Genesis 41:1 – 44:17
Interpreting Dreams, Creating Reality
This Torah portion begins with Pharaoh’s famous dreams. First, seven cows come up from the Nile fat and sturdy, followed by seven cows sickly and gaunt; the latter eat the former. Then, seven ears of grain are solid and healthy, but are swallowed up by seven ears that are thin and scorched. Pharaoh wakes up anxious and summons his court diviners to interpret the dreams’ significance, but they are at a loss to explain what the dreams could mean. Pharaoh’s cupbearer, witnessing the scene, remembers that one of his former jail companions—Joseph—had a knack for dream interpretation. He immediately tells Pharaoh that a “Hebrew lad” had interpreted his and another cellmate’s dream successfully. But it is his specific choice of words that piqued my interest, when he says to Pharaoh: “And as he [Joseph] interpreted for us, so it came to be” (Gen. 41:13).
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of pre-state Israel, notes:
The Sages made a remarkable claim regarding dreams and their interpretation: ‘Dreams are fulfilled according to the interpretation’ [Talmud, Berachot 55b]. The interpreter has a key function in the realization of a dream; his analysis can determine how the dream will come to pass… Does the interpreter really have the power to determine the meaning of a dream and alter the future accordingly? (Gold From The Land of Israel, p.83)
Do dream interpreters and others who claim to have prescient gifts really tell the future; or do their interpretations plant seeds in our minds for a possible future that consciously or unconsciously we find ourselves moved to manifest? The suggestive power of words and stories can be so compelling, especially when we’re told what we want to hear, that we begin to look for what interpreters foretell. Consequently, a coincidence that we likely would have ignored reminds us tangentially of a piece of the prediction we heard, and what would normally recede in the foggy background of the non-essential moments of everyday life now takes center stage in the unfolding of our personal story.
But if this is the case, what does it say about Joseph? Was Joseph, in his youth, the clueless teenager he has often been painted to be? Did he really provoke his siblings’ jealousy and parents’ ire by naively sharing the dreams he had about them bowing down to him? Or did he do it connivingly, planting seeds in their minds of a future they couldn’t help but manifest? What about Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams? Did Joseph purposefully choose the interpretation he shared to create a de facto reality in the minds of the Egyptians, which ineluctably prompted Pharaoh to “hire” him for the job Joseph had just manifested for himself? Was this his premeditated ticket out of jail? If so, it may be that Joseph knew more about the human condition than we have given him credit for.
Perhaps this is a caution to us about our eagerness to believe the many manipulators who mold our perceptions to steer us their way. Perhaps the warning goes deeper yet, because what we call “reality” is, likewise, just our own interpretation of the events and data we register moment to moment. All we know is the interpretation, the story we tell ourselves about what happened or about what is; not reality itself. We live in the interpreted dream of our reality. Have you ever compared stories about an event you shared with someone? I ask soon-to-be-wedded couples to separately tell me the most important story of their life together: their meeting story. They often are astonished hearing the other recount a tale they don’t even recognize. We play and replay the account of what we think happened until we convince ourselves that our interpretation is the truth. We are the Joseph of our own lives: “As he interpreted… so it came to be.” Joseph’s story cautions us to always question the inner interpreter narrating our experience. It impels us to practice – as best we can – being with “what is” before we judge, compare, or assign it meaning. Cultivating such clear awareness of the present may lead us to wake up from our interpreted dreams.