Sunday, December 22, 2019

Parshas Vayeishev - A Dream of Numbers and Symbols

In Parshas Vayeishev, Yosef's brothers refer to him as "Baal Hachalomot". Translations can range from the extravagant, "Master of  Dreams" to the derisive, "Dreamer".

But Yosef is indeed defined by his dreams. The era of direct interaction with G-d has temporarily ended. Of all the sons, Yosef is the one chosen to receive messages, and they are cryptic visions filled with symbols, suns, stars, moons, birds, cows, wheat, that are ripe with potent symbolism. His father Yaakov had been the first to communicate with G-d more heavily through symbols, a ladder, animals in the field, but he had received verbal messages of plain meaning. Yosef does not appear to.

Though Yosef is defined by dreams, he only receives two of his own, as a teenager. The latter two sets of dreams are those of others, Egyptian ministers and Pharaoh, interpreted by him. These dreams are divided into three pairs of two. Each dream has a counterpart.

Yosef first dreams two dreams. Then each of Pharaoh's ministers dreams a single dream that Yosef interprets as referring to one event. And then Pharaoh dreams two dreams requiring a single interpretation. In all of these cases, Yosef is tasked with finding the unity in the duality of dreams.

There is however a curious difference between Yosef's own dreams and those of the Egyptians.

The dreams of the Egyptian leaders are practical. These dreams are filled with numbers. Their symbolism is slight. They lay out a timeline of days or years which are indicated by numbers.

Yosef's dreams contain no timeline. There is no significance in the number of stalks. The number of stars refer to the members of his family, not the number of years it will take to realize this vision.

And here lies the fundamental difference.

Yosef's dreams were visions of faith while those of the Egyptians were practical guidelines. Where Yosef's dreams were not bound by time, the complexity of tribal alliances and affinities would continue long past the death of Yosef and his brothers, and cross deep into Jewish history over a thousand years later as Yehuda and Binyamin formed a common kingdom, while Ephraim, Yosef's son, split away, those of the Egyptian leaders were meant for the very near future.

Where Yosef had a destiny measured in centuries and millennia, the Egyptians he dealt with had little faith to carry them forward for longer than the days or, at most years, it would take to see it come true.

For the Egyptians, G-d offered little more than fortune. Yosef however was gifted with the opportunity to carry on a faith without any timeline. It was his challenge to continue to believe, even under the stone roof of a prison, even in darkness and chains, that his visions would be realized.

Without a direct verbal communication from G-d, he, the first of the descendants of Avraham, was called on to have faith in what he had never been directly told. He was the first true exile, both from man and from G-d.

We are told that at the very end of his life, Yaakov wished to reveal to his sons how much longer the exile would last, and was prevented from doing so by Divine intervention. Faith is not meant to be numbered in years.

Of Yosef's two dreams, only one contains numbers. That is the dream of the stars, the sun and the moon, not the dream of the harvest. We do not conduct censuses or count in earthly matters. We count only when numbering the minyan, the number of the sacred quorum, in the service of G-d.

Faith requires us not to count the years, but to number only when celebrating the glory of G-d. It does not reveal to us the practical matters of the near future, the harvests or life and death, but our ultimate purpose. Astrology, we are told in the Bible, is for others. It is not meant for us. We do not see our fate in the stars. We do not number ourselves and limit ourselves to those numbers. We do not count the years. We serve G-d and await the fulfillment of His dream.