Torah portion: Silence is golden
In this week’s Torah portion, Joseph has two dreams, both of which indicate that he will rule over his brothers. One of the dreams signals that he will not only rule over his brothers, but also over his parents. Joseph tells his brothers about his dreams, and they resent him for it. They mock him and derisively call him a dreamer. Feeling threatened, the brothers eventually agree that they need to dispose of Joseph, and they band together to sell him as a slave. Joseph pays a very steep price for his dreams.
At the beginning of Jacob’s story, Jacob also has a dream. He dreams of a giant ladder that soars to the heavens. Angels are climbing this ladder in both directions — from Earth up to heaven, and down the ladder to Earth. Jacob’s dream was accompanied by a voiceover from God promising Jacob he would inherit the land. These angels seem to represent the angels who would accompany Jacob and protect him as the true heir to his father, Isaac, and grandfather, Abraham, thus confirming the blessing Jacob received from Isaac granting him dominion over his older brother, Esau. Jacob’s dream sounds very similar to Joseph’s dream.
But there is a stark contrast between how the two patriarchs handle their respective dreams.
Joseph talks. He taunts his brothers with his dreams of grandeur, irritating his brothers with his aspirations. Eventually, Joseph is banished and excommunicated as a result.
After Jacob’s dreams, he doesn’t say anything. Jacob’s only reaction is to seek God’s blessing that he should succeed in meriting God’s promise. He does not send a note to his brother bragging about his vision, nor does he tell his family. In the end, he overcomes his brother, Esau, who explicitly proclaimed his homicidal intentions. Jacob suffers far less than Joseph.
Perhaps the text of the Torah hints at this distinction when it tells us Jacob’s reaction upon hearing Joseph’s dreams: “V’aviv shamar et hadavar” — and his father (Jacob) kept or watched the thing (Genesis 37:11).
Joseph, on the other hand, didn’t “keep the thing” inside. He talked. He bragged. He taunted. He used his dreams as a cudgel. Revealing his dreams in this manner, Joseph caused a lot of people a lot of pain.
Jacob had dreams, too, but when he dreamed, he “kept the thing” inside. He was silent. He was humble. He used his dreams as internal motivation.
We all have dreams. Not simply the wacky-story dreams that keep us from getting too bored while we are sleeping. We all have “awake” dreams too. We all have aspirations. We all want to do better and improve ourselves. Sometimes we have flashes of inspiration that gift us with brilliant ideas or insights.
But we have to be careful how we talk about those dreams. The Torah is suggesting that there are times when we should keep our dreams to ourselves. When Joseph shared his dreams, he created strife. Sometimes our dreams should be part of our internal dialogue, our internal struggle — and should remain that way.
There is danger in publicizing our dreams before they are ready to be shared. An internal thought is almost infinite in its potential and possibility. But by attempting to convey the thought, of expressing it in specific words, the thought becomes limited, more finite. And, it is then laid bare for interpretation by those who hear it. Sometimes a dream is an inspiration that is a glimpse beyond our present state; sharing that glimpse can irritate those who hear it — they may sense it is not true to who we are in that moment. Sometimes a dream is an idea that can be stolen by an adversary. Sometimes a friend can discourage us from pursuing a dream if they don’t believe in our dream the way we do. For all these reasons and more, it makes sense to be prudent about when and how we share our dreams.
Oversharing is a modern social problem. It’s so easy to share intimate parts of ourselves on Facebook and Instagram. But I think our default setting for sharing our dreams should be for our eyes only. Dreams are precious and require our protection.
Blessing, mystery and beauty can flourish internally. When we expose our intimate dreams and aspirations, we expose too much of ourselves. Better to follow the model of our forefather Jacob and “keep the thing” inside.
Rabbi Eliyahu Fink is an Orthodox rabbi, writer and teacher in Beverly Hills. He is the founder of shulontheinternet.com, where popular culture, Torah and the Internet converge.