I’ve been writing about key words in the last few portions of the Torah. This week I would like to focus upon two key motifs in our parsha: one is dreaming; the other going up and going down.
Yosef, the favorite son of Ya’akov, born to him by his beloved Rahel, dreams that he will rise up over his brothers, and even above his father and mother. Yet he is eventually forced down into the pit by his brothers, who both detest his haughty behavior and envy the special treatment he receives from their father (Genesis, chapter 37).
Yosef is then brought down to the land of Egypt, and even further downwards to the prison when he is falsely accused of trying to seduce his master’s wife (chap. 38).
While a captive in Egypt, Yosef (the dreamer) becomes an expert at interpreting dreams, first among his fellow prisoners (chap. 39-40), then for the Pharaoh himself (chap. 41). These interpretations will cause him to rise above his brothers and even above his father when they all must come down to Egypt to overcome the famine in the Promised Land (chap. 42).
You might remember that Yosef’s father Ya’akov is also something of a dreamer. We are told that upon his leaving the Promised Land, he dreamt of angels going up and down a ladder to heaven. And when he finally returned after 20 years to his homeland, then too—according to some interpretations—he dreamt that he was wrestling with a man, perhaps a demon or an angel, or perhaps with himself.
So it seems that dreaming is part of the culture in which Yosef grew up. Yosef also grew up with something of a power struggle in the background. His father was in a constant struggle to be up, to get the upper hand, with his brother Esav, with his father-in-law Lavan, and even with his wives, who use him as an object for their own baby making competition.
And Ya’akov also goes down, first away from the Promised Land, escaping from his angry brother, then towards the end of his life “going down” to Egypt with his family in search of food.
Both going up and down, and dreaming, are in Yosef’s background.
There is actually one more motif that binds this week’s Torah portion to those of the last few weeks: thievery. Ya’akov is accused of stealing the birthright from his brother Esav, he is accused of stealing his wives and children away from Lavan, he is even accused of stealing Lavan’s idols when in fact he is being blamed for his wife Rachel’s deed. You might remember Ya’akov claims that it was it was he who was robbed: gnuvti yom ugnuvti layla (31:39). And indeed, he was tricked into working 14 years for the hands of Lavan’s daughters, essentially robbed of his time. Similar words are put into Yosef’s mouth when he explains to the chief cupbearer that he has wound up in prison due to no fault of his own: gunov gunavti – I was kidnapped (40:15). When we take a bird’s-eye view of the entire Yosef narrative, we see all that had been stolen from him: his life with his father, his special coat, his freedom, and his dignity.
So it should be no great surprise that Ya’akov’s favorite son, Yosef, walks in his father’s footsteps:
- His dreams got him into trouble but he learned how to understand the dreams of others that
would help him survive and thrive.
- He went down both physically and emotionally but he turned that around, going up, and
engineered the going down of his family to Egypt, which saved them.
- He had been robbed of all that was his, but he overcame his losses and helped bestow wealth
and dignity to all around him.
Was Yosef’s personality a result of his upbringing, of how he was nurtured by his father, mother and brothers? Or was his personality in his nature, in the chemical makeup of his brain? Were the events in his life under his control? Did he bring upon himself the bad things through his pride? Or perhaps his suffering was a direct outcome of his parents’ behavior?
I imagine that most would agree that it’s a combination of both, but to what degree each?
Although we have gone ahead in the narrative, beyond the end of this week’s Torah portion, I’d like to return to the very end of Parshat Vayeshev which tells of the one man who could have saved Yosef from his fate by putting in a good word in Pharaoh’s ear:
“Yet the chief cupbearer did not think of Yosef; he forgot him.” (40:23)
The Midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 48) focuses upon the last word of our parsha, vayishkacheihu – he
forgot him, in order to teach a theological lesson:
The chief cupbearer may have forgotten you, but I have not forgotten you!
Who was there for Avraham and Sarah until they had a child?
Who was there for Ya’akov when he crossed [the river] with just his walking stick and
until he would establish a family and grow wealthy?
Who would have been there for Yosef in all the persecution he suffered until he
became a king?
Who will be there for those in exile until they grow in stature and glory?
My understanding of this tradition is that we will never really know how much of what we do and who we are is due to nurture and how much is due to nature. Though we must try, we will never really be able to figure out these things for ourselves. But we are able to take comfort in the thought that there just might be a guiding principle in the universe, one that affects both the larger and smaller aspects of our lives. One that will not forget us.
Rabbi David Lazar