At the Root of It All

In the beginning of Parshas Mikeitz, the Torah elaborates on the story of Pharaoh’s dreams, relating that he dreamt of cows and ears of grain. Afterwards, the Torah relates Yosef’s interpretation of these dreams, that they refer to years of plenty and years of famine.

One might ask: Why does the Torah describe Pharaoh’s dreams at such length? What is important for us is the outcome that Yosef informed Pharaoh of the upcoming years of plenty and years of famine, and for this reason was appointed viceroy of Egypt. What difference does it make to us whether this happened as a result of a dream or through some other medium? Even if it is necessary for the Torah to teach us that it was as a result of Pharaoh’s dreams that Yosef became viceroy, this message could have been conveyed in a far more condensed form. Seemingly, it would have been sufficient to say that no one else could interpret Pharaoh’s dreams, and that Yosef told him there would be seven years of plenty and seven years of famine.

Why are the particulars of a gentile’s dream important to us?

The answer is that the Torah tells us that Pharaoh was informed about the future through a dream, in continuation and as a consequence of Yosef receiving information concerning his own future through a dream.

To explain: Yosef the tzaddik was a comprehensive soul. His mission was to draw down the totality of Yaakov’s spiritual influence into this world.1 Yosef was “the tzaddik, the foundation of the earth,”2 and he thus served as the medium through which was conveyed all the Divine influence to be dispersed throughout the world. Since spiritual truths were revealed to him through a dream, this became the pattern for the world at large. And so when information had to be conveyed to Pharaoh, the ruler of the entire world,3 it was conveyed through a dream.

This provides us with a lesson in our Divine service. When a Jew is challenged by base attitudes and desires, he must realize that they stem only from himself. We do not have to follow the lead of the world at large, nor should we adopt the view that in order to observe the Torah and its mitzvos, we must adapt ourselves to our environment.

The opposite is true. The existence of the world depends on the Jewish people. It is because a Jew has adopted a particular attitude or has a particular desire that these attitudes and desires exist in the world at large. It is only that the world at large does not appreciate that these motivations have their source in the Jewish people. (This lack of awareness stems from the concealment which lies at the heart of worldly existence. Indeed, the Hebrew for world עולם shares the same root as the word העלם , meaning “concealment.”4)

This concealment makes it appear to a Jew that these “lower” desires and attitudes exist independent of him, and draw him toward them. The truth is, however, that they have their source in the Jew himself. And when a Jew exchanges his undesirable attitudes and desires for good ones, similar changes will be effected in the world at large.

Moreover, even when it is impossible to say that the challenges a Jew confronts stem from his own character because he is not at all tainted by such attitudes or desires, not even in more refined sense these influences exist because of him. For the entire creation was brought into being for the sake of the Jewish people.5

Why do these influences exist? To present a challenge for him to overcome. When a Jew summons up the inner strength to remain immune, it will be revealed that the challenge was fundamentally in his own mind. For the status of the world at large is dependent on a Jew establishing himself forthrightly, taking his own concerns in hand.

What Yosef Sees in His Dreams, and What Pharaoh Sees

Although Pharaoh’s dreams thus have their source in Yosef’s dreams, they are of a fundamentally different nature. Yosef’s dreams reflect the realm of holiness, and Pharaoh’s the realm of kelipah. This is indicated by certain fundamental differences between them.6

a) Yosef’s dreams begin with work: “We were in the field binding together sheaves.”7 Pharaoh’s dreams, by contrast, do not involve any activity on his part.

To explain: G‑d is the ultimate perfection; He is the purpose of His own existence. Similarly, a Jewish soul is “an actual part of G‑d,”8 and therefore its existence has a self-contained purpose; it is not an intermediary for anything else. As such, the influence imparted in the realm of holiness is granted to the Jews by G‑d in the most complete and rewarding manner.

And therefore work is necessary. Otherwise, the influence received would be “bread of shame,”9 and would not reflect the ultimate good.

