Speaking to the Religious Zionists of America in the 1950s, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik gave a novel reading of Joseph’s dreams.
For modern man, one sort of farming seems much like another but for the Bible, agriculture implies worldview. Joseph’s family are shepherds, so why is he dreaming of sheaves?
Joseph felt nervous, claimed Rav Soloveitchik. Unconvinced that Jacob’s dwelling “in the land of his father’s wanderings” would endure for long, he remembered God’s words to Abraham that “your children shall be strangers in an alien land”.
“Behold, we are binding sheaves” no longer in Canaan and no longer shepherds, but in the land of Egypt, integrated into a new society: Joseph envisioned a world in which, despite massive upheaval, his family’s traditions could flourish.
His brothers disagreed. They looked on the future as a continuation of the present. In the traditional surroundings, they did not need new frameworks.
Joseph responded, “If we will not be prepared for new conditions, the environment will swallow us! Our intellectual forces will wilt. Yet if we think of the future, we can plan for binding the sheaves, for ‘the sun and the moon and the eleven stars’ — for a new economic and social order. Abraham’s heritage can be triumphant in alien surroundings too.”
Rav Soloveitchik shared more than just a first name with Joseph. He had also made a decisive break with his own “brothers”, his illustrious yet deeply conservative Eastern European roots, migrating across continents and embracing modernity, Zionism and America.
Concluding his talk to the Religious Zionists of America, he asked whether the brothers — now as then — having scorned and expelled their brother, in fact owed their own survival to the dreamer among them.