On November 27, 1895, Alfred Nobel signed his last will and testament at Paris’s Swedish-Norwegian Club. In fewer than 1,000 handwritten words, Nobel outlined a plan to devote the vast majority of his estate—worth around $265 million today—to a series of prizes for “those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.”

Nobel is a household name today most notable for the Nobel Peace Prize, but the reality is, he was an unlikely source for a peace prize. His name was very closely associated with war, not peace. Alfred was famous for developing new types of explosives, most famously dynamite, which was widely used both in construction and in warfare. By the time he wrote his will, Nobel was hugely wealthy and owned nearly 100 factories that made explosives and munitions.

What persuaded the dynamite king to devote his fortune to charity?

Many believe it was inspired by a case of mistaken identity. In 1888, the story goes, Nobel’s brother Ludvig died in France from a heart attack. Thanks to poor reporting, at least one French newspaper believed that it was Alfred who had perished, and proceeded to write a scathing obituary that branded him a “merchant of death” who had grown rich by developing new ways to “mutilate and kill.” The error was later corrected, but not before Alfred had the unpleasant experience of reading his own death notice.

So from that moment on, Nobel decided to do everything in his power to ensure that he would be remembered not as a man of war, but a man of peace.1

Thankfully, most of us need not wait until reading our own obituary to right our ships.

What’s the Difference?

Our parshah is the first of three that tell the roller coaster story of Joseph and his brothers. The apple of his father’s eye, much envied by his siblings, Joseph is eventually sold into slavery and makes his way to Egypt. Just as his star rises there, he has trouble with his master’s wife and winds up in prison.

There, he meets two other inmates, Pharaoh’s baker and butler, who both look dejected one morning. When he inquires after their welfare, they each share their respective dreams and ask for his interpretation.

It’s a lot of text, but for the sake of our discussion, it’s important to read it in the original. So, let’s take a look.

The butler’s dream:2

So the chief cupbearer related his dream to Joseph, and he said to him, “In my dream, behold, a vine is before me.

“And on the vine are three tendrils, and it seemed to be blossoming, and its buds came out; [then] its clusters ripened into grapes.

“And Pharaoh's cup was in my hand, and I took the grapes and squeezed them into Pharaoh's cup, and I placed the cup on Pharaoh's palm.”

And the baker’s dream:3

“Me too! In my dream, behold, there were three wicker baskets on my head.

“And in the topmost basket were all kinds of Pharaoh's food, the work of a baker, and the birds were eating them from the basket atop my head.”

We all know how the story ends: Joseph tells the butler he will be restored to his position in three days. As for the baker, Joseph tells him the bad news: in three days, your head will be hanging from the gallows.

The question is: Why did Joseph interpret the dreams so radically differently? After all, they feature identical elements—three items with the protagonist in the center of the action. What did Joseph spot in the dreams that indicated such drastically divergent interpretations?

Passive vs. Active

The answer is remarkably simple, and it jumps out at you when taking a closer look at the text. Read through the butler’s narrative—he’s an active protagonist in the story. After describing the scene in the first two verses, he recounts, “Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand, and I took the grapes and squeezed them… and I placed the cup…

You see? It’s all about what he was doing in the episode.

In stark contrast, the baker is a passive observer of his own story. He describes a similar scene with three items, and instead of him doing anything about it, he observes how, “The birds were eating them from the basket atop my head.” It’s his bread in his basket that those birds are eating, yet he does nothing about it. It’s not him feeding them, rather the birds doing what they wish as he watches from the side.

Joseph jumped on this and immediately had his interpretation. Life is all about activity. The butler was an active player in his story, and that indicated his extended life. The baker was a passive cog, inactive, which is synonymous with death.

The dreams spoke for themselves.

Go Ahead and Find Your Own Situation

Mr. Nobel woke up one day and realized that other people had already written his story for him and he ostensibly no longer had the power to be his own narrator. Luckily for him, the experience shook him into realizing that he could be an active player in his own story. Sure enough, he dramatically redirected his life and legacy in his remaining years.

This is one of the keys to a healthy and fulfilling life. You are the author of your own story, and no one else should, or even really could, write it for you. To view your life as something that simply happens to you by the whims of your environment, upbringing, social status, or what-have-you is to be like the baker who was already a dead man walking.

Be like the butler instead, who sees his life—good or bad—as something he does, a plot that he carries out.

It may be incredibly difficult to forge forward in life when you feel as if you have baggage weighing you down. You could feel as if the situations in which you find yourself keep on working against you. You’re trying to keep sober, to stay away from unhealthy relationships, and avoid dead-end jobs, but they just seem to follow you.

These are indeed extremely challenging. But remember that ultimately, you can change everything. You can take the lead of your own life and start writing better scripts. It’s not easy, but it’s doable.

Don’t wait around until someone starts writing obituaries. You’re alive right now, so go ahead and insert yourself into whichever type of life you wish.4