from the heart of jerusalem

The meaning of Yosef’s dream


For the better part of the 40 years we have been trying to come to terms with Palestinians, but somehow our dream seems no closer to reality than it did when Begin agreed to an autonomous Palestinian entity, or when Rabin signed the Oslo accords. What are we missing?

This week’s portion, Miketz, begins with a fascinating story that gives us a glimpse into what that might be. Yosef, an imprisoned slave in Egypt, is called to the palace to interpret the dreams of Pharaoh.

Pharaoh is deeply troubled. In one dream, seven fat, robust cows are devoured by seven sickly dying ones. In a second, seven seemingly healthy wheat-stalks are devoured by seven dying ones. 

Yosef’s interpretation: Egypt will experience seven years of plenty, followed by seven years of famine that will overshadow the previous years of plenty.

Pharaoh needs a plan, and Yosef offers a solution: Stockpile during the seven years of plenty, and distribute food in exchange for land during the years of famine. This will not only allow Egypt to survive, but will also consolidate her status as the economic power in the region. Ultimately, Yosef is appointed viceroy, and as the second highest official in Egypt becomes the instrument for affecting this policy.

Yosef’s solution was no stroke of genius; why were all the ministers of Egypt, the greatest country on earth at the time, incapable of arriving at this same conclusion? Additionally, the idea that the ruler of the empire is soliciting the interpretation of an imprisoned slave, resulting in his appointment to one of the highest posts in the world, is absurd. What is really going on here? 

This portion, Miketz, is always read on Chanukah. Is there a relationship between the story holiday, and the rise of Yosef to power in Egypt?

Our dreams are an opportunity for us to discover who we are and what is on our hearts and minds. Their impact on our lives depends on our ability to interpret them. So everything depends on our perspective.

Yosef in ancient Egypt represented an entirely different way of seeing things.

The ancient Egyptians worshipped nature as the source of life. They idolized all aspects of the natural order. Thus, they deified the Nile, which they felt was the source of all sustenance in this world. Central to their ideology and beliefs was the concept that the strong survive, as nature dictates.

The idea that pale, dying, sickly animals could devour fat healthy ones was contrary to everything they believed. After all, the lesson of nature is that the weak perish. Survival of the fittest was an ideal to live by.

The idea of stockpiling food to save the population, not to mention parceling it out to others in the region, may well have been counter to everything ancient Egypt stood for. 

Yosef offered Egypt a different way to see things. Life doesn’t have to be that way; the strong and the weak can live side by side and help each other. Ultimately, in becoming viceroy, Yosef had the chance to practice what he preached. 

A thousand years later, the Greeks, too, worshipped nature; they deified beauty and gave license to all man’s most basic urges. To be sure, there is beauty in nature. But it is precisely that beauty that can lead man to find G-d in the world, not to ignore Him.

And this is the central message of Chanukah: that the victory was meaningless if it was only in the service of man. What made it significant for Jews everywhere, forever, was the rededication of the Temple, and the reestablishment of man as serving G-d.

In fact, the name Chanukah may be related to the word chen, inner beauty. And one of the issues, central to all that Chanukah represents, is the real meaning of beauty. 

If Chanukah was about military victory, there wouldn’t be that much to celebrate. The Hasmonean dynasty lasted a scant quarter-century before surrendering to the Romans. In its heyday, it comprised barely 35 square miles around Jerusalem and a strip of land in what is today Gaza. No, the celebration is of something far deeper than the defeat of a few Greek soldiers.

Why is lighting the menorah so critical? One of the prayers traditionally recited when kindling the Chanukah lights, is Nerot Halalu.

“Ve’ein lanu reshut lehishtamesh bahem” — we have no permission to use them. We are not meant to benefit physically from these candles, not to read by their light, nor to use the heat of their fire.

“Ela lirotam bilvad” — We are only to see them. Sometimes we need to take a step back and just appreciate the light. We need to see all the light in the world around us, and in our lives, and recall that we are here, in the end, only to bring light.

Today, alone amongst the community of nations, Israel has a message the world needs to hear. It is time to kindle the flame that will bring light back into the world. It is time for an awakening.

Best wishes to all for a sweet and wonderful Chanukah full of only light.

A version of this column appeared in 2011.