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Who Was Meant to Bow? (Vayeshev)

Note: The following is a brief write up of some ideas to be presented this Shabbos at Congregation Ahavas Achim in Highland Park, NJ. For the accompanying source sheet with cited references, please click here. 

And Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. He said to them, “Listen to this dream that I dreamed. There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood stationed upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.” His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?” So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words. He had another dream, and told it to his brothers, saying, “Look, I have had another dream: the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him, and said to him, “What kind of dream is this that you have had? Shall we indeed come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow to the ground before you?” So his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind (Gen. 37:5-11).

Did Yosef’s dreams predict that his brothers would one day bow down to him? That’s certainly how the dreams ultimately played out—but maybe that’s not how they had to play out. After all, the Gemara tells us that “a dream not interpreted is like a letter not read.” Rashi explains: if a dream remains without interpretation then “it cannot be fulfilled for either good or bad, since all dreams follow their interpretation.” Indeed, it was precisely from the story of Yosef’s dreams that R. Elazar derived the principle, “all dreams follow the mouth of the interpreter.” And the Malbim applies this principle explicitly to Yosef’s dreams, arguing that Yosef shared the dreams with his brothers not because he sought to proclaim himself their eventual ruler, but rather because “he assumed that his brothers loved him, and believed that they would offer a favorable interpretation of his dreams, inasmuch as ‘all dreams follow the mouth.’”

Perhaps, then, Yosef’s dreams could have unfolded differently, had they only been interpreted differently. But what would an alternative interpretation look like? Well, the Gemara tells us that “a person is only shown in his dream the thoughts of his heart [i.e. experiences based upon when he was awake].”[1] In other words, we tend to dream about things we’ve directly seen or experienced, and that are already on our minds for that reason. So if we want to know what Yosef’s dreams represented, maybe we should think about what might have inspired those dreams, in the first place.

Because here’s the thing: it so happens that Yosef and his brothers had been involved in a real-life “bowing scene” only a few chapters before Yosef dreamt his dreams—they had all been forced to bow low before their father’s brother, Esav. Indeed, suggests a Midrash in Pesikta Rabbati, Yosef was uniquely troubled by this event: he was the last of the brothers to prostrate himself, and, in an act of protest, he broke with the usual procedure, insisting on advancing before his mother, so as to spare her the humiliation of bowing unguarded before Esav.

bigstock-Grass-Fire-516231_0That same Midrash makes a fascinating claim: it claims that because Yosef resisted Esav in this way, Yosef merited that Esav would one day “fall” before him. Nor is this the only Midrash which advances such a claim. The Gemara in Bava Batra (cited by Rashi in Chumash) puts forward a similar claim in explaining the timing of Yaakov’s journey towards Esav: Yaakov left Lavan’s house and journeyed towards Esav only after Yosef’s birth, the Gemara contends, because “Jacob our patriarch foresaw that the descendants of Esau will be delivered only to the hand of the descendants of Joseph.” How does the Gemara know this about Yosef? For proof, it cites from the prophecies of Ovadiah, which are read as the Haftorah on the same week that we read of Yaakov’s family bowing before Esav: “And the house of Jacob shall be a fire, and the house of Joseph a flame, and the house of Esau for straw…” [2]

We’ll come back to Ovadiah’s prophecy in its own right shortly, since it’s going to prove pretty relevant for us. First, though, we need to return to an earlier prophecy. Because all this business about the “bowing” taking place between Yaakov and Esav and their descendants—now that we find ourselves discussing it, it’s worth pointing out that it doesn’t begin in the Midrash. It doesn’t even begin in the book of Ovadiah. Actually, it was twice foretold in the book of Bereshit: once by Hashem, to the mother of Yaakov and Esav; and once by their father, Yitzchak. To Rivkah, Hashem had revealed: “Two peoples are in your womb, and two nations born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.” And to Yaakov (then disguised as Esav), Yitzchak had promised: “Let peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you; be lord over your brothers, and may your mother’s sons bow down to you.”

