From The Riddle of the Bowing Moon

OF STRAIGHT SPINES AND KINGLY DEMEANORS*

It seems to me that anyone who has learned VaYeishev and studied the story of Yosef’s dreams must have sensed the presence of a huge question mark hovering over the entire episode. Why? Why? Why? Why tell the brothers? Why would Yosef, no longer a child but a brilliant youngster of seventeen, presumably capable of understanding the implications of his actions, have chosen to stoke the fires of an already smoldering hatred? Why share the dreams when these were sure to provoke the brothers further?

Moreover, what did the brothers think? Did they consider the dreams to be simply an expression of the wistful illusions of a youngster who spent his days fantasizing about a glory that could ever be his? Or did they share his conviction that these dreams were imbued with the clarity of true prophecy? If the former, why plot to kill him? We all eventually outgrow the castles in the air that dot the horizons of our childish imagination. Had the brothers never been young? Had their subconscious longings never expressed themselves in the hazy unreality of their own dream-worlds? If the latter, why not take the dreams seriously? Prophecy does not lie. Truth makes demands and has consequences. One does not change these by killing the messenger.

We should begin our analysis by working out the source of the brothers’ hatred. If we combine vs. 3 and 4, it would seem that it all started with the Kesones Pasim,the garment that Yaakov had made for Yosef.  Here are these two verses:

Now Yisrael loved Yosef more than all his brothers because Yosef was the son of his old age and [because of this] made him a Kesones Pasim.

His brothers realized that he was Yaakov’s favorite and [therefore] hated him. They were unable to talk to him with civility.

This is plain enough. Nevertheless, it seems to me that there was, at least potentially, an earlier source of friction. As Yaakov was preparing for the ominous confrontation with Eisav, he organized his family in such a manner that Rochel and Yosef, the most beloved, were placed in the least dangerous spot (Bereishis 33:2). We can imagine that the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, who were most exposed, and even Leah’s sons, who came after them but were still less protected than Yosef, would have resented the apparent favoritism. Why did the brothers not start hating Yosef then?

We may suggest two possible answers. In the first place, the arrangement which Yaakov made positioned each of the children with his mother. Given the history of Yaakov’s marriages, it may have seemed reasonable to the brothers that Rochel would be the wife whom their father most wanted to protect. There is no reason why this would have precipitated hatred of Yosef.

The second possibility: When danger threatens with the likelihood that not everyone can be saved, choices must be made. When the Titanic went down and there were not enough lifeboats for everybody, men were considered more expendable than women. In our context, we need not examine whether this hierarchy of values had merit; it is sufficient to recognize that some form of decision was unavoidable. The brothers, the oldest among whom could not have been more than thirteen at the time,  surely recognized this need and so were willing to abide by their father’s judgment. If Yaakov felt that Yosef’s survival was the most crucial for the future of the family, he must surely have had good and sufficient reasons. The dispositions presumably were halachic in nature and had nothing to do with Yaakov’s personal likes or dislikes.

The Kesones Pasim was different. No halachos were involved; there was nothing that appeared to force Yaakov’s hand. It seemed a simple matter of gratuitous and provocative favoritism.  Moreover, it threw the decisions that Yaakov had made so many years before into doubt: perhaps even then Yosef had been protected for reasons other than objective need.

If we are to understand the anger which this garment generated, we must first explain what made it so special. How do we translate Ketones Passim? What implications did it carry for the person who wore it? Why should it play such a central role in the unfolding drama? All this will require careful thought, but before we are able to tackle these problems, we must make one more detour. The time has come to visit the first of Yosef’s dreams in some detail.

Here is how Yosef describes it to his brothers:

Here we were, all tying sheaves in a field. And see! My sheaf arose and stood erect. And see further! Your sheaves gathered around it and prostrated themselves before it.

All the brothers are equal. All are binding sheaves in a field. There is nothing to set Yosef apart in any way. Suddenly Yosef’s sheaf, ignoring gravity, stands upright. Moreover, in defiance of nature’s despotic laws, it continues to stand. Upon seeing this the brother’s sheaves, shocked but admiring, gather around and prostrate themselves before it.

Before we begin our attempt to understand this dream, we note the following:

1. The setting of the dream is not realistic in that it does not reflect the family’s actual way of life at that time. Yaakov and his family were shepherds, not farmers (Bereishis 46:32).

2. The sheaf that rises and stands straight does not pretend to be Yosef. He is busy in some other part of the field, tying other sheaves. Neither the central sheaf nor those that prostrate themselves before it stand for actual people. They are metaphors for food. It is not Yosef but his sheaf which stands proudly in the center. The brothers’ sheaves, not the brothers, prostrate themselves before it.

3. The preeminence of the central sheaf seems to result from a struggle: arose and stood erect are two separate stages. Not only does the sheaf manage against all odds to rise up, it also (although sheaves are top-heavy because all the grain is in the ears) succeeds in remaining erect.

4. The central sheaf, the one belonging to Yosef, does not impose anything upon the other sheaves. It is busy with itself, first rising up, and then remaining erect.  The other sheaves recognize the significance of what has happened, gather around it and form a circle, and prostrate themselves of their own accord.

Let us try our hand at interpreting this dream. The central fact upon which all else hinges is that Yosef’s sheaf rises up and continues to stand erect. What does this convey?

An erect stance symbolizes royalty.

Yosef’s sheaf, in standing up straight, demonstrates that, because of the food supplies that would stand at his disposal, he is destined for kingship. The other sheaves recognize this and, of their own accord, pay him homage.

Why did Yosef tell this dream to the brothers?

Let us get back to the Kesones Pasim and learn a little more about it. Once we understand its implications, we will have solved the mystery of Yosef’s seemingly senseless indiscretion in describing the dream to his brothers.

