Vayeshev, and the following Sidra of Mikketz, have a common theme: Dreams. In Vayeshev we are told of Joseph’s dreams, and in Mikketz, about the dreams of Pharaoh. Both dreamt twice, and in each case the dreams shared a single meaning, conveyed in different symbols. What was the significant difference between Joseph’s and Pharaoh’s dreams? Why did they dream twice? And what is the implication of their detailed symbolism? The answers are given in terms of the Jew’s contemporary search for a path to G‑d.

1. Two Dreamers and Four Dreams

In the beginning of this week’s Sidra we are told about Joseph’s two dreams.1 Both had the same meaning: That Joseph would rule over his brothers and that they would pay homage to him. The second dream merely added that the “sun and the moon”—Jacob and Bilhah would be included in this homage.

There is a striking parallel between this and next week’s Sidra (Mikketz) which relates the two dreams of Pharaoh,2 which also shared a single meaning. But in Pharaoh’s case the Torah states a reason why there should have been two dreams: “Because the thing is established by G‑d, and G‑d will shortly bring it to pass.”3 Of Joseph’s dreams, no explanation is given of their repetition, and indeed the additional information that the second conveys could have been hinted at in the first. We are forced to conclude that Joseph’s two dreams, alike though they are in their meaning, are allusions to two different things.

What are these two things? And, since the actions of the Fathers are both a sign and a lesson to their descendants,4 what are their implications for us? For Joseph’s actions are included in the works of the Fathers, since he brought Jacob’s work into fruition in the world as hinted to in the verse: “These are the generations of Jacob: Joseph….”5

2. The Sheaves and the Stars

Joseph’s two dreams have the following difference. The first concerns things of the earth: “And behold, we were binding sheaves in the midst of a field.” But the second is about the heavens: “The sun and the moon and eleven stars.”

Both of Pharaoh’s dreams, however, had an earthly symbolism regressing in fact from the domain of living things (the seven cows) to that of plants (the seven ears of corn). For Pharaoh had no link with the realm of heaven. And whereas his dreams represent a regression, Joseph’s display an ascent in holiness.6

This distinction between Joseph and Pharaoh exemplifies one of the unique characteristics of the Jew, that he is simultaneously involved in both the material and spiritual, this world and the next. As the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe said7 when he was arrested in Russia in 1927 and one of his interrogators threatened him with a revolver: “Men who have many gods and one world are frightened by a revolver; a man who has one G‑d and two worlds has nothing to fear.” These two worlds are not separate in time—a this-worldly present and an other-worldly future. The Jew is instead bound to a higher spiritual reality even in the midst of this world. He stands on a “ladder” set on the earth whose top reaches to heaven”8 and moves in his service from the mundane (“earth”) to the most exalted spirituality (“heaven”), always ascending.

3. Two Worlds Within One World

The Torah is precise, and every detail contains a lesson which has a bearing on the conduct of our life.9 The implication of the fact that Joseph’s dreams were about two worlds (earth and heaven) and yet had a single meaning, is that the Jew must fuse his dual involvement, with the material and the spiritual, into one. Not only must there be no tension between his two worlds, but the material must contribute to his spiritual life until it is itself spiritualized.10

The idea that physical acts like eating and drinking are directed towards G‑d, is a natural one to every Jew. There is a story11 about the Rebbe, Rabbi Shmuel,12 that when his two sons were children they were discussing the special virtues of the Jew, and to demonstrate his point he asked their servant: “Bentzion—have you eaten?”

The servant replied: “Yes.”

“Did you eat well?”

“I am satisfied, thank G‑d.”

“Why did you eat?”

“In order to live.”

“Why do you live?”

“To be a Jew and to do what G‑d wishes.”

As he said this, the servant sighed.

Later, the Rebbe told his children: “You see, a Jew by his nature eats to live, and lives to be a Jew and to do what G‑d has told him; and still he sighs that he has not yet reached the ultimate truth.”

Since the Jew has a spiritual intention in every physical act, the acts themselves are spiritualized. In the words of the Baal Shem Tov: “Where a man’s desires are—there he is.’’13

4. The Meaning of the Sheaves

This, then, is the significance of the fact that Joseph had two dreams. What is the meaning of the detailed content of each?