The plain meaning of these prophecies, issued in Parshat Toldot, is that Esav’s descendants are destined to bow before those of his brother, Yaakov. But as we saw, that’s not what happens when the two brothers meet up again, in Parshat Vaiyshlach. Instead, it is Yaakov and his children who bow before Esav. And so we can certainly appreciate that this experience would have troubled Yosef. Not only was it painful for the reasons that the Midrash highlights; it was painful also because it represented a stark subversion of the way things were “supposed” to be.

In the moment, of course, Yosef could do little more than stage a symbolic protest. But imagine what must have been running through Yosef’s head, then, and thereafter, as this scene played itself out over and over again. One day, he surely believed, it would not be like this. One day, it will not be we who bow to Esav, but Esav who bows to us. And why shouldn’t it be? One is certainly permitted to dream, isn’t he?

In fact, that may be exactly what Yosef did.

See, when we come to Yosef’s dreams with this background in mind, their details suddenly point in all sorts of directions we’d never considered. The eleven sheaves, the eleven stars—maybe they represent Yosef’s eleven brothers, as we usually assume. But could they have represented a different set of eleven men: the eleven chieftains of Esav, perhaps, who just so happen to be listed immediately preceding the account of Yosef’s dreams?

sheaves_in_field_lancaster_countyTo figure this out, let’s think about some of the other symbolism at play here. “And behold,” Yosef recounts, “we were binding sheaves in the field.” Ever wonder—why sheaves? Yosef’s brothers were shepherds, so the most natural symbol we would expect to find representing them would probably have been sheep. Sheaves of grain, though—who might that more naturally allude too? Well, recall Ovadiah’s prophecy: “And the house of Jacob shall be a fire, and the house of Joseph a flame, and the house of Esau for straw…” In the symbolic schema of Biblical prophecy, Esav is the one regularly associated with straw. Indeed, the Midrash traces this association quite far back, asserting that it was by inquiring about the correct manner in which to tithe straw that Esav duped his father into regarding him as righteous. All this is certainly instructive to think about in light of the sheaves of grain which bow down to Yosef in his dreams.

Equally instructive, perhaps, is the terminology used to refer to these sheaves: “and behold we were bundling sheaves—והנה אנחנו מאלמים אלמים.” Several commentators point out how rare it is to refer to sheaves of grain with the term “אלמים.” Outside of Yosef’s dreams, this term appears in one only other place in Tanach (think of the Shir Hamaalot we recite before Birkat Hamazon—“נשא אלמתיו”). And there, it appears in the feminine form: אלמת. Why, then, use such an unwieldy expression here?

Well, try saying the words “מאלמים אלמים” a few times fast. Sound like anything we’ve heard before? How about that prophecy issued about Yaakov and Esav only a few Parshas earlier: “Two peoples are in your womb, and two nations [לאמים] born of you shall be divided; the one nation shall be stronger than the other nation [ולאם מלאם יאמץ], the elder shall serve the younger;” “Let peoples serve you and nations [לאמים] bow down to you; be lord over your brothers, and may your mother’s sons bow down to you.” Might it be to this that Yosef’s dreams allude? “והנה אנחנו מאלמים אלמים”—together, we were gathering the leaders of Esav’s tribes—the members of the “straw nation”—to make them reap what they had sowed…

downloadAnother aspect of the dream which may point in this direction is the location where this gathering takes place: in “the field.”  Granted, the field is where we would naturally expect such gathering to transpire. But that’s the thing: if grain harvests always occur in a field, why does Yosef have go out of his way to mention this detail? Maybe he’s just providing the setting. Yet maybe the image is more meaningful than that. Who, after all, is the one always associated with “the field” [שדה]? Esav, of course. He is dubbed the “man of the field” shortly after his birth. He sells his birthright to Yaakov upon returning famished from “the field.” He is sent to hunt in “the field” before receiving Yitzchak’s blessing (and his delay there is what allows Yaakov to seize that blessing instead). His clothes smell of “the field,” and it is this smell which leads Yitzchak to mistake Yaakov for him. And his territory is routinely referred to as “the field of Edom”—including in Parshat Vayishlach, when Yaakov sends messengers to Esav to initiate their fateful rendezvous. So perhaps it’s no coincidence that it is in “the field” where the sheaves bow down to Yosef.