In the realm of kelipah, things are different. Kelipah has no self-contained purpose; it exists only to serve another entity. As such, the Divine influence it receives need not be conveyed in a perfect manner. And therefore influence is granted unearned,10 for the recipient is not an entity of genuine worth.

b) Yosef’s dreams follow the pattern of “Always ascend higher with regard to holy matters.”11 In the first dream, he begins with ears of grain separate and distinct entities which are then bound together into sheaves, i.e., division gives way to unity. And this pattern leads to the second dream, which proceeds to the celestial plane, speaking about the sun, the moon, and the stars.

Even in the most material sense, this reflects an upward progression. Sheaves are more valuable than individual stalks of grain, and gems whose lustre is derived from the stars12 are far more valuable than sheaves.

The dreams of Pharaoh, by contrast, follow a downward trend. The first dream concerns cows, members of the animal kingdom, and the second concerns ears of grain, plants, which are on a lower level. Moreover, the order of the dreams should logically have been the reverse, first the ears of grain, and then the cows. For the condition of cows whether they are “healthy” or “lean” depends on whether the ears of grain (their food) are full or thin. Nevertheless, since the general pattern of the realm of kelipah is characterized by descent, the order was reversed.

Furthermore, even within each dream the pattern is one of decline. First Pharaoh saw healthy cows, and then lean ones. First he saw “full, good” ears of grain, and then “thin, scorched” ones. And the downward trend continued, as the healthy cows and grain were swallowed up by the lean ones.

This pattern was also reflected in the interpretation of the dreams. First came the years of plenty, and afterwards the years of famine a famine so great that “because of that famine, there will be no way of telling that there was once plenty.”13

(The fact that the famine would in turn be followed by years of plenty was not revealed to Pharaoh because this plenty did not come because of him. The plenty which the land was granted later came as a result of Yaakov’s blessings.14)

Growth Orientation

This reflects the difference between the realm of holiness and the realm of kelipah. The realm of holiness is characterized by eternality, and unchanging permanence. There are variations, but these reflect a tendency toward growth: “Always ascend higher with regard to holy matters,” and “They shall go from strength to strength.”15 Since these variations involve growth, they are not considered changes.

(We find from time to time that a Jew may actually undergo a descent. Moreover, this pattern is rooted in the Jew’s spiritual source. Knesses Yisrael which is identified with the Sefirah of Malchus , also follows a pattern of fluctuation, sometimes ascending, sometimes descending.16 Nevertheless, in an ultimate sense, these fluctuations cannot be seen as changes. In the personal sphere, even on the material plane, the true desire of a Jew remains always to fulfill the Torah and its mitzvos,17 and to advance in holiness. At all times, even at a time of sin, a Jew remains faithful to Him.18

Similarly, with regard to the Sefirah of Malchus, the intent of all the descents is for ascent, and more particularly, for the ultimate ascent “the day which is all Shabbos and rest for life everlasting.”19 Since “wherever a person’s desire is, there he himself is to be found,”20 all the stages of descent are, when taking an inward glance, not phases of change, but rather part of the pattern of rest i.e., the absence of change to which our desire and intent is directed.)

Kelipah, by contrast, is characterized by change and decline. The reason is because kelipah does not have a self-contained purpose for its existence. The entire reason for its being is to present a person with a challenge, and thus spur him to summon up deeper resources of holiness. The more steadfast a person remains, the less he needs external challenges to push him forward. Thus the existence of kelipah becomes weaker, following the pattern which our Sages outlined: “When one ascends, the other descends.”21

This difference in reflected in the fact that the bulls offered during the festival of Sukkos, which parallel the 70 nations of the world,22 are reduced in number each day,23 while holiness follows a pattern of continual increase, as indicated by the number of Chanukah candles we light every night.

Reaping What One Sows

The second point that a Jew’s achievements come through work is also of fundamental importance. There are times when a person thinks he will receive certain blessings without any labor on his part. He must know that this approach comes from his animal soul, which stems from kelipah, since only kelipah can receive influence without work. And he must understand that any blessings which he does receive in this manner will like everything that has its source in kelipah follow a pattern of decline, and ultimately disappear.24

When, by contrast, a person dedicates himself to serious work, he will merit fulfillment of the promise25 “You labored and you discovered.” He will achieve success far out of proportion to the amount of effort invested. And this will inspire continued growth, following the pattern: “Always ascend higher with regard to holy matters.”

(Adapted from Sichos Shabbos Parshas Vayeishev, 5720)