Interpreting From The Outside

Joseph's status as an outsider, and the outsider status of the Jewish people, allow for critical insight into the deeper truths of the surrounding people and nations.

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It would seem that the dreamers themselves, locked into their own consciousness, their own assumptions, fears, and expectations, were unable to see the truth hidden in their dreams, in their unconscious, and therefore repressed it.

According to the Midrash, the crime of the butler was that a fly flew into the cup of wine he was serving Pharaoh. This was an accident, something the butler could not have prevented. His dream, in which he sees vines, grapes, and himself serving Pharaoh, reflects his inner conviction of his innocence, and this is how Joseph sees it.

The baker, on the other hand, served Pharaoh bread with a stone in it, which is something he could have prevented; hence his feeling of guilt, expressed in the negative imagery of his dream, which Joseph sees as prophesying his execution.

The modern understanding of dreams is that they are a way in which our unconscious talks to us, tells us what we know, but are unwilling or unable to consciously articulate. Perhaps the baker and the butler, in jail, disgraced, were too full of fear and shame to admit to the truth they deeply knew, their respective innocence and guilt. So Joseph, the outsider, not steeped in the protocol and ritual of the Egyptian court, is able to tell them--you are innocent, you will be freed. You are guilty; you will be executed.

When Pharaoh, the embodiment of Egypt, has his dreams of the fat and thin sheaves, the fat and thin cows, he is unable, for some reason, to come up with an interpretation. It is Joseph, the non-Egyptian, who plumbs the depths of Pharaoh's/Egypt's hidden fears: It is true that we are wealthy, a superpower, the richest empire on earth. But it won't, it can't, last forever. We are mortal. Ultimately, failure, hunger, famine are inevitable.

Admitting the Obvious

Joseph, in his interpretation of Pharaoh's dreams, allows him to admit this obvious but difficult truth, and then use whatever period of plenty Egypt is blessed with in order to prepare for an inevitable period of famine.

Pharaoh, and the Egyptians, cannot pretend that they are invincible, they must take precautions, and prepare for the worst. This is why Joseph's apparently obvious stratagem--store up extra food during the bountiful years for the lean ones--is seen as such a big deal: Egypt had repressed the very thought of the possibility of famine, and had no mechanism for preparing for it.

And earlier, back home in Canaan, as a boy, Joseph, the baby of the family, the spoiled son of an aged father, was able to sense, and express, his own strength, his own special abilities, his greatness. To talk about it was insulting and threatening to his older brothers, to the fabric of the family. The fact that he dreams of his own leadership qualities, and then TALKS about the dream to his brothers and father, indicates that Joseph was more in touch with his inner, unconscious feelings, and more willing to express them, than most people are.

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Rabbi Shimon Felix

Rabbi Shimon Felix is the Israel Director of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel. He lives with his family in Jerusalem, and has taught in a wide variety of educational frameworks in Israel and abroad.