And if that’s the case, then let’s now think about the other dream—the one with those stars. It’s true that Yaakov’s descendants are compared to the stars, and so they’re the intuitive fit here in terms of parsing the symbolism. Yet the image in this dream is quite specific: it’s an image of stars, yes, but more specifically, an image of stars being brought low. And thus, we might argue that the closest fit here actually brings us back—once again—to Esav. Because in that same prophecy from we’ve cited already, Ovadiah proclaims: “You [=Edom] say in your heart, “Who will bring me down to the ground?” Though you soar aloft like the eagle, though your nest is set among the stars, from there I will bring you down, says the Lord…” In Bnei Yisrael’s prophetic conception, it is Esav who settles among the stars, boasting proudly that he will never come down. Ovadiah, of course, foresaw that Esav would indeed be brought down from those stars—but maybe Yosef had foreseen this too, generations earlier.

Nor is this the only significant detail about Esav which, though told to us later in Tanach, may actually trace its roots to Yosef’s dreams. To take another example: consider the way Yosef’s sheaf of grain announced its dominion over the other sheaves, in his first dream: “Suddenly, my sheaf rose and stationed itself upright” [קמה אלמתי וגם נצבה]. If we’re correct that these sheaves represent Esav’s descendants (or, more accurately, that they had the potential to represent Esav’s descendants, had they been interpreted this way), then we cannot help but marvel at the similarity between the way Yosef’s sheaf asserts itself in this dream, and the way the Jewish king would one day demonstrate dominion over Esav’s descendants, upon ultimately subduing their forces:  “And he placed stationed officials [נצבים] in Edom; throughout all of Edom he placed stationed officials [נצבים], and all of Edom became servants to David, and the Lord saved David wherever he went;” “Abishai son of Zeruiah struck down eighteen thousand Edomites in the Valley of Salt; he placed stationed officials [ניצבים] in Edom, and all the Edomites became subject to David, and the Lord gave David victory wherever he went.” The particular title of office taken by those who would one day establish Bnei Yisrael’s sovereignty over Esav echoes the posture of authority taken by Yosef over the sheaves in his dream—one more clue that this dream may have been hinting towards Esav all along.

horror-blood-water-texture-with-waves-745.jpgConsider also the image of the sun prostrating to Yosef, in his second dream. Who might the red sun represent, if not the man named for redness—Edom himself? “The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau;” “Esau said to Jacob, ‘Let me eat some of that red, red, stuff, for I am famished!’ Therefore he was called Edom [=the ‘Red One’].” But the symbolism is more specific still, because the dream tells us that the sun “bowed” down—and sure enough, Edom did experience a downfall, later in Tanach, through the sun coming down. During a particular war with Bnei Yisrael, Hashem caused the red rays of the sun to reflect in a pool of water such that the water appeared to the Edomites as though it were blood. Taking this for the blood of Bnei Yisrael, the Edomites marched towards Bnei Yisrael prepared to pounce upon the spoils of their enemy. Instead, they found themselves summarily vanquished—all because of the way the sun from above had cast itself down below. (Some readings of this episode even suggest that Edomite king’s firstborn son was sacrificed [by the Moavites] during the battle; if true, this would of course represent a unique twist in the ongoing saga over firstborn rights that fueled the original conflict between Yaakov and Esav).

Here’s yet another interesting twist that emerges from that particular battle: the way it incorporates the motif of “circling.” We mentioned that the Edomites during this battle had fallen for an optical illusion produced by a pool of water. Before they found that pool of water, however, those Edomites spent seven days “circling” [ויסבו] the desert of Edom in search of something to drink. This may remind you of an earlier incident in which Bnei Yisrael were forced to circle the land of Edom—shortly after being freed from slavery—because the Edomites would neither grant them water nor permit them passage through to the land of Canaan: “They journeyed from Mount Hor by way of the Red Sea to circle [לסבב] the land of Edom, and the people became disheartened because of the way;” “Then we turned and journeyed into the desert by way of the Red Sea, as the Lord had spoken to me, and we circled [ונסב] Mount Seir for many days; then the Lord spoke to me, saying, ‘That’s enough of your circling [סב] this mountain…’” As these episodes highlight, the interactions between Yaakov and Esav are often marked by “circling” or “travelling roundabout.” Perhaps this symbolizes the cyclical dynamic of power in which these two peoples struggle against each other; perhaps it symbolizes the circuitous way in which each side attempts to avoid confronting the other until it confidently enjoys the upper hand. Either way, the motif is notable for our purposes because it, too, appears in Yosef’s dreams, and is attractive to connect in this vein: “And behold, your sheaves circled around [תסבינה], and bowed to my sheave.”[3]