It is not easy to find an accurate translation.  Kesones is simple enough. It is a garment, perhaps a coat or a cloak. But what does Pasim denote? It seems certain that, whatever the correct meaning may be, and commentators suggest many different possibilities, it speaks of royalty. This much is clear from II Samuel 13:18, which reports that the daughters of the royal household used to wear a Kesones Pasim. Now, it may simply have been a particularly beautiful garment, one therefore reserved for royalty. However, there is the possibility that the very cut of the garment showed that it was meant for the aristocracy. This appears to be the opinion of Midrash Rabba, Bereishis 84:8 (accepted by the Baalei Tosafos) which takes Pasim as the plural of pas, the palm,  to indicate that  the sleeves of this cloak were longer than was usual and reached the palm of the hands. This would render the garment suitable only for people who did not have to work with their hands, since such long sleeves would certainly be in the way of a manual laborer.

Let us, for the purposes of this discussion, assume this meaning and see where it leads us.

The implication is as follows: by giving Yosef the Kesones Pasim, Yaakov seems to have conferred the mark of royalty upon him. If, as we surmise above, this decision to singularize Yosef was associated with the special protection that Yaakov had arranged for Rochel and him when they were about to confront Eisav, then this would mean that even then Yaakov had already recognized Yosef’s potential for kingship.

Small wonder that the brothers were angry.

It seems to me that, given these various assumptions, logic was on Yosef’s side in recounting his dream to the brothers. He was really attempting to allay their fears that he would attempt to impose his rule over them. Let us consider the various points that we isolated above in our analysis.

1. The setting of the dream is unrealistic: There is no talk of any changes in their currently pastoral mode of living. Whatever is being predicted deals with a future which, at the moment, is shrouded in darkness. No one can know how or when the vision might have any relevance. In the meantime, the brothers have nothing to fear.

2. The sheaf that rose and stood straight is not Yosef: He is not at all involved in the metaphor that plays itself out in the dream. He, as much as they, continues to busy himself with making bundles in the field. Rather, it would be Yosef’s sheaf, something that he had touched, something upon which he had left an impression that would facilitate his rise to the top.

His ascendancy need not reflect badly upon them. It might simply come about because of lack of opportunity on their part. This is in fact what happened. Had they been in Yosef’s position in Mitzrayim, they might well have acted as he did.

3 and 4. The preeminence of the central sheaf seems to result from a struggle: The main picture of the dream, the sheaf fighting against gravity and then maintaining its upright stance, is a singularly moving one. The sheaf is not concerned with anything outside its own battle against the odds that nature has stacked against it. When it finally succeeds, it makes no attempt to communicate its triumph to anyone else. It simply stands there. As far as it is concerned, the accomplishment is its own reward. The sheaves of the brothers surround it and prostrate themselves of their own accord.

I find particular significance in the fact that the eleven sheaves make a circle around the central one. They could just as well have stood in a straight line, marveling at what happened. However, the circle appears to be an ideal metaphor for the kind of kingship that is envisioned. Each point in the circumference is equidistant from the center. This would emphasize that personalities are not involved. If they were, then there would surely be variations, some being closer, others further away. As it is, we are dealing with a technical kingship that arises from circumstances rather than individual preeminence.

The dream mirrored history precisely as it occurred.  Nothing of Yosef’s ultimate royal powers intruded upon life in the land of Canaan. These would be exercised in a country and under conditions which, at the time, could not have been even remotely imagined. Had the brothers listened carefully, they would have realized that they were under no threat that currently had any meaning for them.

Indeed, the ascendancy of which the dream whispered was not kingship at all in the sense in which this term is usually understood. If we think of Yaakov’s family as an aristocracy with Yehudah at its head, then there was never the slightest hint that Yosef would ever challenge that preeminence. Yosef’s exalted standing was not to be vested in his person, such that he would pass it on to his children, but in the position of power into which the brothers themselves had inadvertently maneuvered him. In its overt form it would not outlive him.

Under such circumstances, there was not even an implication of any moral superiority over his brothers. As far as they could tell, it is possible, and even likely, that under the same conditions any one of them would have acted as heroically as he did. As Yosef’s sheaf stood up, the brothers, including Yosef, were going about their business in the field without the balance in their relationship being affected or impaired in any way. Why then should Yosef have anticipated that the awareness of such a preordained destiny should generate hatred?

The battle that Yosef was to fight was with himself alone. The inner strength that would propel him to his role in history claimed no victims. He was far away from any eyes that might have witnessed his strength of character, he was cut off from any contact with his family to whom he might have looked for inspiration, and he was a slave, subordinate to a master whose frown could land him in jail as easily as his smile could grant him a measure of authority. No thought of any kingship, in the normal sense of the word, could have crossed his mind. Yosef wrested his epic victory from within his own mighty soul. Why would the brothers not rejoice in the moral fortitude that, without a doubt, mirrored their own successes in their own battles with the darker side of their own nature? How could Yosef have imagined that he would inspire jealousy rather than admiration?

Lastly, at the moment of his triumph, Yosef stood alone. Just as in the dream his sheaf was satisfied with simply having attained its erect standing, so Yosef had no thought other than satisfaction that he had stood firm and remained uncompromised. Why would he want to impose anything upon the brothers? These, in the fullness of time, would gather around him of their own accord, recognizing the moral splendor of what he had accomplished.

I think that we may safely say that Yosef told his first dream to the brothers in order to still the fears that had been aroused by Yaakov’s apparent favoritism. He wanted to convey to them that he was no threat to them.

Why did his plan not succeed? We believe that a careful analysis of the text will yield an answer. Come let us learn.


*Note: Original Hebrew and Aramaic text which appears in the book has been translated into English and footnotes have been removed for brevity.