This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Pnina Grossman
In the story of Yosef and his brothers, dreams cast a long shadow. These dreams are also a completely new type of dream from what we have previously seen in Sefer Breishit. Up to this point, the Torah has only mentioned dreams as a form of communication. If a dream came up, it was because G-d was talking to someone inside the dream (see for example בראשית כ:ג, לא:כד). Suddenly, we hear about the nonsensical visions that all types of people are having on various nights – stars and sheaves, vines and birds, cows and wheat doing unnatural things with no omniscient presence explaining why.
Divine communication itself also seems to be in short stock – from the time Yaakov settles in Canaan, we do not see G-d communicating directly with him (or anyone) until Yaakov is on his way down to Egypt to reunite with Yosef. G-d is present – He helps Yosef succeed in Egypt and punishes Yehuda’s two wicked sons. However, we do not see Him tell Yosef the explanation of Pharoh’s dreams. Nor does He tell Yehuda that his sons died for their own sins, not the bad luck of his daughter-in-law. In contrast with Yaakov’s exit from Lavan’s house, it seems that Yaakov must make his own decision about when to send his sons to get food in Egypt during the famine.
Instead of people in this story being told what to do or what any end goals are, they seem to be subtly led in a certain direction, oftentimes by these outrageous dreams. The dream of the Sar HaMashkim leads to Yosef standing before Pharoh, interpreting his dream, which, in turn, leads to the absurd situation of a foreign prisoner and ex-slave becoming the second-in-command of a powerful nation. Arguably, Yosef’s own dreams at the beginning of the story exacerbate his own brothers’ jealousy and resentment of him, leading him to end up in Egypt. Note that while plotting to kill him, Yosef’s brothers disdainfully call him “בעל החלומות,” “the master of dreams.”
This end goal is one that would be surprising to anyone not familiar with the previous stories, or those coming after. Yaakov and his sons must end up in Egypt. This is clear from the upcoming Exodus story, but also from the still looming promise that G-d gave to Avraham:
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר לְאַבְרָ֗ם יָדֹ֨עַ תֵּדַ֜ע כִּי־גֵ֣ר ׀ יִהְיֶ֣ה זַרְעֲךָ֗ בְּאֶ֙רֶץ֙ לֹ֣א לָהֶ֔ם וַעֲבָד֖וּם וְעִנּ֣וּ אֹתָ֑ם אַרְבַּ֥ע מֵא֖וֹת שָׁנָֽה׃ וְגַ֧ם אֶת־הַגּ֛וֹי אֲשֶׁ֥ר יַעֲבֹ֖דוּ דָּ֣ן אָנֹ֑כִי וְאַחֲרֵי־כֵ֥ן יֵצְא֖וּ בִּרְכֻ֥שׁ גָּדֽוֹל׃ וְאַתָּ֛ה תָּב֥וֹא אֶל־אֲבֹתֶ֖יךָ בְּשָׁל֑וֹם תִּקָּבֵ֖ר בְּשֵׂיבָ֥ה טוֹבָֽה׃ וְד֥וֹר רְבִיעִ֖י יָשׁ֣וּבוּ הֵ֑נָּה כִּ֧י לֹא־שָׁלֵ֛ם עֲוֺ֥ן הָאֱמֹרִ֖י עַד־הֵֽנָּה׃ (בראשית טו:יג-טז)
And He said to Abram, “Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years; but I will execute judgment on the nation they shall serve, and in the end they shall go free with great wealth. As for you, You shall go to your fathers in peace; You shall be buried at a ripe old age. And they shall return here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” (Translation from Sefaria)
The first time we do see G-d communicate directly with Yaakov again, it is to tell him “אַל־תִּירָא֙ מֵרְדָ֣ה מִצְרַ֔יְמָה כִּֽי־לְג֥וֹי גָּד֖וֹל אֲשִֽׂימְךָ֥ שָֽׁם׃” “Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation” (בראשית מו:ג). Chizkuni points out, “אין אומרים אל תירא אלא למי שהוא מתיירא” “you only say ‘fear not’ to someone who is afraid.” Yaakov’s fear, according to the Chizkuni, was that his going to Egypt would precipitate the coming enslavement of his children there. In other words, a justified fear, but G-d still reassures Yaakov
באתי לך להבטיחך אם קרבו ימי שעבוד ועינוי גם קרבה הברכה שברכתי את זקנך ואעשך לגוי גדול. היינו כי לגוי גדול אשימך שם. (חזקוני על בראשית מו:ג)
I have come to you to promise you, if the days of enslavement and suffering are drawing close, the days of the blessing that I blessed your ancestors with ‘and I will make you a great nation’ are also drawing close. This is ‘for I will make you there into a great nation’
R Elhanan Samet points out that there is a certain irony to G-d reassurance as interpreted by the Chizkuni. By promising that Yaakov will become a great nation in Egypt, He is also confirming Yaakov’s worst fears, that, indeed, Yaakov’s children will now be going down to Egypt for an amount of time where they could become a great nation. This is all but assuring that prophecy G-d gave to Avraham about his children being enslaved will be precipitated by the coming journey. G-d softens the blow by telling Yaakov that his descendants will make it through Egypt and talking about Yaakov’s personal reunification with his beloved son, but the dreaded fate of Yaakov’s children remains unchanged.
The promise that G-d made to Avraham itself came in the form of a dream of sorts, although the word חלום is not used, instead it is described as “וַיְהִ֤י הַשֶּׁ֙מֶשׁ֙ לָב֔וֹא וְתַרְדֵּמָ֖ה נָפְלָ֣ה עַל־אַבְרָ֑ם” “As the sun was about to set, a deep sleep fell upon Abram” (בראשית טו:יב; While highly anachronistic, it is worth noting that the same term is used when G-d puts Adam to sleep to effectively perform surgery on him in בראשית ב:כא). This could maybe also be seen as a softening, G-d placing Avraham in an almost anesthetized state to deliver the hard news about what his descendants will have to go through before they can be a nation. Once delivered, this prophecy was not repeated within the text to Yitzchak or to Yaakov. Perhaps the silence surrounding this decree also becomes the silence surrounding the events that lead up to its ultimate fulfillment. Right before G-d appears to Moshe, the Torah tells us ” וַיַּ֥רְא אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וַיֵּ֖דַע אֱלֹהִֽים” “G-d looked upon the Israelites, and G-d took notice of them” (שמות ב:כה). Rashi comments on this that “נָתַן עֲלֵיהֶם לֵב וְלֹא הֶעֱלִים עֵינָיו” “He directed His heart to them and did not hide His eyes from them.” Until this point, throughout all of the slavery in Egypt, G-d had to hide His eyes from what was happening to His people. Maybe, He had to hide some of Himself from what led them there as well.
Pnina Grossman is a former Sharon native and a 2012 SBM almuna. She now lives in Israel.