The beginning of our Sidra, which tells in what appears to be excessive detail of the two dreams of Pharaoh, invites a number of questions. Why are these dreams recounted in the Torah at such length? What can we learn from the differences between Pharaoh’s dreams and the dreams of Joseph in last week’s Sidra? Do they characterize some fundamental contrast between the worlds which Joseph and Pharaoh represent? And if so, what is the implication for us?

1. Pharaoh’s Dreams

At the beginning of our Sidra, a long account is given of the dreams of Pharaoh—about the cows and the ears of corn—and the interpretation which Joseph gave them, that they were symbols of the years of plenty and of famine.

But why is this narration given at such length and in such detail? The point of the episode is simple: Joseph forecasted the seven years of plenty and the seven years of famine, and as a result became viceroy to Pharaoh in Egypt. What significant difference does it make, whether this came about through dreams and their interpretation, or by some other chain of events?

Even if the Torah wished to emphasize that it was specifically through Pharaoh’s dreams that Joseph obtained his position, it could have informed us of the fact without narrating every detail of the dreams.

2. The Influence of Joseph

The answer is, that Pharaoh’s dreams must be understood in the context in which they occurred. Pharaoh dreamed because of Joseph. In the previous Sidra we learned that Joseph received Divine communication through dreams. And Joseph was the heir to Jacob’s spiritual heritage, bringing to the world all that Jacob represented.1 He was, in short, a “collective soul,” the medium through which Divine emanations to the world must pass, the “righteous man who is the foundation of the world.” If to him the Divine revelation came through the medium of dreams, then this was to be the order in the world. So that when a communication was necessary for the world, and for Pharaoh, its ruler,2 it came to him in a dream.

3. The Jew and the World

This indicates a fundamental lesson about our service to G‑d. When a Jew encounters severe challenges, from harmful attitudes and desires, he must realize that their ultimate source lies not in the world but in himself. It is not true that he must follow the world; neither is it true that in order to live a faithful Jewish existence one must make concessions to the world. The reverse is the case. The Jew himself creates the state of the world he inhabits. If his Judaism is tempered by an inner reluctance, this is mirrored in the world. But it is the nature of the world to conceal its spiritual source. So this fact, too, is concealed, and attitudes hostile to Judaism are sensed as coming from the outside, from the world at large, pulling the Jew away from his faith. But the truth is: The Jew is himself the author of these attitudes. Were he to change his own desires, from reluctance to affirmation, he would change the attitude of the world as well.

This is not all. Even where we cannot find the origin of such conflict within the Jew, because he is personally wholly free of conflict, then it is still because of the Jew that it occurs. For in him lies the purpose of creation. As the Rabbis said: The world was created in the beginning for the sake of Israel who are called the beginning of (G‑d’s) produce.3 The conflict occurs as a test of the Jew’s inner strength. And if he refuses to be overwhelmed by it, it will turn out to have had no reality. Because the state of the world is dependent on the state of the Jew in his Judaism.

4.Differences Between Joseph’s and Pharaoh’s

Although Pharaoh’s dreams were dependent on the fact of Joseph’s dreams, they were radically different in their nature. Joseph’s dreams belonged to the realm of holiness; Pharaoh’s did not. Thus we find several distinctions between them, in their structure and detail.4

Firstly, Joseph’s dreams begin with an image of service, of bread earned by labor: “We were binding sheaves.” But this idea is wholly absent from the dreams of Pharaoh, in which food is seen as coming without any effort. Blessings which come from G‑d to the Jew are good to the point of perfection.

Thus they must come in response to effort. For that which is received without having been worked for—the “bread of shame”—lacks something, namely, that man has been a partner in its creation. But that which derives from outside the realm of the holy—the food of which Pharaoh dreamt—is not wholly good, and can therefore sometimes come gratuitously, without effort.

Secondly, Joseph’s dreams represent a progression from lower to higher forms of perfection. They begin with “ears of corn”—individual ears, each separated from the next. They progress to “sheaves”—where things which were apart have been bound into a unity. And then, in the second dream, we pass to the sun, moon and stars—the things of the Heavens. Even at the physical level, sheaves are more valuable than ears, and jewels (the earthly counterpart of the stars5) more precious than sheaves.

But in Pharaoh’s dreams, the order is reversed: From cows we descend to corn, from the animal to the vegetable kingdom. The natural order would in any case have been the opposite, for the condition of the cows, both healthy and lean, would depend on whether they feed from rich or meager corn. Within each dream there is the same notion of descent or decline. First appear the healthy cows and corn, then the lean, to the point that the good is wholly consumed by the bad. And this order is preserved in their interpretation. First came the seven years of plenty, followed by the decline to the seven years of famine, until “all the plenty shall be forgotten, and the famine shall consume the land.” (The fact that after the years of hunger, prosperity returned, does not belong to Pharaoh’s dreams at all, but to the blessing of Jacob.)

5.The Sacred and the Secular: Stasis and

These differences between the dreams of Joseph and of Pharaoh disclose the difference between sanctity and its opposite. Sanctity is eternal and unchanging. In the realm of sanctity, if there are changes, they are always ascents, going “from strength to strength”—which is in truth not a change at all, but a more perfect realization of something which remains the same. And even though the Jewish people suffers vicissitudes, sometimes in the ascendant, sometimes in decline,6 these are not real changes. For the Jew always carries with him a single mission,7 and a single faith:8 to fulfill the Torah and the Mitzvot, and to be elevated in sanctity. And since “where a man’s will is, there he is to be found”; since, moreover, the descent of the Jewish people is always for the sake of a subsequent elevation an “everlasting peace,” the fluctuations in Jewish history are not ultimately changes but “peace,” the absence of change. A single will and intention runs through them all.

Against this, the realm of unsanctity is subject to change, indeed, to continual decline. For whatever is not holy does not exist in and for itself. It is at most the means to an end, to test man and to evoke his highest powers of sanctity. The more man responds to the test, becomes strong and elevated in his service, the less he needs to be tested. And automatically, the existence of unsanctity becomes weaker, more tenuous. “When this one ascends, the other falls”9—as the realm of the holy is strengthened, the realm of the purely secular declines.

This is also the basic distinction between the Chanukah lights and the sacrifices of the festival of Succot. On Succot, seventy bullocks were sacrificed in the course of its seven days, representing the “seventy nations of the world.”10 And on each day a successively smaller number was offered up (from thirteen on the first day to seven on the seventh), representing a continual decrease or decline.11 But the lights of Chanukah signify sanctity: Thus each day sees an increase in the number of lights kindled. For holiness is always ascending.

6. Effort and Reward

From all this we learn a specific lesson. When a person believes that he can receive benefits or blessings without effort, merely as a result of certain natural causes, he can be sure that this belief derives from his “animal soul,” the unspiritual side of his nature. For at this level, there can indeed be benefit without effort. But he must equally be aware that the things of this realm are continually in a state of decline: He will, in the end, be left with nothing.12 Were he, on the other hand, to labor in the service of G‑d, he would be assured of the promise, “You have toiled and you have found.” He will “find” from Heaven more than he has labored for. And always, as he progresses, he will be “ascending in holiness.”

(Source: Likkutei Sichot, Vol. III pp. 819-822)