The prisoner cannot secure his own liberation from prison.
Talmud Brachot 5
My rabbi, Harold Schulweis, once said that the trajectory was Torah, Talmud, and Freud. This week’s portion supports the claim that Torah is our collective dream, our metaphor for understanding ourselves and our place in the cosmos. It begins: “And it came to pass at the end [ital. mine] of two years…” Bereshit Rabbah interprets this as an end to darkness, an end to the darkness of Joseph’s imprisonment for the false accusation of attempted rape. Yet it may also mean that it is an end to Joseph’s blindness to his own character; he will leave the prison no longer confined by the needs of his ego. Because of his transformation, he will be able to end the dark terror of Pharaoh’s nightmare by interpreting its meaning.
Joseph will speak to Pharaoh in what Eric Fromm, Franz Rosenzweig’s hevruta., calls “the forgotten language,” (eponymous title of his book), the intensely vivid albeit wordless narrative of dreams. Once upon a time we knew our dreams were angels, i.e. messengers carrying the message of the Holy One. We listened carefully to the one who possessed the gift to break the code and decipher heaven’s voice. Sigmund Freud, who called himself “a godless Jew,” may have disagreed about the source of the dream, but he knew that to be a whole human being we need to know ourselves and the dream reveals what the ego hides. The trick is to know what the dream is truly saying.
To understand the brilliance of Joseph’s understanding of Pharaoh’s dream, we have to back up a bit and look at who is speaking. Joseph is a work-in-progress, the kind of human being who has particular appeal for us who live in a time of rapid constant change. The New York Times refers to Bill Clinton as an “unfinished person,” evolving in his Presidency. We identify with with the evolving Joseph, and we believe that psychoanalysis, with its belief in dreams as a key to self-knowledge, is a way to transformation.
Joseph’s ability to read the unconscious profoundly affects his life’s journey. Torah is fascinated with his story which spans four parshiot and is the longest and richest narrative of the Chumash. He begins life as his mother’s first born son and his father’s favorite, “the child of his old age.” In case there is any doubt about this, Jacob makes his son a moving target by giving only him a beautiful coat that makes his brothers hate him even more. But Joseph doesn’t mind envy; he might even enjoy it. It’s easy for him to make the jump and assume that God loves him the most, too; he’s beautiful, has the gift of dream interpretation, and furthermore, his dreams tell him that he will rule over his brothers.
For his insensitivity he will be thrown in the pit twice, once by his brothers, and again because of Potiphar’s wife. (The Rabbis said that although he didn’t do anything that deserved the second imprisonment, it was added as punishment for provoking his family). Is his gift a blessing or curse, or both?
Perhaps the prison, in its isolation, provides a necessary darkness that Joseph needs to know himself. It is a place of stillness that we hear ourselves weep. Joseph misses his father, his coat, his princely life in the palace, and his worldly power, his privilege and superiority over others. At first he can’t find himself without his trappings; then he feels utterly alone, a wretch. And then–he remembers. Even in the prison of his ego which hides his soul, “God is with him, and whatever he did God made successful” (Ber. 39:23). God will lead him into the light of self-knowledge, and since he is b’zelem Elokim, he will begin to use his gifts to behave like God.
Joseph needs to learn humility. More deeply, he needs to discover how to use his gift to make the world better. We first are treated to his fancy display of dream interpretation when he taunts his brothers and father with the message of his dreams. He never mentions God as the source of his gift in these interpretations, and he uses his knowledge to diminish others. He well might have asked himself in prison, “What good is my gift?”
But indeed God does have a plan for Joseph. While he is in prison he interprets two dreams of his fellow inmates and they come true. We know that Joseph has changed when he replies to their request for help in understanding, “Surely God can interpret! Tell me [your dreams]” (Ber.40:8). Now that Joseph knows that he is a vessel for God, his gift will become a force for the good.
The portion opens with Pharaoh’s dream, which would not be a big deal since everyone dreams, but the Sages tell us that a king’s dream embraces the whole world (BerR.89.4). In the dream, Pharaoh saw seven fat cows grazing by the Nile; presently they are joined by seven starving cows who devour them. Pharaoh awakes and then dreams of seven fat ears of corn growing on a single stalk. They are eaten by seven wind-scorched thin ears of corn. Troubled, he calls his magicians to tell him what the dream was about, but we soon see that Joseph makes interpretation look easy, and it’s not. The magicians tell Pharaoh that the first dream means that he will have seven daughters and will bury seven daughters; the second one refers to his conquering seven provinces and they will revolt against him.
This doesn’t ring right for the king, so at the suggestion of the cupbearer who who was imprisoned with Joseph and saw his interpretation come true, Pharaoh calls for Joseph, who demonstrates that he is a new man by changing his clothes and cutting his hair. Pharaoh says, “I’ve heard that you can understand dreams.”
The transformed Joseph replies, “Not me! God will answer for what is Pharaoh’s welfare.” After Pharaoh unburdens himself to Joseph, Joseph replies, “Pharaoh’s dreams are one and the same: God has told Pharaoh what God is about to do.” Throughout his explanation of the dream, not dreams because he sees the two as one, the repetition created for emphasis, he makes clear that the dream is from God. He explains that the cows and ears of corn represent the same thing, namely years, and that the fat will devour the thin means that seven years of plenty will be followed by seven years of famine.
How did Pharaoh know this was true and that the magicians were wrong? How do we ever know what to believe? The Rabbis believed that everything is for a purpose–if Pharaoh was given this dream, he was also given an imaginative perception to know its true meaning. Most of us, however, are not like Joseph or Freud. We need a translator and tour guide for our dreams, but it is only we, the dreamer, who knows the truth embedded in the image and narrative.
Joseph does more than explain the dream. He gives Pharaoh advice about how to store the surplus and to maintain population control. He also tells Pharaoh that he must appoint a leader to oversee this plan. Throughout his speech, Joseph tells Pharaoh that his words are from God; the holy One is the power to effect all this. Soon it is not only Joseph who has learned that everything is in God’s hands except the fear of God. Pharaoh learns that his magicians have failed and Joseph has succeeded because God has chosen Joseph to speak for God. In fact, Pharaoh says to his advisors who I imagine are shocked at witnessing the young Hebrew prisoner sway the king, “Could we find another like him, a man in whom is the spirit of God?” If these men felt envy at Joseph ingratiating himself to the king, is this so different from what he experienced as a boy? The difference is that now he no longer inspires envy because he doesn’t claim himself as better than anyone else.
Ramban cannot believe that Joseph would be so audacious as to give king advice. According to Ramban, what Joseph suggests as a plan is simply an extension of the dream’s interpretation. In psychananalytic terms, this might be a discussion of whether an analyst advises or merely interprets.
When someone does teshuvah, we’re relieved but a part of us wonders if the change is permanent. Joseph’s test of character will come later when he is restored to wealth and power. Why Joseph teased and tricked his brothers is another discussion, but in the end we are assured that Joseph in Egypt, i.e. the narrow place of materialism, will never forget the source of his gift and his blessing, nor why he possesses them.