Vayeshev: A Prince Learns to Dream

Joseph was a dreamer. In fact, he defined for generations to come what it means to be a dreamer. Perhaps a little egocentric at 17, he just couldn’t understand why others, especially his brothers, were not eager to hear that someday he would be a prince and they, well, were not quite cut from the princely cloth.

In Genesis 37, we learn that Joseph had the job of reporting to his father Israel how things were going with the flocks in his brothers’ care. Joseph could have lied to his father on behalf of his brothers. Instead, Joseph felt he had no choice but to speak the naked truth.
The text doesn’t mention Joseph’s trying to make his brothers feel good about themselves. Since he was already a “master of dreams,” one might be excused for thinking that he might have at least tried to teach them how to dream. But no. They were not the teachable kind.
Although it hurt in the short-term, it was Joseph’s naiveté and hopeless transparency that set the wheels in motion that would ultimately lead to the fulfillment of his dreams. Yet he would have to earn the title prince by having some rough but valuable experiences. As his father Jacob had faced the wrath of his brother Esau, Joseph also would have to face the anger of his brothers.
Jacob's name was changed to Israel after struggling with some kind of heavenly being, possibly in a dream. In Genesis 32:30, Jacob wanted to know the being’s name. In verse 31, Jacob was so overwhelmed by the experience that he said that his life had been preserved even though he had seen God face to face.
The Mahanaim experience gave Jacob the confidence that, if he could survive wrestling with a heavenly being, then he could also survive an encounter with an angry brother accompanied by 400 men. Yet he still bowed to Esau seven times. They certainly reconciled as brothers as much as they could, but there is no written evidence that they became anything like best friends.
Strangely, Jacob continued to be called by that name until the day he died in Genesis 49:33 even though occasionally he was referred to as Israel. Even God called him Jacob in Genesis 46:2. There is no written record that Jacob ever told Esau the whole Mahanaim experience.
Did Jacob ever have the courage before the two separated in Genesis 36:6 to tell Esau that he believed God had changed his name to Israel, a prince who prevails with God? Although it is possible, there is no written evidence of Joseph type audacity on the part of Jacob when it came to Esau. Jacob's demeanor toward Esau was one of humility.
Joseph clearly had the courage in his youth to profess his dreams before many brothers, whereas Israel perhaps was unable to confess his full Mahanaim experience to even one brother who might not have understood or appreciated it -- especially after all the bitterness that previously had occurred between them because of the birthright. For this reason, Israel must have respected Joseph for his courage. His prophecy concerning Joseph reflected that respect.
Israel’s prophecy on his deathbed concerning Joseph in Genesis 49:22-26 is one of my favorite Torah portions and one that I often publicly read in shul when Vayeshev came around every year. It is beautifully poetic.

בֵּן פֹּרָת יוֹסֵף בֵּן פֹּרָת עֲלֵי-עָיִן; בָּנוֹת צָעֲדָה עֲלֵי-שׁוּר. וַיְמָרְרֻהוּ וָרֹבּוּ; וַיִּשְׂטְמֻהוּ בַּעֲלֵי חִצִּים. וַתֵּשֶׁב בְּאֵיתָן קַשְׁתּוֹ וַיָּפֹזּוּ זְרֹעֵי יָדָיו; מִידֵי אֲבִיר יַעֲקֹב מִשָּׁם רֹעֶה אֶבֶן יִשְׂרָאֵל. מֵאֵל אָבִיךָ וְיַעְזְרֶךָּ וְאֵת שַׁדַּי וִיבָרְכֶךָּ, בִּרְכֹת שָׁמַיִם מֵעָל, בִּרְכֹת תְּהוֹם רֹבֶצֶת תָּחַת; בִּרְכֹת שָׁדַיִם וָרָחַם.  בִּרְכֹת אָבִיךָ, גָּבְרוּ עַל-בִּרְכֹת הוֹרַי עַד-תַּאֲוַת גִּבְעֹת עוֹלָם; תִּהְיֶיןָ לְרֹאשׁ יוֹסֵף וּלְקָדְקֹד נְזִיר אֶחָיו.

22 Joseph is a fruitful vine, a fruitful vine by a fountain; its branches run over the wall. 23 The archers have dealt bitterly with him, and shot at him, and hated him; 24 But his bow abode firm, and the arms of his hands were made supple, by the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob, from thence, from the Shepherd, the Stone of Israel, 25 Even by the God of thy father, who shall help thee, and by the Almighty, who shall bless thee, with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that coucheth beneath, blessings of the breasts, and of the womb. 26 The blessings of thy father are mighty beyond the blessings of my progenitors unto the utmost bound of the everlasting hills; they shall be on the head of Joseph, and on the crown of the head of the prince among his brethren.

Are these verses about strength and blessings even talking about the same 17-year-old dreamer who seemed so obsessed with his own self-importance? All clues would seem to point to a youthful Joseph with an overinflated sense of self. Yet by the time Israel uttered these words, Joseph had already served as viceroy over the ancient Egyptian empire. Whatever need Joseph might have once felt in his youth to surpass his brothers broke his heart once the dreams had been fulfilled and his brothers were humbled before him.
Israel said in verse 26, “The blessings of thy father are mighty beyond the blessings of my progenitors unto the utmost bound of the everlasting hills; they shall be on the head of Joseph, and on the crown of the head of the prince among his brethren.”
Of course, that is the challenge of every generation – to go beyond what the previous generation was able to achieve, to lift the human race a little higher and allow it to progress a little further. Israel felt that he had been blessed beyond his progenitors, that is, beyond even the blessings of Abraham and Isaac. (After all, the modern Jewish state is named after Israel, not Abraham or Isaac.) Israel foresaw similar blessings for Joseph.
Theodor Herzl also learned that it is not easy being a dreamer. Being also a pragmatist, he famously said, “If you will it, it is no dream.” In other words, if you will it, it doesn’t have to remain just a dream. Herzl believed in putting legs or even wings on his dreams.
Whether or not we believe in miracles, let’s accomplish what we can for the common good. Although HaShem helps those who help themselves, He has been known to help those who cannot help themselves. May we have the courage and audacity of Joseph and enjoy the blessings of Israel.
Yoeli’s Mandate: Leave your mark, make a difference for the good, and do your part to make sure that they never again devour Jacob or make his habitation waste.
You may write to Eli Kaufman at