Dreams are fascinating. Our dream work is a composite of little pieces of information that form in the mind while the dreamer may sleep or do almost any other boring things in daily life. So it’s strange that we should refer something we aspire to do in the future as a “dream” because dreams are so random. But we also refer to goals as dreams because the dreams in the Torah are not as random as our dreams may seem in the world today.
The stories about Joseph begin and end with dreams. There are three sets of dreams in the Joseph narrative. However, if we stretch the definition of a dream as we do today in how we use the word, we can probably find more. Each set of dreams consist of two dreams. In the first and third set, the two dreams are really one and the same: אֶחָד הוּא חֲלוֹם. In the second set, the two dreams are quite different.
The first set appears in Parshat Vayeshev. These dreams belong to Joseph. In the first dream, Joseph and his brothers were binding sheaves of wheat in the field, when the 11 sheaves of wheat of the brothers bow down to Joseph’s one sheaf of wheat.
וְהִנֵּה אֲנַחְנוּ מְאַלְּמִים אֲלֻמִּים בְּתוֹךְ הַשָּׂדֶה וְהִנֵּה קָמָה אֲלֻמָּתִי וְגַם־נִצָּבָה וְהִנֵּה תְסֻבֶּינָה
אֲלֻמֹּתֵיכֶם וַתִּֽשְׁתַּֽחֲוֶיןָ לַֽאֲלֻמָּתִֽי
The second dream that Joseph dreamt envisioned the Sun, the Moon and 11 stars, all bowing down to one star.
וְהִנֵּה הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ וְהַיָּרֵחַ וְאַחַד עָשָׂר כּֽוֹכָבִים מִֽשְׁתַּֽחֲוִים לִֽי:
I am not sure what it would look like for stars, the sun and moon to bow down, but the brothers understood its apparent meaning: Joseph’s family, including his 11 brothers, will bow down to him. Joseph’s mother Rachel had died at his brother Benjamin’s birth, so it is unclear whom the moon represents. The Talmud actually learns from this stray dream-fact that every dream always includes some nonsense. Even so, the two dreams were enough to make the brothers angry and jealous.
The second set of dreams come when Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery. He arrives in Egypt and gets locked away in the prison of a rich man named Potiphar. In prison he meets Pharaoh’s baker and butler and interprets their dreams for them. In the baker’s dream, the baker is carrying a huge basket of bread when a flock of hungry birds swoop down from the heavens and take it. The other dream in this second set of dreams includes the butler, who is peacefully squeezing grapes into wine. Joseph predicts that these two dreams mean that the butler will live and that the baker will die. And indeed it was so.
The third set of dreams happens when people hear of Joseph predicting the butler’s and the baker’s dreams and Pharaoh wants Joseph to come and be his dream interpreter. Pharaoh has two dreams. The first is about two herds of cattle. The skinny cows eat the fatter cows but didn’t get any fatter. And in the second dream the same thing happens to two fields of wheat. The thin sheaves consume the thick sheaves without growing. Joseph explains that these two dreams are really one –
חֲלוֹם פַּרְעֹה אֶחָד הוּא
“אֵת אֲשֶׁר הָֽאֱלֹהִים עֹשֶׂה הִגִּיד לְפַרְעֹֽה
Joseph explains that the dreams mean Egypt will experience seven plentiful years followed by seven years of famine, during which the dynasty’s stores of meat and wheat will be consumed. Joseph then recommends to Pharaoh that he should build storehouses to stockpile food during the years of plenty in order to sustain the people of Egypt during the years of famine. Pharaoh recognizes the truth of Joseph’s interpretation and the wisdom of his suggestion and appoints him as viceroy in charge of the food bank project.
Joseph gets fancy new Egyptian clothes, an Egyptian wife who is none other than the daughter of Potiphar, his old master, and a new name. He would doubtless have gotten a new iPhone too, but it had yet to be invented.
Joseph’s new name was Tzafnat Paneach. Now, maybe this was the number-one popular name for boys that year in Egypt, but something tells me that it holds special meaning. Even the name Joseph had importance. The Torah tells us when Joseph is born that Rachel named him saying:
וַתִּקְרָא אֶת־שְׁמוֹ יוֹסֵף לֵאמֹר יֹסֵף ה’ לִי בֵּן אַחֵֽר:
[His name is] Yosef, which is to say: “May the Lord add another son for me.” In other words, Yosef’s name was a prayer that his arrival would continue to add blessings, like more children, in the couple’s life.” Joseph’s Egyptian name, Tzafnat Paneach, means “the hidden face” and we can relate a hidden face to many things in this parashah. First, the obvious theme of God’s face being hidden while Joseph was in prison and going through hard times. Second, the name can also hold symbolic meaning, as if to say that in all the years of Joseph’s absence, his father Yaakov is grieving over the loss of his son. We could imagine Yaakov’s hands covering his sobbing face. In other words, the name symbolically refers to Yaakov’s face that was hidden. However, since it is Joseph’s name, I think that it probably has more to do with Joseph than with God or Yaakov. So, I think that he is called Tzafnat Paneach because all these years later Joseph is a different person. He is Egyptian, married to an Egyptian woman, with Egyptian children, working for Pharaoh. His true face as a Hebrew is hidden, not only to the Egyptians, but also to his brothers, who don’t recognize him. Maybe his true face was even hidden to himself. Finally, maybe his name, Tzafnat Paneach simply is a poetic way of describing him as an interpreter of dreams. If dreams contain secret meanings, Joseph uncovers the hidden face of dreams.
When Joseph decides to reveal himself as the son of Yaakov, and the brother of the other men of B’nei Yisrael, he too reveals his face. God’s face, which had been hidden, also becomes visible in that Joseph can see how all of the events were really part of Hashem’s plan. The realization that God has been involved can be described as God’s face being shown, which in turn serves as a sign of hope while in exile. It is always important to look for a ray of hope when clouds are gray. Maybe all it takes is a dreamer to uncover God’s hidden face amidst drought, famine and exile.
Carolyn Bernstein is a Grade 8 student at Solomon Schechter Day School.