Before Joseph was a dream interpreter, he was a dreamer. As a young lad Joseph dreams about binding sheaves in the field with his brothers when suddenly his sheaf stood up and remained upright and the other sheaves gathered around and bowed low to his. Joseph shares the dream with his brothers, but he leaves the interpretation to them – it is they who ask him whether he means to rule over them. Then Joseph shares another dream with his brothers, this time about the sun, moon, and eleven stars bowing down to him. Once again, he is the dreamer, and they are the interpreters. His brothers interpret the dream cruelly and mockingly, and the spark of anger that had been kindled when Jacob gave Joseph an ornamented tunic flares when the brothers catch sight of Joseph approaching them at Dothan: “Here comes that dreamer” (Gen. 37:19), they sneer, resolving to throw him into a pit.
Joseph’s dreams land him in one pit, but his ability to interpret dreams gets him out of another. He is like the pestering little kid obsessed with robots who grows up to land a top job at Google. By the time he has become a young man, he has shifted from annoying kid brother to grand vizier in Egypt, and from amateur dreamer to professional dream interpreter.
The Talmud discusses this transformation in Joseph’s life as part of an extended discussion of dream interpretation in the final chapter of tractate Berakhot. Rabbi Bena’a declares that “all dreams follow the mouth of the interpreter” (56a) – that is, meaning is to be found in the interpretation and not in the dream itself. He relates that he once had a dream and took it to all twenty-four of the dream interpreters working in Jerusalem at the time. Each one interpreted the dream differently, and yet all the interpretations proved accurate.
Rabbi Bena’a does not base this claim only on anecdotal evidence, but also on a verse from Genesis: “And it came to pass, as he interpreted, so it was” (41:13) These words are spoken by the chief cupbearer, who reports to Pharaoh that his fellow prisoner Joseph had accurately interpreted both his dream and the dream of the baker imprisoned with them. Pharaoh understands the cupbearer’s words to mean that Joseph is a skilled dream interpreter who should be released from prison and employed in the royal court; but Rabbi Bena’a understands these words to mean that it was Joseph’s interpretation—and not the dream itself—that determined the fate of each dreamer.
While we cannot control our dreams, we do have some control over how we respond to them. Rav Hisda states that “a dream which is not interpreted is like a letter which is not read” (55a) – implying that a dream is like a coded message transmitted from a sender, perhaps God, but that the dream cannot have any effect until it is deciphered. One way of deciphering a dream is by reciting a particular biblical verse in which an image from the dream appears. For instance, the rabbis teach that one who sees himself shaving in a dream should rise early and recite the verse that describes the reversal of Joseph’s fortune when Pharaoh sent for him out of prison: “And he shaved himself, and he changed his clothes, and he appeared before Pharaoh” (Gen. 41:14). If the dreamer fails to recite this verse quickly enough, the rabbis add, another verse might become the reality instead: “If I be shaven, then my strength will go from me, and I shall be weak” (Judges 16:17). The rabbis imply that whether the dreamer rises to greatness like Joseph or meets a tragic demise like Samson depends on the words invoked to interpret the dream.
If the significance of a dream is determined by how it is interpreted, then a dream is not all that different from waking life – it is not about what happens to us, but about what we make of it. Just as we have some degree of control over the way we respond to and interpret our dreams, we have some degree of control over the way we respond to the events in our lives. This is a lesson exemplified by Joseph, who was the ultimate self-made man. Though he was rejected by his brothers and taken for dead by his father, he succeeded in becoming the second most important man in Egypt, saving the country from famine.
At the end of his life, Joseph’s brothers try to interpret his life in one way – they offer to become his slaves as punishment for treating him so cruelly as a child and causing years of estrangement. But Joseph rejects this interpretation, insisting to his brothers that “though you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result” (50:20). May we learn from Joseph to respond to the events in our lives in a way that our dreams, too, come true.