With the best intentions, a chassid once asked the Tzemach Tzedek, the third Lubavitcher Rebbe, for a blessing for his children’s spiritual development. “If the Rebbe gives them a blessing to grow up as chassidim and remember what they see, they will be G‑d-fearing as a matter of course.”

The Tzemach Tzedek’s look turned sour. “For more than fifty years, my grandfather (R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi), my father-in-law (R. Dovber) and I have been urging chassidim to acquire a fear of G‑d through the labors of their own avodah, that it should not come automatically.”

Avodah working on oneself — is a hallmark of the Chabad tradition. At the heart of this concept is the recognition that for a change to be true and lasting, it cannot result from outside influence. Just as in our material world, anything of real value costs; so, too, when it comes to spiritual awareness, nothing comes without investment.

It’s a message we can learn from a soda bottle: No deposit, no return.

Parshas Mikeitz

This Torah reading begins with Pharaoh’s dreams, while that of the previous week focused on Joseph’s dreams. Dreams are significant, for they often reflect a person’s direction and character thrust. Thus the contrast between Pharoah’s dreams and Joseph’s can teach us fundamental differences between an approach of holiness and an ordinary worldly approach.

Among the differences between them.

a) Joseph’s dreams begin with work: “We were in the field binding together sheaves.” Pharaoh’s dreams, by contrast, do not involve any activity on his part. He watches as the grain and the cows emerge from the Nile. The contrast teaches; holiness is associated with activity and effort.

When a person receives a gift that is unearned, he feels compromised to a certain extent. Why is that? Because we possess a soul that is “an actual part of G‑d.” Therefore just as G‑d is a Giver, not a recipient, we too, feel the greatest satisfaction when we receive the fruits of our own efforts instead of receiving something gratis. Thus Joseph is active.

The world at large, by contrast, does not have the same degree of active Divine influence. It is merely a medium through which G‑d — and man — accomplish His intent. Therefore Pharaoh is no more than an observer. He does not play a contributory role in bringing the world to its perfection.

b) Joseph’s dreams follow the pattern of “Always ascend higher with regard to holy matters.” 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 stars are far more higher 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. 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.

Holiness is characterized by growth, following the pattern: “They shall go from strength to strength.” Since G‑dliness is infinite, there is a continuous thrust towards advancement and progress. The world at large, by contrast is finite and limited. It cannot become any more than it is. On the contrary, as entities age, there is a tendency toward weakening and deterioration. Joseph’s dreams hence reflect the potential for advancement, while Pharaoh’s are characterized by waning and decline.

Every one of us have a dimension of Joseph within us and a dimension of Pharaoh. What we dream of is left to our choice.

Looking to the Horizon

Our Sages explain that exile is described with the analogy of a dream. Why? Because dreams involve a distortion of reality. The basis is true, but our perception can be warped until we lose sight of what is real and what is our imagination.

Simply put, in exile, the true spiritual values around which our existence revolve do not seem important and we focus our intention on lesser and sometimes, trivial things. Moreover, these small matters capture our senses and our excitement and what’s really valuable becomes forgotten.

Liking a person opening his eyes after a dream, when Mashiach comes we will look at the world around us with amazement. For we will see the world for what it is. We will be able to appreciate the true value that every spiritual pursuit possesses and we will wonder how it was possible that we were so caught up in material matters.