Joseph's life is linked to dreams from his youth, and the way in which he responds to dreams reflects the level of his maturity.
As a boy, he delights in using his dreams to torture his brothers and triumph over them. While he never interprets these dreams, their meaning is so clear as to need no expert reading. Indeed, everyone who hears him relate these dreams knows he is using them to raise himself over others.
His next dream encounter is in an Egyptian jail where he tells Pharoah's chief butler and baker the meaning of their dreams. Here we find a maturing, but not yet mature, Joseph. He says to them: "Do not interpretations belong to God?" (Genesis 40:9) This is a statement reflecting newfound humility. He realizes that dreams come from God and that only God can reveal their meaning. Having said this, however, he then says, "Relate it to me," as if he were God! While realizing the need to go beyond ego, Joseph is not ready to actually do so.
When Joseph is brought before Pharaoh and asked to interpret the king's dreams, however, he does so from a very deep and spiritually mature place: "That is beyond me; it is God who will respond to Pharaoh's welfare." (Genesis 41:16) There are two points that must be made regarding this text.
First, to be able to say "that is beyond me" is the key to spiritual life. It is the affirmation of the surrender that is needed if we are to realize God and godliness in our lives. It is the equivalent of Jacob's "God is in this place and I did not know." (Genesis 28:16) These are both expressions of surrender. Joseph's "I cannot do it" and his father's "I cannot know it" are reflections of a level of spiritual awakening that reveals the limits of self and the limitlessness of God.
Second, to recognize that "it is God who will respond to Pharaoh's welfare" is to realize that even when we seek to do good, we must realize that we are merely vehicles for God. Thus, we should take no pride in doing good, for that is why we were born. The Torah is not saying that we should ignore the needs of others and let God take care of things (Joseph certainly does not do this), but rather that even as we go about caring for others, we should not let that feed our ego. We should let it envelop us in a greater gratefulness that we are privileged to serve. We are not caring for others. Rather, God is caring for them through us.
Here, then, is the key to living spiritually: Knowing what is beyond and allowing God to respond. The first puts the ego in its proper place; the second allows it to be used for the proper purpose.
But we would be remiss to stop here and not take up the issue of dreaming itself. The talmudic sages tell us that prophecy is a small component of dreams. They come from God and speak to godliness, though they do so in a manner that is far from prophetic clarity. Where do they come from? What do they mean? How shall we use them?
Some dreams are simply the mind processing the day's events. Others are the cold pizza you ate during Letterman or Leno. These dreams are most often nonsensical. They do not stay with you. Yet, there are other dreams that you cannot dismiss no matter how hard you try. These dreams come from the soul.
There is a game children play where one child closes his eyes and tries to find a ball the other children have hidden. As he moves closer to the goal they call out words of encouragement, as he moves farther away from it they call out words of despair. Dreams are like this. The goal is God. When you are moving closer to God in your thoughts, words and deeds, the dream sends word of encouragement. When you are moving further away, the dream shouts out words of warning.
No one can tell you for certain what your own dream is saying. All you can do is carry it with you and ask God. If you do this sincerely and humbly, you will know. If you do this sincerely and humbly, your very asking of God will move you closer to God. Your response to the dream will make the dream a voice for good.
Rabbi Rami Shapiro is director of The Simply Jewish Foundation, www.simplyjewish.com.