"The key to understanding Joseph is to penetrate his unique powers in the area of dreams. Joseph was unparalleled in his ability to interpret the dreams of others. We are told how he successfully interpreted the dreams of Pharaoh's two ministers, and how he finally rose to fame and prominence by interpreting Pharaoh's own dreams. How can we account for Joseph's unique mastery over this area?"


Perchance To Dream

Rabbi Noson Weisz

Joseph’s Super Power

One of the best known and most moving prayers in the Yom Kippur liturgy is really a lamentation that tells the story of the Ten Martyrs:

The Roman conqueror, probably the emperor Vespasian, summoned the most prominent rabbis of the generation and posed a question of Jewish law, namely: “What is the punishment set out in the Jewish Criminal Code for the crime of kidnapping a fellow Jew and selling him into slavery?”

They responded that such a kidnapping had a mandatory death penalty attached to its commission. The emperor then informed the rabbis that he would execute them all to atone for the sale of Joseph by his ten brothers.


According to the story as recounted in the prayer, the rabbis were neither shaken nor dismayed by the pronouncement of this edict. They politely informed the emperor that they would give him their response in due course, and they sent one of their number, R’ Ishmael, the High Priest, up to heaven to inquire if it was decreed by God that they should offer their lives to atone for the sale of Joseph or whether the whole idea was merely some vicious scheme hatched by the depraved imagination of their oppressor.

When he arrived in heaven, R’ Ishmael sought out Elijah who informed him that the request for their martyrdom was indeed a Divine decree. The Rabbis then informed the emperor that they were ready to submit to the decree and he duly scheduled their execution.

The prayer clearly implies that the emperor was totally incapable of executing them without their free consent, and it clearly explains that the reason for the giving of such consent was the discovery that God desired their martyrdom. How can we relate to this combination between a tyrant’s decree and God’s will? How could it be God’s will for such blameless people to suffer death to atone for the sins of others?

Our Yom Kipur prayer presents Vespasian’s rationale the choice of these ten – there was no group in Jewish history that was the equal of Joseph’s brothers in spiritual power and merit until they arrived on the scene. This was therefore the first historic opportunity to atone for the original kidnapping. The martyrdom of the ten presented the seizure of a spiritual opportunity on the first possible occasion it came up. Why would a Jewish prayer put such a bizarre rationale into the mouth of a non-Jew for the slaughter of ten Jewish saints? What could he possibly care about the atonement of Jewish sins?

This week’s Torah portion describes that seemingly inexplicable event – the sale into slavery of Joseph by his brothers. Before we can grapple with the implications of the story represented by the martyrdom of the ten saints in Roman times, we must first confront the issue presented by the original story. How could ten people on such a lofty spiritual plane have been guilty of such a heinous crime–kidnapping a brother and selling him into slavery?


The key to understanding the story is located in the realm of dreams.

The jealousy of Joseph reached the boiling point when he recounted his dreams concerning the sheaves of wheat, and the sun and the moon and the stars [Genesis 37]; in the first dream, the sheaves of wheat representing his eleven brothers bow to the sheave of wheat representing him. In the second dream, the symbol of his father and mother, the sun and the moon are added to the rest – his entire family, including his parents bow to him.

Nachmanides points out that Joseph fully realized the implications of these dreams. Obviously, Joseph was a very intelligent person; Jacob did not favor him for nothing: “Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his sons since he was a child of his old age,” literally ben zekunim, (Ibid., 37:3] a phrase that also has the connotation, wisdom in Hebrew; Rashi-Joseph was able to absorb all the Torah knowledge his father had amassed in the Yeshiva of Shem and Ever.

He was more than capable of appreciating the potential for breeding animosity inherent in his dreams. Nor was he inspired by a strange sort of death wish when he recounted them; he believed that these dreams were prophetic. A prophet has a spiritual obligation to deliver his prophetic message regardless of any apparent danger involved in such revelation. (See Talmud,Sanhedrin, 89a.) And of course, Joseph was right – his dreams were indeed prophetic.


His brothers didn’t buy the theory that Joseph’s dreams were divinely-inspired prophecies. They perceived Joseph’s dreams as the imaginings of a spoiled, obnoxious teenager with visions of grandeur. To them it seemed that they were living inside a replay of the Esau-Jacob saga. Like his father Isaac had done before him, Jacob, the aging patriarch was focusing his affection on the wrong son, the son whose ambition was to rule the roost at all costs instead of cooperating with his brothers to build the Jewish people. In their eyes, Joseph posed a serious threat to the budding nation of Israel that it was their joint spiritual task to bring into being.

