Joseph Cox Show: Vayigash – Dreams, Reality and Economics

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This podcast was, until today, the Candidate Everyone podcast. It was about my run for President of the United States. After much counting and analysis I am finally admitting defeat in my campaign. What can I say? I lost. The fact is, nobody voted for me.

I probably should have learned something from that, but I didn’t. Instead of learning from that humbling experience and backing off – retreating from public life – I’ve decided to double down, use my own name for a podcast, and talk about pretty much everything I feel like. Which is what I’ll do from now on.

I’ll assume that you, my dear, sad, listener, doesn’t want to hear me rant on just any topic. So I’m going to break my episodes up by broad topic. So far I’ve got current events, broad thoughts about the world and Torah. This week’s episode is about Torah. If you don’t want to hear me talk about that, just wait for the next episode.

As a warning: I will often get too big for my britches and I don’t expect this to be a popular podcast. I don’t even need it to be. That’s why I’ve decided to drop my production values – I don’t have the time to sustain them. You’ll hear my six kids sometimes. You’ll hear cars outside my window. You’ll hear the flaws in my delivery. You’ll also hear what I have to say. Hopefully you’ll hear something useful.

The fact is, I’ve come to the realization that you’ve got to decide if I’ve got anything worth sharing. I can only know the impacts my words will have if I say nothing at all.

Finally, and as this is a largely scripted show, I’ve got pretty good transcripts on my website: JosephCox.com.

I’ve given some thought to the format of the Torah podcasts. Back in the days before corona, I used to speak pretty regularly. I was pretty good at it. But a 2 or 3-minute speech in synagogue isn’t a podcast. So I don’t want to replicate that. I also used to have discussion groups. Very fre people came, so I probably don’t want to replicate them either.

I’ve decided to mix it up instead. I’m going to do segments. Maybe I could call it five faces of Torah. First will be inspirational, then political, then trivial, then structural and finally I’ll share my answers to common questions.

Inspirational

If you’ve heard me speak before, you know I love to talk about symbolism. I think every name, every material, every animal, every thing has a symbolic weight to it. It isn’t an unusual perspective. Sometimes people use symbolism to complicate things, though. I think symbolism can greatly simplify things.

I’m not a mystic. I think the symbolism in Torah is meant to be pretty simple and straightforward. It is meant to be a means of using the physical to capture the spiritual.

This symbolism frames the story of Joseph. Specifically, it frames the story of the dreams.

Let’s walk through it.

In the first dreams, Joseph dreams that the moon and stars would bow to him and that the sheaves of his brothers would bow to his sheaf. The symbolism here is obvious. The stars represent the fates of his mother and his brothers and those fates depend on him. The sheaves represent the sustenance of his brothers would depend on his sustenance.

Now the brothers read this in a very negative way. Joseph is going to dominate them. He is going to subjugate them. Joseph probably reads it the same way – he’s the favorite son with the funky coat.

But the dreams could easily be read in a slightly, but critically, different way. Joseph is going to be protecting his brothers. After all, they don’t bow to him – their stars and their sheaves do.

Joseph doesn’t share this interpretation though. I don’t think he knew it.

He’s got some growing up to do.

Next, the butler, or wine steward, dreams that there is a vine with three branches. It is budding and blossoming and bringing forth grapes. He takes the grapes and presses them into Pharaoh’s cup. The baker dreams that there were three baskets of bread on his head, but the birds were eating from the topmost basket.

There is an obvious interpretation here as well. Egypt invented bread and exported it throughout the ancient Mediterranean.  Canaan, the land Yosef had come from, was known for wine. This contrast between wine and bread is why we abstain from bread on Pesach (Passover), but have four cups of wine at the Seder. We are symbolically leaving Egypt and coming to Israel.

If we look at the dream from the perspective of peoples, there are three vines and three baskets not representing three days but three generations. There are three Pharoah’s from the time of Yosef to the Exodus – the one who knew Yosef, the one who enslaved the people and the one who fought G-d. Likewise the Torah records three generations from Yosef to Moshe: Levi, Yocheved and Moshe.

Cast in this light, the dream of the wine-maker was the dream of the Jewish people. In three generations, the vine of Israel would grow and flourish and eventually emerge ready to be dedicated to the service of the King. By contrast, in three generations, the fully baked and matured Egypt will have its highest power eaten away by forces from heaven (birds). The word for basket is later used to describe Pharaoh’s pride.

But Yosef does not share this interpretation – as obvious as it ought to have been. He credits G-d and then asks for the chance to interpret. Then he tells a personal story, not a national one. It is one that speaks of the baker and wine steward but goes no further. He sets the fear of the wine steward aside, but he gives the man no reason to rescue him. He has helped, but aside from gratitude he has provided no motivation for the favor to be returned.

If Yosef is learning then he has learned to tell a story. If G-d is giving him the interpretations then Yosef’s partial credit to Hashem has granted him an interpretation that is not dangerous, but is also not terribly useful.

