“Some writers flatly assert that dreams know nothing of moral obligations; others as decidedly declare that the moral nature of man persists even in his dream–life.” Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams
After interpreting Pharaoh’s dream prophesizing the demise of Egypt as the will of God, with a degree of autonomy that we have yet to see, Joseph applies his own thought process and looks beyond interpretation. Pharaoh’s dream predicts doom and destruction that will overtake years of plenty; but it is Joseph who sees beyond the prophecy to a solution. “Accordingly, let Pharaoh find a man of discernment and wisdom, and set him over the land of Egypt. And let Pharaoh take steps to appoint overseers over the land, and organize the land of Egypt in the seven years of plenty” (Genesis 41:33, 34).
Joseph has used his God–given charisma to interpret Pharaoh’s dream just as he had interpreted the cup–bearer’s, the chief baker’s, and his own; however, here, for the first time, he looks beyond the prophesized future for a solution that will preserve the success of Egypt.
We see Joseph’s character growing — not only interpreting, but solving. If Joseph would have interpreted Pharaoh’s dream as he interpreted the chief baker’s dream, Egypt’s future would have been dismal. Joseph has seen beyond the ordained future and has emerged as a leader who can manage the impending emergency. There is no doubt as to why Pharaoh has chosen him to direct the effort to save Egypt.
His appointment is effective; Egypt is saved and Joseph becomes a respected leader throughout the land. Would that the rest of his tenure reflected his new depth of character!
The famine that would have ravaged Egypt laid waste to the surrounding nations, and all came to this new leader for counsel — including Joseph’s brothers. In an act that has surprised commentators for generations, Joseph maintains his anonymity when they come to bow at his feet and beg for food. “When Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them but he acted like a stranger toward them and spoke harshly to them” (42:7).
The exchange that unfolds is troubling at best. Coming face to face with his brothers, and in a sequence of events that we assume is retribution for their behavior toward him, Joseph verbally assaults his brothers, labeling them spies and calling into question the sincerity of their request.
Tucked in the middle of this torrent of anger, the text presents a glance into Joseph’s consciousness: “Recalling the dreams that he had dreamed about them” (42:9). This insertion, Rashi posits, is Joseph recognizing that his childhood dreams have been fulfilled. Here are his brothers, bowing before him as had been prophesized.
In an attempt to justify Joseph’s subsequent troubling actions, though, Ramban disagrees with Rashi, stating Joseph’s childhood dreams are not yet fulfilled. Commenting on “recalling the dreams” (42:9), Ramban states:
Since he saw that Benjamin was not with them, he devised the strategy to bring Benjamin down to Egypt and thus realize the first dream [where the eleven brothers bowed down to Joseph in Genesis 37:7]… After the first dream had been realized, he revealed his identity in order to realize the second dream [where his father bowed down as well in Genesis 37:9]. Otherwise, we would have to think that Joseph committed a grave sin inflicting pain on his father by allowing him to suffer an unnecessarily prolonged bereavement for him and Simeon. For even if he wished to make his brothers suffer, he should at least have had pity on his father’s old age. (Ramban on 42:9)
Ramban’s interpretation excuses Joseph’s actions — he is exacting justice on his brothers, an understandable action, and creating two separate scenarios where both of his childhood dreams can be fulfilled. The first dream is fulfilled when all eleven of his brothers (including Benjamin) bow down to him, and the second dream is fulfilled when his father joins them. Carefully orchestrating the scenarios, Joseph realizes both dreams.
But what happened to the Joseph who had saved Egypt through his bold leadership? The recollection of his childhood dreams revived his immature intellect. The Joseph who had looked beyond interpretation to a solution to the looming famine in Egypt dissolved in a moment in the presence of his brothers. Ramban develops a Joseph who is verily obsessed with the realization of his childhood dreams, plotting and scheming without a thought of how his plans impact others.
As a leader, Joseph had developed a plan that saved Egypt. As a leader, Joseph was entrusted with the well–being of the nation and had delivered. However, his moral fiber could not cope with his personal emotions — his moral leadership crumbled when truly put to the test.
While we had been impressed with the Joseph who emerged a leader after the famine, his actions now demonstrate the stark difference between leadership and moral leadership. Leadership is easy; any lemming can be a leader. Moral leadership incorporates how we relate to others and how we lead them.
The emotions that welled up at the interaction with his brothers eclipsed Joseph’s ability to lead morally. He did not look beyond the simple interpretation of his dreams as he did with Pharaoh. He did not declare a destiny beyond the dream. Instead, Joseph acts with blatant disregard for all in his overwhelming need to realize his personal dream. It is his obsession with his personal needs that prevents him from applying his wisdom to his own situation.
Joseph’s behavior comes to teach us how easily moral leadership can deteriorate when personal motives eclipse global concerns.
The publication and distribution of the JTS commentary on Parashat Mi-ketz are made possible by a generous gift from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.