a picture of a dreamer who finds his own dreams easy, or really any dreams. You have to remember that Yosef is living the implementation of his dream-response to Par’oh (Pharoah), executing the plan about Par’oh’s dreams about the years of plenty and the years of famine. It’s going absolutely according to plan, which means Yosef is in charge of a well-run operation and it’s a famine. I think in the middle of such a thing a leader might be experiencing both the satisfaction of doing something life-giving very well, and also stress — which in Yosef’s case means knowing that for seven years he’s going be under this stress.
And the appearance of his brothers tips him further that way, and he makes himself strange. The verb is in the reflexive, the Hebrew form called hit’pa’el, so maybe this is an inner response. Even a dreamer has a moment of being alienated from himself and his own dreams. So he speaks to them harshly.
Then they just say very matter-of-factly who they are and why they are there — and at that point the Torah says Yosef remembered the dreams that he had dreamed for them. Just then something clicks into place. He remembers his own dreams, where they were all bundles of grain and their bundles bowed down to his bundle. And there is it, it’s happening: the Torah says they are bowing down to him just like he dreamed it.
But nothing the Torah describes here seems like a “dream come true.” The commentator Ramban picks up on this and says actually this the moment Yosef has clarity about his earlier dreams. Ramban says Yosef notices the specific ways his dreams are not yet fulfilled, because his brother Binyamin isn’t there and his father isn’t there. And right then Yosef realizes that the dream isn’t about domination; it’s about bringing his family together in a reconciliation that depends on the initiative of Yosef himself.
Dr. Ben-Shahar would say that in this moment Yosef’s original dream seems very unrealistic, and in the short-term it would seem to feel better for Yosef’s own quote-unquote “happiness” not to be a dreamer at all. Just close the book on the past and the original dream. Treat these people just like all the other people in line, give them food, put them in prison, whatever. Get the job here done, realistic, rinse and repeat until the seven years are done and the crops start to grow again.
But Yosef can’t do that, because he’s not a pessimist or a cynic. In that moment of dissonance between dream and reality, he remembers that he doesn’t just interpret other people’s dreams but also his own. And I hear in his statement to his brothers that you are spies, m’raglim atem, a kind of inner truth, that they are penetrating his secret or helping him see inside. It’s uncomfortable to say the least and there isn’t a feel-good thing to do or even an immediate thing to do. So a lot of the traditional commentators explain what Yosef does for the next while, the strange and harsh treatment of his brothers and his continuing to hide who he is, as the diffcult work Yosef has to do to work toward this broader dream. Dr. Ben-Shahar in his lecture says that when our dreams hit the point where they aren’t coming true, the dreamer to do all kinds of learning about why, and about how the world works around one, and what people are like who one assumes want to embrace the same dream but don’t.
The difference between the cynic and this kind of dreamer, says Dr. Ben-Shahar, is not that one has a truer picture of the world than the other. They can achieve the goal they set in the long-run. The only difference is a choice about whether you’re willing to live with the discomfort of the time being, and work on that hard and work on it wisely, to get toward something bigger and better. The dream gets reinterpreted and refined in the process, but it’s still rooted in the original dream.
Yosef chooses that way because he is the master of dreams. One thing that motors him is pointed out by the medieval commentator Rabbi David Kimchi, who observes that the Torah says Yosef had dreamed for them, for his brothers. It was he who had the dream, but it was for them. His part again wasn’t stature over them, but what his leadership and initiative could do for his brothers and for his father and for all of them together.
This kind of dreaming Yosef is already good with. I’ve spoken in previous years about how Yosef helps Par’oh with the king’s dreams. The dreams Yosef helped him with weren’t the nightmares the Torah tells, about the skinny grain stalks eating the fat ones. Yosef helped Par’oh reclaim his good dreams, the ones his nightmares had extinguished, about himself and his empire taking care of its people. Yosef helped Par’oh do what Dr. Ben-Shahar says you have to do about dreams that aren’t fulfilled in the short-term. He helped Par’oh make new plans, add new people, and in the process enlarge his dream to encompass not just Egypt but other nations like Canaan.
As master of dreams Yosef doesn’t just do that once, for Par’oh’s two dreams. He’s got his own two dreams to figure out. That’s the process that starts with this encounter with his brothers in the parasha today.
In the long run, Yosef figures out how to make his family dreams come true. He learns about them, new people get involved, and eventually for a time there is healing and unity and prosperity, for Yosef and his brothers and his father.
And Yosef’s story teaches us that being a dreamer is not an escape from reality. It’s just one choice of how to be realistic. And I say, if the world is going to be hard, if we are going to face challenges in our lives or our families, we might as well put that same amount of work toward dreams. And be uplifted and lightened in the process.
If we do it like Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar says a realistic dreamer does it, then our lives will be transformed just like Yosef’s. It will be less about me and what I achiever and my grandeur — dream work will turn us toward learning, toward each other, toward more nuance in how we understand the workings of the world.
Today I like to call the 9th candle of Chanukkah. We could see the end of the line of lights, but I think we’re supposed to see its continuation in our mind’s eye, in the eye that’s within our heart. We’ve had all kinds of reasons the past few years and the past two months to say no to dreams or not now to dreams. All kinds of reasons to see things and speak harshly, all kinds of reasons to feel strange even to ourselves. So let’s remember from Yosef that it’s all part of the process of being ba’alot and ba’alei chalomot, masters of dreams — and that dreaming is one of the most realistic ways we can live, even in these times.