Then comes the third set of dreams, Pharaoh’s. These are also obvious. A bull represents a nation’s will (a common perspective throughout the region). A cow represents its potential. Pharaoh’s thin cows eating the fat ones represent a nation losing its potential. The seven thin ears of corn eating the fat ones represent a nation losing its food.

Here Yosef says “It is not in me, only Hashem can answer.” Then he either provides a beautifully crafted interpretation or is given one by G-d. I believe G-d provides it – Pharaoh tells Joseph a modified dream but Joseph interprets the original.

In the interpretation, Yosef then sets aside the first dream. Instead, he focuses on the second. G-d provides him with an interpretation, but Yosef takes it further. He offers Pharaoh an action plan and then he offers him the greatest thing of all: purpose. He tells him he should act “so the land does not cease.”

Pharaoh, a man not lacking in anything, can reach beyond his own time. He can be responsible for the timeless land itself. He can acquire what even a man with every possession and every power does not necessarily have: purpose.

Yosef gets the job.

Through the progression of these dreams we see four patterns.

First, Yosef moves from giving no interpretation at all, to giving an interpretation, to advising what to do with his interpretation.

Second, Yosef moves from sees no purpose greater than himself to finding a purpose for a man as great as Pharoah.

Third, Yosef moves from motivating others to hate him, to motivating others to ignore him, to motivating others to act on his behalf.

Finally, Yosef has moved from showing off his own fate, to acknowledging G-d, to finally stating G-d’s overwhelming role. And as he grows, G-d provides him with increasingly useful interpretations that serve his needs.

In reality, all of these trends are intertwined. Caring about others is wrapped up with finding them purpose. Finding them purpose is wrapped up with motivating them. Finding ways to motivate others is enabled by realizing our own limits and by giving credit where it is due. And giving credit where it is due is wrapped up with caring about others.

Why is this relevant to this week’s Torah reading? It is relevant because this week, the first of the dreams finally seems to come true.

The brother’s bow to Joseph.

But Joseph has learned. Instead of rubbing their faces in it or claiming his superiority he does what he should have done at the start. He says:

7 And God sent me before you to give you a remnant on the earth, and to save you alive for a great deliverance... 8 So now it was not you that sent me hither, but God; and He hath made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and ruler over all the land of Egypt.

He does not claim rule over them. He is there to serve some greater purpose and to recognize the role of Hashem. It is the highest point of his maturity.

What can we learn from this? We all have our dreams. I wouldn’t mind a wildly successful podcast and books that sell like hotcakes. But to be truly successul, we have to learn the lessons of Yosef.

We have to interpret our own dreams – we have to try to understand what they are really about.

Second, we have to find a purpose in our dreams that is greater than us – and greater than we can ever be.

Third, we have to learn how our vision can fulfill the needs of others – particularly their own need for purpose. Quite simple, no vision is realized without others to help make it a reality.

Finally, we have to recognize our limits and the place of G-d in our lives. Only then can we have useful interpretations; useful understandings of what is happening around us.

I think this is a great message for the restart of a podcast by an ambitious fellow like myself.

So, I’ll lay out what this means for me. Let’s start with interpretation: I want the successful podcast and the book sales because I genuinely believe I have something worth sharing. In fact, I don’t need the podcast or the book sales. What I want is the ideas themselves to spread – whether or not my name is attached to them. That’s my own interpretation of my dreams.

I’ll give you an example. About a month ago, my children quoted one of my divrai Torah back to me. It was a dvar Torah explaining why Amalek hated Israel. Fundamentally, it was about understanding even your greatest enemies. But my kids didn’t get that dvar Torah from me. They got it from the Rabbi at their school – who I don’t know and who doesn’t know me. I was delighted. I believe the idea of trying to understand your enemies – even Amalek – can lead to a better reality. This was the fulfillment of a dream.

My name doesn’t need to be attached for that dream to come true. Yes, this is the Joseph Cox Show – but I tried first with the Interpreter Speaks, Candidate Everyone and literally dozens of fictional voices. My own branding wasn’t my first port of call. I’ve decided to go with it because the breadth of what I want to talk about doesn’t fit under another umbrella.

What about helping others find fulfillment? I believe we exist to act in the image of G-d. Our possibilities are endless. But we place stumbling blocks in front of our own selves. The loss of opportunity and potential people create for themselves – impose on themselves – is sobering. To mix metaphors and advertisements, my goal – as crazy and lofty as it is – is to help replace those stumbling blocks with wings.

I want the ideas in this podcast to spread because I think they can help people.

I think that because they have helped me.

Finally, like the original Joseph, I must acknowledge G-d.

My Torah books have a single phrase included in them:

בלעדי  אלקים, יענה

It means, “it is not in me, G-d will answer.” I quoted it earlier. It is what Joseph tells Pharaoh when Pharaoh asks him to interpret.

There are many interpretations of Torah and of dreams . When I have been lost and confused in my own Torah study, I have asked G-d for interpretations. I believe any of us can.

I have received answers – as I believe any of us can.

I have a way to go, but the more we acknowledge the role of G-d the more useful – the more fulfilling – our interpretation of the world will be.

