Parsha of the Week

When the sun, the moon and the stars all bow


Bundles of grain and stars bow down to Yosef. What does it all mean?

In this week’s parsha, Vayeishev, Yosef relates his first dream to his brothers and tells his father about his second dream. As 11 objects bow to Yosef’s object or to Yosef himself, his family interpret his dreams to mean he will have dominion over them one day.

While the meaning of the dream of the brothers’ bundles bowing to Yosef’s bundle is pretty clear, the one about 11 unidentified stars bowing to Yosef is a little less so. Yaakov says, “What is this dream you’ve dreamed? Will I come with your mother (who is dead!) and your brothers, to bow down to you?”

Who says they interpreted his dreams correctly?

In fact, Da’at Z’keinim indicates that his dream of the sun, moon and stars bowing to Yosef indicated the sun itself, and presumably the other celestial beings, would bow to Yosef in the future. When Yehoshua of the tribe of Ephraim (son of Yosef) fought in Givon, he called to the sun to stand still in the heaven, using the argument that the sun is subservient to his tribe.

The Sefer Maskil L’Dovid says Yosef was reporting his second dream as a curiosity. In 37:9 he tells it to his brothers, and in the next verse, he tells it to his father and his brothers. The reason he repeated it to his brothers in the presence of their father was to indicate his complete innocence from any interpretation that may indicate he’d rule over his father one day.

“Do you think he would have such hubris to not only think about having his parents serve him, but to tell them about it as well? Clearly his report was delivered in pure innocence.”

The Ktav V’Hakabalah suggests both the sun and moon refer to Yaakov, while Ramban indicates the moon refers to the wives of all of Yosef’s brothers (not his mother, as Yaakov suggested in 37:10) or perhaps to all of Yaakov’s descendants when they arrive in Egypt.

On the other hand, Rashi (37:10) suggests Yaakov was trying to nullify the entire dream in the eyes of Yosef’s brothers. Surely Yosef’s mother would not be coming, so presumably the entire dream is untrue.

Others suggest that every dream has an element of untruth to it — dvarim b’teilim, or silliness — and perhaps Yaakov missed the silliness of this dream when he interpreted the moon to mean Yosef’s mother.

While I don’t claim to have the correct interpretation of Yosef’s dream, it is clear to me that no one interpreted it correctly.

While some people may argue that the moon refers to Bilhah, Ramban and others claim that none of Yaakov’s wives actually made it to Egypt, as they all died in Canaan. On the other hand, Maskil L’David raises the thought that Yaakov became excited about the possibility of Rachel awaking from the dead, assuming Yosef’s dream was a prophesy.

Maybe Yosef thought the celestial beings would be bowing to him. Maybe Yaakov was trying to avert the brothers’ disdain for their brother. Maybe Yaakov truly feared he would be bowing to his son. Maybe Yaakov (represented by the sun and the moon) was meant to bow to Yosef as both Yaakov and Yisrael. Maybe Yosef’s mother, or her maid, was meant to represent the other entity bowing to Yosef.

Or maybe everyone feared Yosef would let his royalty go to his head; that being on top of the world, in a position of extreme power, would give Yosef the feeling that he was invincible, even to the point of dominion over the items created on the fourth day of creation.

Perhaps this is why, while the brothers become jealous in 37:11, Yaakov “guarded the situation.”

Yaakov knows that even a position of power brings with it responsibility. If Yosef were to rule over his family, it would be G-d who would be allowing such a reality to come about. But what Yosef will do with his newfound power is something that will be in Yosef’s hands to control.

With power comes responsibility, no matter if the subjects are merely objects, or humans, or even celestial beings. No human being should be above human law. And certainly every human being must answer to G-d.

A version of this column was published in 2008.