Parenting By Parsha: Vayeshev

Welcome to a world of dreams, where the stars in the sky and the wheat of the fields can dictate your fate. This is a space wherein the spirits of the heavens reign supreme, and the deepest secrets of your subconscious can affect how your real-world life plays out. We’ve arrived at the tale of the greatest dreamer (and meaning-maker) of them all: Joseph. 

The importance of dreams to Joseph’s overall trajectory (and, as a result, the arc of the Israelites and their descendants) cannot be overstated. I mean, this boy could dream. And not only did his subconscious mind have the power to dredge up some powerful images, he also had the charisma with which to convince people that these visions were sending a message. 

That’s really something. 

Have you ever had a dream so vivid that it made you question whether it was real or not? I imagine that this is what Joseph’s dreams felt like to him. Maybe he woke up in his tent, murky-headed, and wondered whether he really had just been a star in the sky. Had his brothers’ sheaves of wheat actually just bowed down to his sheaf? Sometimes the veil between the physical world and the world we create in our minds is thinner than we’d like it to be. If this was true for Joseph, it makes sense that he would want to parse the meaning with his brothers, his father, his mother.

Unfortunately for him, the conversation about his night-time visions doesn’t turn into a Hallmark-esque bonding moment for the whole family. Instead, his brothers grow jealous of his aspirations, his father can’t figure out how to contain the animosity, and Joseph ends up in a pit without water, then sold to a caravan of passing slave-traders, then serving a Lord in Pharaoh’s court, then in jail. 

It’s not great. 

To be fair to the brothers, it seems that Joseph lacked tact, as it were, and may even have been a little bit of a tattletale. “At seventeen years of age, Joseph tended the flocks with his brothers, as a helper to the sons of his father’s wives Bilhah and Zilpah. And Joseph brought bad reports of them to their father,” reads Genesis 37:2. Reading that, I just shook my head. ‘Come on, J,’ I thought to myself, ‘no one likes a snitch.’

Still, snitching is hardly a justification for literally selling someone into slavery. General annoyance and overambitious dreams also don’t really explain his brothers’ behavior to me. Okay, yes, maybe their little brother really had a gift for getting under their skin. Siblings do that all the time. I stole my older sibling’s clothes all through high school, for example, a fact that still comes up in conversation on occasion as a point of contention. 

When I try to explain the brothers’ drastic actions, though, Joseph’s actions don’t really cut it for me. There has to be something deeper. Only an extreme emotion can lead to such a severe choice. They faked his death. There has to be something bigger at play. 

Personally, I think it’s fear.

In this case, I think the brothers are afraid of a few different things: Scarcity of love, of opportunities, of inheritance, of honor and respect. The text tells us again and again that Jacob loved this son the most (“Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons,” in Genesis 37:3 and “their father loved him more than any of his brothers,” in Genesis 37:4, for example), and even the existence of favorites implies that there’s only a finite amount of love and acceptance to go around. 

What then, could they have done? To be your father’s favorite can spell the difference between a prosperous life and a miserable one when you’re dependent on his support and the resultant inheritance. If there is only so much support, a struggle— and a violent one, at that — is all but inevitable.

We also live in a world that prizes these struggles as a way of advancing. As a freelance journalist and musician, I see it all the time — there are only x-number of jobs or gigs, so we have to treat one another terribly in order to get the best-paying ones. After all, we all have mouths to feed, healthcare bills to pay, aspirations to realize. What choice do we have but to vie for the same opportunities, even if it means trampling one another in the process?

One of my great recent revelations is that we have a choice: We can choose to view the world as abundant instead of as scarce. And if I had to choose the top three things to teach my child, this would be one of them. 

‘The world is a place of wonder and endless possibilities,’ I would tell him, ‘You can make it exactly whatever you want. Instead of fighting against your peers, collaborate with them to make even more opportunities. If you come to a juncture and see that the road hasn’t been paved in that direction, well, find some folks to help you pave it. The world is not a winner-takes-all deal because there is no all to be taken. There is only more and more and more, and the more you collaborate the clearer that will become.’

Of course, my kiddo is only a little over two years old, so these conversations are still a tad conceptual. What I can do for now, what I must do, is walk the walk. That means believing that there are enough opportunities, enough spiritual nourishment and fulfillment, for everyone, it means an attitude of generosity and joy, it means sharing and being excited when someone else succeeds. It means dismissing the idea of finite resources, instead being vocal about how wondrous the world is. Hopefully, in this way, he’ll grow up to see things I would never have dreamed of. Those visions will be just as powerful as Joseph’s, but will (hopefully) bring more happiness than sorrow.