Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 1 December 2018 / 23 Kislev 5779

Parshat Vayeshev

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Divisive Dreams

The parsha opens with a providential pair of dreams. Yosef first dreams of himself and his brothers working together, piling sheaves in the middle of the field. Then, Yosef’s sheaf arose and remained upright, while the brothers’ sheaves surrounded Yosef’s and bowed down to it. In the second dream, the sun, moon and eleven stars bowed down to Yosef.

Upon hearing these dreams, the brothers begin to hate Yosef and resent his aspirations to rule over them. But they did not yet fear him, because they did not believe that these wild dreams could ever come true. When they heard his second dream, which promised him not just a high rank within his own family but supreme authority over all the earth, and more, when they saw that their father did not take these dreams lightly, their envy was ignited.

More than mere envy, Yosef elicited a fearful response. The brothers were threatened by his intention to tower over them as king. And indeed, had Yosef’s future position been as they imagined, their future would have been in jeopardy. Not much time had passed since Nimrod introduced the concept of kingship. Their neighboring cousins — Esav’s children — were already enslaved to chiefs and kings. The brothers understood that this type of monarchy debases human dignity, turning individuals into building blocks in the edifice of one man’s ambition. The threat of a ruler emerging in their midst was not merely a threat to their personal rights, independence or honor. The entire society which the family of Yaakov was to build — a society rooted in freedom and equality, and the innate nobility of the individual — was in danger of being erased by Yosef’s dreams.

Immediately after hearing these dreams and their father’s interpretations, the brothers went far away to Shechem, some 85 kilometers from Hevron. In the verse that states that they went to Shechem to “tend to their sheep,” several dots appear on top of one of these words. According to the midrash, these dots indicate that they only pretended to go in order to tend the sheep, but in reality they went to “tend” themselves. They sought to preserve their independence.

It is noteworthy that they choose Shechem as the place to convene and assess the situation. The brothers have a history in Shechem. This was the city where the prince violated their sister Dina and then took her captive. In the first great show of brotherhood and solidarity, Shimon and Levi stood up for her honor and wiped out the city. Shechem is the site where they first demonstrated how a family will stand united as one when any one of its members is threatened by a foe. Then, it was one family member — Dina — being threatened by a foe from without. But here it is the entire family being threatened by a foe from within. This may be why they return to the site of fraternal solidarity to contemplate their next steps. Although the outcome may have been wrong, perhaps because of the personal hatred and jealousy that tainted their assessment, their essential motive was a good one. In fact, it reveals what they understood to be the inviolable foundations of the future nation: freedom, equality and the worth of every individual.

  • Sources: Commentary, Bereishet 37:7-12

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