Dreams are one of the central themes in Vayeishev and in Miketz. I would like to compare and contrast the dreams that directed Yosef in his life with those that incessantly troubled Pharaoh. Understanding the value of dreams can also give us insight into why the Torah stresses the importance of remembering the Exodus from Egypt.
Yosef, at the start of Parashat Vayeishev, has two dreams with similar messages. Both dreams allude to the fact that Yosef will rule over his brothers and that they will bow down to him. In our parasha, we are informed of Pharaoh’s two dreams. Here again, the message of both dreams is similar. However, in contrast to Yosef’s dreams, where the Torah offers no explanation why there are two dreams with almost identical meaning, we are explicitly told that the reason Pharaoh has two dreams is so that he understands that the future famine is imminent (Bereishit, 41:32.)
When we examine Yosef’s dreams, we can see that his initial dream involves earthly objects (Ibid. 37:7) – sheaves of wheat bowing down to a superior sheaf of wheat, while his second dream involves heavenly objects such as the stars, the moon, and the sun (Ibid. 37:9.)
In contrast, both of Pharaoh’s dreams involve earthly objects. His first dream refers to cows (Ibid. 41:2-4,) whereas his second dream involves sheaves (Ibid. 41:5-7.) There is no reference to heavenly objects in either of Pharaoh’s dreams.
It is also significant to note that there is a certain regression in Pharaoh’s dreaming. He first dreams of living creatures, but he then ‘regresses’ to sheaves of wheat. In contrast, Yosef first dreams of sheaves, and then has visions of heavenly objects.
Let us compare the two leaders; very different people with entirely different objectives. Yosef, though very much a man of the world, always aspires to spiritual grandeur. Even though he may well achieve supremacy in earthly ambition, this is not his ultimate objective in life, and thus his first dream is but a stepping-stone towards his second dream. Yosef lives in this world, but as a human being, not as a superior animal. Hence, when faced with the seemingly irresistible advances of Potiphar’s wife, Yosef is able to overcome his natural instincts in order to preserve his holiness; a feat that can only be achieved by a person with burning life priorities.
We are not suggesting that there should be two differing objectives, for this world and the next. From Yosef we see that our objective in this world is to reach the stage when our feet are well entrenched on the ground, but our heads are in the Heavens. As we saw in Ya’akov’s dream, the foot of the ladder is on the ground, but the top is in the Heavens. When this is our ethos in life, then we can only grow. Yosef is our ideal; he has not locked himself away from society; he is very much a part of the community: a ruler involved in the daily, menial needs of his underlings, yet this in no way influences his ability to succeed spiritually. How did he succeed? The answer lies in his dreams.
Pharaoh’s ideology is quite the opposite. He is only driven by material objectives. His interests are narrowly defined, based on personal wealth and short-term gains. When this is our ethos of life, not only will we not progress, we will invariably regress. A human being who has the choice, yet nevertheless chooses to revert to basic animal behavior, voluntarily surrendering to his inner desires, will ultimately fall lower than the animal he emulates.
We all have dreams, objectives, and ambitions. These dreams are crucial because they guide us in everything we do. Our dreams define our priorities. Yosef never forgot his dreams (Ibid. 42:9;) they accompanied him wherever he was and in whatever he was doing. These human dreams were greater than this world, yet in time they were more than realized in this world. It was his dreams that saw him through jail, and the same dreams kept him going throughout 20 years of separation from his family. He never lost sight of his objective. He dreamed again and again, until his dreams became reality.
Pharaoh’s dreams were never fully realized. The seven years of famine never happened. Upon Ya’akov’s arrival in Egypt, the famine immediately ceased. The significant underlying message is that Yosef’s spiritually motivated dreams guided him throughout his life, whereas Pharaoh’s physically driven dreams guided him as long as he thought them convenient. The more we focus on our material needs, the more we spiritually regress. Pharaoh began by dreaming of animals, but he ended dreaming of wheat!
