Joseph's Dreams

December 11, 2011

5 min read


Vayeshev (Genesis 37-40 )

The measure of true greatness.

The Torah Portion begins with an account of the deterioration of the relationship between Joseph and his brothers. Joseph's two dreams played a very significant part in the increasing resentment of the brothers towards him. Close analysis of the dreams can provide us with more insight into how they caused such a rift amongst the brothers. The Beis HaLevi, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soleveitchik(1) notes that the Torah tells us after the first dream that the brothers hated Joseph, whereas after the second dream it does not state that they hated him, rather that they were jealous of him.(2) What is the reason for this difference?

The Beis HaLevi answers this by examining the dreams more carefully. In the first dream Yosef said that he and his brothers were in the field and that their sheaves stood up and bowed down to his sheave; he did not say that the brothers themselves bowed down to him. In contrast in the second dream he compared them to stars and related that they bowed down to him. In this dream the stars represented the brothers and that they themselves bowed directly to Yosef.(3)

The Beis HaLevi explains that the two dreams represented two separate areas in which the brothers would become subservient and inferior to Joseph. The sheaves in the first dream represented Yosef's future superiority over the brothers in the realm of success in this world (Olam Hazeh). The bowing of their sheaves to his indicated that they would be dependent upon him for their physical sustenance. However, success in the physical realm does not make a person intrinsically superior to others, rather it means that he has more possessions. Accordingly, a wealthy person is not on a higher level than a pauper. Based on this, the Beis HaLevi explains that in the first dream which represented gashmius (physicality), the brothers themselves did not show their subservience to Joseph, rather their physical possessions are shown to be inferior to those of their brother. In contrast the second dream refers to Yosef's future spiritual superiority over the brothers. Spiritual accomplishments do define the intrinsic greatness of a person. Accordingly, in the second dream, which represented ruchnius (spirituality), the brothers' themselves bowed to Joseph, indicating his inherent spiritual superiority over them.

With this understanding the Beis HaLevi answers the initial question of why after the first dream the brothers hated Joseph whereas following the second, they were jealous of him. Hatred results when one resents another person's actions, whereas jealousy arises when one feels inferior to his fellow. The brothers hated Joseph after the first dream because of its implication that they would need him for their sustenance and he would physically rule over them. However they were not jealous of him because the prospect of his greater wealth did not make them feel inferior to him. They saw physical attainment as something external to a person and therefore not worthy of jealousy. In contrast they were jealous of him after the second dream because that implied that he would be spiritually superior to them and this could indeed arouse their jealousy.

There are two very important lessons that can be derived from the Beis HaLevi's explanation. Firstly, we learn that the material possessions of a person are of no consequence with regard to his true greatness. A wealthy person may be deserving of respect,(4) but one should not envy his wealth because it does not represent a barometer of his real value. Only the spiritual level of a person determines the true greatness of a person and only that is worthy of envy.

It is very possible for a person to view his sense of importance in terms of his material possessions. One possible way of maintaining a correct perspective to material possessions is to look at what defines a great person in the Torah world. Wealth is of no significance in determining who is a 'Gadol b'Yisroel' (a term used to describe the greatest Torah scholars), indeed many Gedolim were extremely poor. What is important according to the Torah definition is the intrinsic spiritual greatness that a person attains. Reminding oneself of the qualities of our Gedolim can help us keep an accurate perspective of the insignificance of wealth to one's true greatness.

One indication that a person that is very attached to his physical belongings is that he looks at them as part of his very being. For example, a person's home may be so precious to him that any damage to it is equivalent in his eyes to damage to his own body. Another negative consequence of such an attitude is that a person who is so attached to the physical world can become a slave to it to the extent that it dictates his life in a damaging way. This was sadly evident in the years before the Holocaust in Germany. As the situation of the Jewish people in Germany deteriorated many Jews became increasingly aware of the need to escape. However, some of the wealthier Jews found it very difficult to leave their beautiful homes and possessions. Consequently far more poor Jews left Germany than their wealthy counterparts. Their attachment to their physical possessions proved fatally dangerous.(5)

We learn from the dreams of Joseph that the only true measure of greatness is spiritual accomplishment and not material gain. May we all merit to recognize and achieve genuine greatness.



1. A 19th Century Rabbi who is the ancestor of the famous Brisk dynasty.

2. Beis HaLevi, Parshas Vayeishev.

3. The Beis HaLevi writes that the stars represent the mazalot which are essential to the functioning of the world.

4. The Gemara states that Rebbe would give honor to wealthy people.



5. Heard from Rav Aaron Lopiansky shli"ta.

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