As far as the brothers were concerned, Joseph was not some teenager going through his obnoxious phase who could be safely ignored until he passed his teenage years. A person who thinks that his dreams are Divinely-inspired is a truly dangerous man – a person who believes he represents God is capable of the greatest acts of cruelty; the greatest crimes of history were committed in the name of God. Had Jacob shared their assessment of Joseph even Joseph’s delusion about prophecy could have been discounted as harmless; but the brothers saw that Jacob was taking Joseph’s ‘prophetic’ powers seriously. Despite his outward dismissal of Joseph’s dreams as nonsense, they were sharp enough to observe that “his father kept the matter in mind” (Ibid., 37:11) [see Rashi]. They felt that they had to do something urgently to eliminate the threat:

‘Look! That dreamer is coming! So now, come and let us kill him, and throw him into one of the pits; and we will say, “A wild beast devoured him.” Then we shall see what will become of his dreams.’ (Genesis 37:19)


The key to understanding Joseph is to penetrate his unique powers in the area of dreams. Ordinary prophets can be subjected to a process of verification (see Maimonides, Laws of the Torah Basics, Ch.7-8). Had Joseph come forward and claimed to have received a prophecy from God, his brothers would have tested him and accepted God’s verdict. But this is not what happened. He admitted that he merely had a dream; but he claimed that unlike those of other people’s, his own dreams were prophetic. Nor is this the only example of Joseph’s mastery over dreams that is recounted to us. Joseph was also unparalleled in his ability to interpret the dreams of others. We are told how he successfully interpreted the dreams of Pharaoh’s two ministers, and how he finally rose to fame and prominence by interpreting Pharaoh’s own dreams. How can we account for Joseph’s unique mastery over this area?

Dreams occur in a part of the mind known in Hebrew as the koach hadimyon, or “imagination.” We human beings generally cannot control the contents of this faculty of ours. The subjects of our imaginings pop into our minds without our direction and often to our frustration. If we analyzed the subjects of our imaginings we would discover that they usually reflect our subconscious fears and desires, especially the ones whose expression we must suppress in our everyday lives. We all have fears and desires that can only be let out of the cage in the world of our fantasies. Dreams, movies, novels and plays are the proper venues for the expression of these sorts of emotions, and their creative expression has always been a very important component of human culture.

Joseph’s brothers did not regard his dreams as prophecies. As far as they understood, Joseph’s dreams were the expression of his subconscious desire to rule. The proper venue of their expression was indeed the world of dreams, and Joseph should have had the intelligence to keep his dreams private as we all do. But Joseph contended that unlike other people he was in perfect control of his imagination, and he was able to dedicate his imagination to Divine service as much as the rest of humanity can dedicate their conscious minds. If he had a dream concerning his relationship with his brothers it was a message from God, and not some megalomaniac fantasy projected by his subconscious.


The fact that Joseph was correct about his ability to control his imagination made him a highly unusual human being but hardly a freak. The Torah is clear about the fact that human beings should really all have the ability to control their imagination. The loss of the power to control his imagination was the most immediate result of the commission of the very first sin of partaking of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The physical manifestation of this loss of control over our imaginations is manifest in the lack of our control over our sexual organs. The fact that these organs react as though they had a life of their own is a constant reminder of our descent, and a constant source of embarrassment. That is why they are invariably concealed by all human cultures including the most primitive.

“And the woman … took of its fruit and ate; and she gave to her husband with her and he ate. Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they realized that they were naked; and they sewed together a fig leaf and made themselves aprons.” (Genesis 3:6)

Why were Adam and Eve suddenly so embarrassed by their nakedness after having eaten the fruit when they had not been at all self-conscious about walking around naked before? To find out, let us try and formulate an imaginary ‘before and after’ picture of the human condition.


Before man’s sin, the human body was a window to the soul; the soul and the body were both eternal and joined together in a perfect union. Their unity was dissolved when man became a mortal creature and brought death into the world. Death is a phenomenon of the body, not of the soul. It is man’s body that perishes; his soul remains immortal. In practical terms; by virtue of the sin, man’s body became opaque to the inner spirit, leaving only his face to serve as a gateway to the soul that lies within.

But while the body no longer reflects the soul, it does not embarrass man per se. Man still controls his body. It still expresses the power of his mind by following its dictates. A body may not be able to demonstrate the fact that it is in the charge of a man of intelligence by its very being, but it could still demonstrate the intelligence of its owner by the quality of its behavior. Only the sexual organs embarrass man, because they are the only part of the human anatomy that slipped out of the control of his mind. The sexual organs behave with total autonomy, reacting against his will, and without the slightest regard to the appropriateness of the moment or the relationship. They are in the direct charge of man’s fantasy and imagination, and serve as a living demonstration of the lack of man’s control over these mental faculties.


Jacob corrected the sin of Adam and regained control over his imagination. The beauty of Jacob was the beauty of Adam before his sin. (See Talmud Bava Mezia 84a.) “Reuben, you are my firstborn, my strength, and my initial vigor” (Ibid., 49:3). Reuben was conceived from the very first seed that left Jacob’s body. In fact during his entire life Jacob never once spilled any of his seed in vain (Talmud, Yevomot, 76a). Joseph’s mastery over all the aspects of dreams was due to the control over his imagination that he inherited from Jacob.