Many of us begin our adulthood with dreams and visions of the future. We have ideals and beliefs of what is right and what is wrong. We feel very strongly about issues that matter, and show enormous frustration at the apparent complacency that surrounds us in the adult world. Adults often seem resigned to a certain reality, and often look at us sympathetically, implying ‘you’re too young to understand’ or ‘you’re naïve if you think you can do this’ or even ‘it’s been done before and it doesn’t work.’
People seem to reach a certain age and lose their hopes of change and progress. They become disillusioned with their dreams of youth. Oh! The energy of those early years, when days are not days and nights are not nights; the enthusiasm and stubborn refusal to see things ‘realistically.’ How can we retain that energy and determination as we grow older, as we mature? Are we not confusing the wisdom of age with laziness, apathy, and complacency?
Yosef is our prototype; he dreams naively at the age of 17, but those same dreams are still with him when he is 39, over 20 years later. He has matured, he has learned. He is not the same Yosef, but he has taken his dreams with him. They have matured with him, and they will surely come to fruition.
The mitzvah of remembering the coming out of Egypt conceals a similar idea. We have the seven-day festival of Pesach, whose main objective is to re-live the exodus from Egypt; on Sukkot, we are commanded to leave our houses and live outside in temporary ‘booths’ in order to re-live the experiences of our people leaving Egypt for the barren wilderness. The Ramban tells us that the mitzvah of counting the months of the year is in order to remember the Exodus. One of the reasons given for Shabbat is to remember the coming out of Egypt, and we have a daily mitzvah to remember the Exodus. Is it really necessary to be reminded of the same event on a daily, weekly, monthly, and thrice yearly basis?
The answer is clearly yes, but the reason needs to be explained. Perhaps we could suggest that the commandment is not simply to re-live our experiences as if we were doing them for the first time (though that may well be the purpose on Pesach, and even possibly on Sukkot.) Perhaps we are being told not simply to remember how we left Egypt but rather to remember why we left Egypt.
We are being taught to constantly remind ourselves why God freed us from the slavery of Egypt. We were freed for a purpose. We became the people of Hashem for a reason. We had a dream in Egypt; we realized that dream on Mt. Sinai, and we aim to retain and develop our excellence in that dream every day of our lives. However, the Torah is fully aware of the dangers of dreams evaporating into adulthood, of dreams being forgotten. We are thus reminded to constantly look back at our objectives in order that we move forward in real terms.
We do not always lose our way through resigned apathy; sometimes we lose our way when we lose our perspective. We are so keen to do things right; we are so strict with ourselves on each and every detail, that we end up retaining the detail and forgetting the principle. In a religious community where there is intense, daily halachic activity, one can often fall into this trap.
The first mishna in the second chapter of Massechet Yoma, describes an episode in the Mikdash when a young Cohen, rushing to perform a certain mitzvah before his fellow Cohen, pushes his ‘competitor’ aside and breaks his leg. In the Talmud, this episode is followed by a horrific incident in which one Cohen actually kills his fellow for a similar reason! How can a Cohen, a “pursuer of peace,” kill in order to perform Divine service? This can only happen when we lose sight of our objectives, becoming entangled in so much detail that we can no longer see where we are going.
The answer cannot and must not be to reduce our intensity and conviction in the detailed performance of Mitzvot. It simply demands extra effort whilst performing a precept; to remember that our action is for one reason and one reason only – the service of the Almighty God and not the almighty ego!
Our aim is to emulate Yosef. To see our dreams as reality, to let our dreams grow with us. We must not lose our energy and hope for the future; we must nurture them, using our developing knowledge and understanding of the world to make our dreams come true. However, while intensely pursuing our ultimate dreams we must be extra careful to keep our eye on the long-term objective. Then, God willing, those dreams will forever progress from the earthly to the Heavenly.
Shabbat Shalom and Chanuka Sameach – Rav David Milston
 In doing so, I refer to an exceptional sicha by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson: Likkutei Sichot (Parashat Vayeishev, Volume 3, pp. 59-64 – Hebrew Edition.)
 See Rashi, Ibid. 50:3.
 See Ramban, Shemot 12:2.
 See Friday Night Kiddush.
 Devarim 16:3; Mishna Berachot 1:5, and Talmud Berachot 12b.
 Yoma 23a.