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Of all the notable Jewish leaders since time immemorial, Joseph yields the greatest relative influence on the world at large. Certainly, other leaders have held positions of great power, however, Joseph was the viceroy of Egypt when it was unquestionably the greatest civilisation of the time. Yet this illustrious leader also spends many of his years in far-from-illustrious contexts, left for dead in a pit, as a servant in a foreign house and as a prisoner in jail.
A recurring theme at major points of Joseph’s life, which may shed light on the trials and tribulations of this unique leader, is that of his dreams. Dreams offer us the ability to perceive beyond our present condition. If we trace Joseph’s unique and unusual abilities involving dreams at different ages and stages, it is possible to see how his dreams as a young boy ultimately carved out the reality of his life.
Joseph begins as an immature youth (Rashi on Gen. 37:2), with ostentatious visions that reflect an existence that is entirely self-centred. First, he dreams within the agricultural setting, of sheaves, with his family bowing down to him. He then moves on to the skies, whereby his family, represented by the sun, moon and eleven stars, again prostrate themselves before him (37:7-9). When he relates these dreams to his family, his father scolds him and his brothers’ jealousy increases, leading to the beginning of his downfall. His brothers throw him into a pit and sell him into a slavery that leads him into one of Egypt’s jails. In the jail cell, Joseph encounters two of Pharaoh’s courtiers – the butler and baker, both of whom had nightmares that distress them greatly (40:5-6). This is stage two of Joseph’s dream encounters. This time however, he uses his abilities very differently and rather than using his skills to interpret his own dreams, he interprets the dreams of others, alleviating their confusion and offering valuable insights into the inner workings of their minds.
Throughout this process Joseph undergoes dramatic contextual changes, from being his father’s favourite in his own home, to an estranged slave in an alien land. A change of context can often be the greatest catalyst for a change of self, and though Joseph endures seemingly traumatic experiences, each one leaves an imprint on him for the better, leading to a distinct maturing over time. Each dream interpretation serves as a rung on his ladder of growth. Though boasting of his dreams to his brothers leads to his downfall, his act of deciphering the butler’s dream in the Egyptian jail ultimately leads to his redemption.
When Joseph dreams of himself at the epicentre of his existence, with others serving and bowing to him, he hits rock bottom. But when Joseph uses his talents to serve others rather than himself, placing their dreams at the centre rather than his own, he begins a journey of self-renewal that culminates in success. And eventually, Joseph is brought before Pharaoh in a final attempt to shed light on the King’s troubling dreams. It is this final interpretation that ultimately launches him into the highest possible position he can attain – that of the viceroy of Egypt.
It seems that if we aspire toward success by self-centered means we may never reach it. But when we interpret the nightmares of others into dreams, and help them realize their subconscious aspirations, the world becomes our ‘oyster’. Through Joseph’s realization and evolving use of his unique talent, it becomes apparent that redeeming others is the ultimate key to self-redemption and illuminating their dreams can carry us all beyond our wildest dreams.