Joseph’s dreams were not the expressions of his unacceptable fantasies as they are for the rest of us, because Joseph’s imagination was under the same sort of rational control as the rest of his mental faculties. We test our ideas by using the power of our logic to examine the degree of their conformity with reality. Joseph was able to apply the same sort of logical tests to his dreams as we do to our ideas. He only applied his imagination to subjects that could materialize in the real world in the manner that he imagined them. His ability to dream logically also enabled him to understand the dreams of others and accurately assess the portions of their dreams that reflected reality and separate them form the parts that were pure fantasy.


Joseph’s power to force his imagination to conform to the dictates of his reason resulted in the acquisition of complete control over his primal urges. One of the stories in Genesis that have become part of the secular culture is Joseph’s successful resistance to the blandishments of his master’s wife, Potifera ? the first recorded incident of sexual abuse – which landed him, the victim, in prison, and established his persecutrix as the eternal model for the “need to beware of the woman scorned.”

Let us examine this story with the aid of some Torah sources:

“Then there was an opportune day when he (Joseph) entered the house to do his work …” (Genesis 39:11)

According to one view in the Talmud (Sotah, 36b) Joseph’s resistance had cracked and the “work” he came to do was to yield to Potifera’s advances. But as he entered the house, the visage of his father appeared to him, and told him that if he succumbed to her advances, he would be unworthy of having his name appear alongside the names of his brothers on the High Priest’s breastplate. When Joseph heard that he would forfeit his standing as one of the building blocks of the Jewish people, he strengthened his resolve and resisted her importunities (see Rashi).

Joseph’s imagination recalled him to the sense of who he was by drawing his father’s picture in his mind’s eye at the crucial moment.


I enjoyed the privilege of studying for a short while at the feet of Rabbi Hutner zt”l, a well known Jewish scholar who passed away a few years back. One of the things I learned from him was that Joseph also had a patriarchal aspect (see Pachad Yizchok, Pesach,49). Joseph serves as the spiritual model for the young Jew all alone in a foreign culture who nevertheless successfully resists the temptation of mingling with outsiders, even in the face of cruel rejection by his own Jewish family. Joseph’s example and the spiritual force that we inherited from him provide the Jewish people with a bulwark against the loss of identity through intermarriage.

We, the Jewish people spent 210 years in Egypt. We had no Torah, no commandments to set us apart from others. All we had to provide us with our sense of uniqueness was our common descent from the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the tradition they implanted within us that God had promised to deliver us from Egypt and send us a leader who would take us back to Israel. A meager cultural inheritance indeed. Yet through our entire 210 year Egyptian sojourn, there was only a single case of intermarriage (see Shmos Rabba,1:28).

This incredibly clear sense of identity was the legacy of Joseph. It lies at the very heart of Jewish nationhood, and is certainly one of the main factors behind the successful survival of our 2000 year exile. It was Joseph who prepared the way for us in Egypt, it is he who set up our living arrangements there. This is why we are called “Joseph’s remnant.” (See Amos 5:15.)


Many centuries later, facing the millennia of Roman exile, in desperate need of refreshing the bulwark against intermarriage and assimilation that the spiritual legacy of Joseph provides, Israel had to atone for the mistake of the tragic incident of his sale, and by so doing, re-ignite the faded spark of Joseph’s genius among the Jewish people. Hence the story of the Martyrs we read on the Day of Atonement. It is typical of the workings of Divine Providence that the agent for bringing about the martyrdom that would arouse the sleeping spirit of Joseph and thus allow the Jewish people to survive his rule intact was the Roman conqueror himself.

Today, all the segments of our disunited people are pretty much in agreement about one single issue. The primary threat to Jewish survival facing our people is intermarriage and assimilation. We need to reawaken Joseph’s spirit once again. We need to rededicate our imagination to God. We need to develop our own Jewish fantasies.


"The key to understanding Joseph is to penetrate his unique powers in the area of dreams. Joseph was unparalleled in his ability to interpret the dreams of others. We are told how he successfully interpreted the dreams of Pharaoh's two ministers, and how he finally rose to fame and prominence by interpreting Pharaoh's own dreams. How can we account for Joseph's unique mastery over this area?"

Picture of Rabbi Noson Weisz

Rabbi Noson Weisz

While studying at the famed yeshivas of Chaim Berlin, Lakewood and the Mir in Jerusalem, Rabbi Noson Weisz also received a degree in Microbiology from the University of Toronto, MA in Political Science at the New School for Social Research and his LLB from the University of Toronto. Rabbi Weisz is currently a senior lecturer at Yeshiva Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem.

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