With that, then, we too come full circle. And what we’ve seen, when we put it all together, is that there’s a lot in these dreams which might have enabled an alternative interpretation than the one conventionally assumed. This is not to suggest that every aspect of the dreams can be meaningfully linked with Esav or his descendants, mind you; in particular, the moon of the second dream seems difficult to connect this way.[4] But then again, the Gemara assures us: “Just as it is impossible for the grain to grow without straw, so too it is impossible to dream without meaningless matters.” Indeed, the primary example which Chazal adduce in support of this claim is none other than the moon in Yosef’s dreams—because even in the traditional account of those dreams, it seems out of place.[5] As Rashi explains: if the stars represent Yosef’s brothers and the sun represents Yosef’s father, then the moon should represent his mother—but by this point, his mother had already passed away.

Either way that this dream would have been interpreted, then, parts of it would have remained ambiguous.[6] But if dreams really do “follow the mouth”—and if the Malbim’s correct in claiming that Yosef was actually inviting his brothers to offer their interpretations of his—then, as we’ve shown here, there was ample room for an alternative. Yosef’s brothers needn’t have understood his dreams to mean he’d rule over them. Perhaps the dreams could have been interpreted to mean that all brothers would work together (granted, with Yosef at the lead—as the Midrash infers, he had, after all, led the initial protest) to reverse Esav’s supremacy over them.

636px-Messinese_GoatTragically, Yosef’s brothers chose a different path: “They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer; Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams…” These brothers, it turns out, knew well that they possessed the power to affect the outcome of these dreams. But they used that power perniciously, trying to silence the dreamer rather than articulate the meaning of his dream in a way that might have resonated with them all.

And they did so in the most ironic of ways: by stripping Yosef of his ornamented cloak. By rights, Yosef should have used that cloak to overcome Esav; indeed, the Midrash posits, this cloak was none other than “Esav’s best garments,” which Yaakov had seized when he claimed Esav’s blessings from him.[7] But the moment that the brothers dashed Yosef’s mantle with the blood of a “hairy-goat” [שעיר], they also dashed any hope that his dreams would find fulfilment through triumph over the “hairy-people” of Seir [שעיר]. Now that Yosef’s cloak had been tainted by the redness of blood, Yosef could no longer use it to vanquish the man-of-redness: Edom.

To write a happier ending, the brothers had merely to exercise the power of imagination. So it is for us as well. For, as Chazal taught us, “dreams follow the mouth.” Destiny is not decreed from on high; though much of life lies outside of our control, we do in fact retain a significant say in how things ultimately unfold. And when the reality facing us doesn’t seem to line up with our visions and ideals, it doesn’t mean that we need to lower our heads in submission. It just means we need to dream a little larger.

Shabbat shalom!

[1] That same Gemara proceeds to tell a story of a certain sage who correctly predicted the dreams of the Roman emperor on the basis of this principle. The fact that this story is told about the emperor of Rome, specifically (Rome representing the archetypical progeny of Edom) may be interesting to think about in light of the forthcoming analysis.

[2] In the cycle of communal Torah reading, this Haftorah is situated right between the end of Vayishlach (the Parshah it appends) and Vayeshev (the next week’s Parshah). While not quite serving as the immediate literary context for Yosef’s dreams, then, Ovadiah’s prophecy does serve as a “liturgical” backdrop of sorts.