The first begins, “We were binding sheaves in the midst of a field.” It begins, in other words, with work, an activity wholly absent from the dreams of Pharaoh. In the domain of unholiness, work (i.e., avodah, the effort involved in the service of G‑d) may be absent, as we find it written: “We ate in Egypt free” (i.e., without the effort of the Mitzvot).14 But the rewards of holiness (the emanations of the Divine) come only through effort. And so the Jew’s ascent on the ladder from earth to heaven must—from the very beginning—involve the work of dedicating his physical actions to holiness.

The nature of this work—as in Joseph’s dream—is binding sheaves.15 We are born into a world of concealment which is like a field, in which things and people, like stalks of corn, grow apart, living separately, in and for themselves. In man we call this orientation towards the self, the “animal soul,” which creates diversity and separateness. And the Jew must go beyond it, binding like sheaves the many facets of his being into the unified service of G‑d, a service which transcends self and separation.

In the dream, the sheaves, after they were bound, bowed down to Joseph’s sheaf. And so, for us, the next stage in service must be “bowing down,” the submission to what is higher than us. Jews form a unity, as if they were the limbs of one body.16 And just as a body is coordinated only when its muscles act in response to the nervous system of the brain, so the spiritual health of the collective body of Jews is dependent on their responsiveness to their “head”—the spiritual leader of the generation.17 It is he who instructs it so that its individual members act in harmony towards their proper goal.

Indeed, inwardly this submission precedes the act of unifying one’s existence in the service of G‑d. The capacity to effect this “binding together” derives from the inner submission to the spiritual leader of the generation. But the outward manifestation of this service follows the order of Joseph’s dream: First the “binding,” and then the submission.

5. The Meaning of the Stars

But this is at the level of Joseph’s first dream. Service at this level is still confined to the “earth”—the limits of physical existence. And it remains for the Jew to transcend these constraints, in the act of teshuvah (“repentance,” or more correctly, “return”). The real process of teshuvah comes when “the spirit returns to G‑d who gave it”;18 that is, when the soul of the Jew regains its pristine state, as it was prior to its embodiment. This does not mean that soul and body should—G‑d forbid—become separate or that bodily existence should be denied, but that the body should cease to conceal the light of the soul. This is the ultimate purpose of the descent of the soul into the body within a physical existence—that without denying or standing aloof from this mode of existence—the soul should retain its unmediated closeness to G‑d.

This is the meaning of Joseph’s second dream. It speaks of the Jew who has already passed beyond the service which is confined to “earth.” He has left the world of “separation”—the state where things are seen to exist in and for themselves—and no longer needs to “bind” together the schismatic elements of his being. His service is now wholly at the level of “heaven,” the path of return to the pristine state of the soul.

But the act of submission to the “head” of the collective body of the Jewish people is repeated in this dream (where the sun, moon and eleven stars bow down). This clearly implies that this inward attitude of reference is not restricted to the Jew who is still working “in the field,” but extends to the Jew who has already, as it were, reached the heavens. Certainly he no longer needs guidance to avoid the concealments and distortions that the physical life may bring to one’s spiritual sight. But even at this level, he must still act in harmony with other Jews in collective response to their spiritual leader.

6. The Rungs of the Ladder to Heaven

This, then, is the path mapped out for every Jew by the dreams of Joseph. First there is the “work in the field,” the effort (avodah) to unify a world of separate existences and divided selves, within the service of G‑d (“binding sheaves”). And though the Jewish people are called “the sons of kings,”19 or even simply “kings,”20 this does not imply that this effort can be dispensed with. For the rewards of holiness must be worked for in this world. And they are rewards which it is beyond our power to anticipate: They will be “found”—that is, they will be unexpected.21 We read: “If a man says to you, I have labored and have not found (a reward), do not believe him. If he says, I have not labored, but still I have found, do not believe him. But if he says, I have labored and I have found—believe him.”22

Secondly, at all levels of service there must be submission to the “head” of the “body” of the Jewish people.

And then, as we are told in the Pirkei Avot,23 when “your will is nullified (in the face of His will)” it will follow that “He will nullify the will of others in the face of your will.” In other words, the concealments of this world of plurality and disunity (“others”) will lose their power, and we will be open to the flow of revelation and spiritual life that is the life of Joseph and of righteousness.

(Source: Likkutei Sichot, Vol. III pp. 805-10)