[3] Another intriguing read (though it’s lexically tenuous): What if the sheaves are not circling around (=surrounding) Yosef’s sheave, but instead circling back (=rotating) in his direction? That is: imagine, as it were, that Yosef’s dream picks up precisely where the “bowing scene” in front of Esav had left off. There, Yosef was at the rear, and all his brothers lay before him, prostrated before Esav. But now, the “circling” action might suggest, Yosef’s brothers each grab a sheaf—representing one of the chieftains of Esav—and then turn around towards Yosef, reversing the procession so that these sheaves now prostrate towards him.

[4] The best connection I could come up with relies upon the phonetic relationship between “ירח,” “moon,” and the famed “ריח,” “scent,” of Esav’s garments—but it remains personally unconvincing.

[5] Meanwhile, though, note the curious imagery employed by Yirmiyahu in the Gemara’s prooftext for this principle: “Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream; and let him who has received My word report My word faithfully! Why does the wheat need the straw?—says the Lord. Behold, My word is like fire, declares the Lord…” Straw and fire… Where have we seen that combination before?

[6] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks makes the point that all Biblical prophecy functions this way, in a highly recommended essay whose starting point is—most fittingly—the prophecy Rivkah receives concerning Yaakov and Esav. There, he writes:

The present is never fully determined by the present. Sometimes it is only later that we understand now. This is the significance of the great revelation of G-d to Moses in Shemot 33:33, where G-d says that only His back may be seen – meaning, His presence can be seen only when we look back at the past; it can never be known or predicted in advance. The indeterminacy of meaning at any given moment is what gives the biblical text its openness to ongoing interpretation…

The words ve-rav yaavod tsair seem simple: “the older will serve the younger.” Returning to them in the light of subsequent events, though, we discover that they are anything but clear. They contain multiple ambiguities… The third [such ambiguity]—not part of the text but of later tradition—is the musical notation. The normal way of notating these three words would be mercha-tipcha-sof pasuk. This would support the reading, “the older shall serve the younger.” In fact, however, they are notated tipcha-mercha-sof pasuk—suggesting, “the older, shall the younger serve”; in other words, “the younger shall serve the older.” …The subtlety is such that we do not notice it at first. Only later, when the narrative does not turn out as expected, are we forced to go back and notice what at first we missed: that the words Rebecca heard may mean “the older will serve the younger” or “the younger will serve the older.”

A number of things now become clear… The second – and this is fundamental to an understanding of Bereishit – is that the future is never as straightforward as we are led to believe…

[7] Actually, the Torah twice associates Esav with cloaks-of-sorts: he emerges from the womb “entirely covered in a cloak of hair;” and it is Esav’s “best garments” which Yaakov wears to compensate for his own lack of hair when he presents himself to his father, Yitzchak, disguised as Esav.


  1. Sam Larson says:

    WOW! Amazing stuff. It reminded me about a shiur Rav Asher gave about how the dreams could have meant something else. I think it had to do with the sheaves of wheat representing how the borthers would have to rely on Yosef for physical sustenance/food and the stars represented how Yosef would become a leader among the Egyptians.

  2. E Kupferberg says:

    Fascinating! It’s possible that the brothers also picked up on the evocation of ולאם מלאם but interpreted it differently. One common line of commentary is that the brothers were worried that the motif of the chosen younger son and the rejected older son was replaying itself in their family due to Yaakov’s favoritism of Yosef, and it could be that the reference to the prophecy that foretold the alternating fraternal supremacy of ולאם מלאם יאמץ only served to reinforce their perception. Yet, despite the verbal similarity and even the thematic reappearance of intra-fraternal supremacy in the form of the bowing bundles, there is a marked difference between Yosef’s dream and the earlier prophecy precisely in this evocation. מאלמים אלמים first appears in a context of fraternal unity: והנה אנחנו מאלמים אלמים. The stage upon which one brother rises is one of unity, in contrast to the immediate divide that characterized the Yaakov-Esav dynamic: ושני “לאמים” ממעיך יפרדו. Yosef’s ascendancy, unlike Yaakov’s, was not inevitably accompanied by the downfall of his brother(s), but placed within the context of a shared fraternal purpose. But the brothers, as you point out, didn’t focus on the underlying unity of מאלמים אלמים and the way it could be interpreted as a united front in the subjugation of Esav, but instead had their fear of rejection control their interpretation and let it be consumed by the aspect of their own fraternal inferiority.

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