If you don’t appreciate these divrai Torah, disregard them. But if you enjoy them, turn your regard to Hashem and the beautiful Torah He has created for us to learn from.

Political

The second segment of my Torah podcasts is going to focus on politics. Not Democrats vs. Republicans or Netanyahu vs. whoever. Really, I want to talk about ideology. The word ‘politics’ just gets people excited.

After the great reunion, Joseph proceeds to leverage his control of the grain into complete power for Pharaoh. He buys all the animals, people and land. The Egyptians are relocated across the whole land and turned into sharecroppers.

The political question is an ancient one. Did Joseph do the right thing?

On the one hand, through his wisdom he delivered safety and life.

On the other hand, he robbed the Egyptian people of their independence.

And what he did wasn’t necessary.

This is a very contemporary question.

Does the government, or society, truly have ownership of everything? Are we simply sharecropping when we manage our businesses or our work? Is that the basis of taxation – which normally goes far beyond Joseph’s 20%. Or do we own everything and do we pay the tax for services the government provides – including protecting that ownership?

Each of these realities can look exactly the same in practice and in law. I took a business school class which fit firmly into the ‘stakeholder capitalism’ theory of business. It argued that corporations were created to serve society’s interests. This is of course, ahistorical. Corporations – going back to Roman law – were created so a corpus could own property, sue and be sued. It was, to refer to a modern controversy, giving the rights of people to entities that existed in law alone.

With the stakeholder capitalism approach, corporations exist to serve society. Increasingly ‘society’ is represented by government. In a way, the owners of the corporation become sharecroppers – getting to keep some of yield from the assets they are caretakers for.

With the same tax rates and legal structure those same owners could be owners who happen to be obligated to provide for the common good.

These are two critically different sides of the same coin.

On one side, people own and have a duty to the common good. On the other, the commons owns and yields to people some part of what those people manage.

One speaks about the power of individuals to be fulfilled; the other speaks about the power of society to use individuals for its own purposes.

Which is better?

I think the Torah makes its answer clear.

Trivial

The trivial section is just going to be a few interesting points.

First, in the prior Torah portion, the wine steward says he was imprisoned in the House of Butchers. Using the national interpretation of the dreams, this seems fitting. Jewish children are drowned. Taskmasters are brutal. Egyptians die in massive numbers. The Exodus is not a bloodless event. Both people spend three generations in the House of the Butcher.

Second, the previous reading refers to Joseph as Av-Rech. This can be translated as ‘father of the King.’ In this reading, Joseph calls himself the “father of Pharaoh.” In Japan, major families know the limits of genetic stock. So they adopt promising young adults from outside their own families. The Toyoda family has controlled Toyoda for generations – but it isn’t a genetic family. They’ve adopted adult children to manage the business. I believe the Egyptian Pharaoh’s, with their incredibly intermarried family lives, probably suffered from terrible genetic issues. Av-rech is a possible solution. Instead of adopting a child, you adopt a father – an advisor who can help the Pharaoh overcome his own natural limitations.

Finally, the Torah says there are 70 souls who come down to Egypt – but only lists 69 of Yaacov’s descendants. I believe the 70th is Asenath – Joseph’s wife. She is the only of the wives listed, suggesting her inclusion in the people. She is also the mother of two tribes in her own right. Finally, Joseph was always travelling for work. It was Asenat raised Ephraim and Menashe – the first brothers to be so imbued with purpose that they did not fight. I think she is a fitting inclusion in the 70. She leaves an example to be followed – which is why I bless my own daughters “May you be like Sarah, Rivka and Asenat”.

Structure

The stories of our forefathers provide us with a series of lessons. They build on one another, giving us a roadmap to our own actualization.

Avraham starts with a love of G-d and a desire to help his fellow man. He learns the fear of G-d – the ability to act even when you don’t understand.

Yitzchak grasps for the solid and concrete – Esav’s food, Rivka’s sport, farming – but learns to appreciate that what truly matters is the relationships and the connection to G-d.

Yaacov is full of will and wants to revolutionize the world – but learns that change comes through working with the reality that already exists. He learns self-control.

Yehudah learns to take responsibility for the powerless and weak.

And Yosef discovers purpose and how to both motivate and unlock the potential of others.

This is a story of developing and empowering middot. Start by wanting to help and then learn to fear G-d, value relationships, work with the world, take responsibility for the weak and powerless and both motivate and unlock the potential of others. This is a story of growth. It is a model for us to follow.

I said earlier that Yosef reached his pinnacle when the brother’s came. I believe he fell from there.

When he made sharecroppers of the Egyptians and provided the Jewish people with welfare payments by the head he locked up the potential of others, took advantage of the weak and powerless, revolutionized the world, destroyed long-standing relationships and stopped asking G-d for direction.

All because he wanted to help.

This reading is a warning to us – in our own development. Should we find ourselves at our own pinnacle of influence and power, we should act with humility. Our goals must remain to empower others . Our goal can not be to so-called ‘help’ them.

If we direct their lives, we rob them of their own responsibility. We rob them of their own slice of divinity.

That is exactly the reality Joseph creates. The office of Pharaoh gathers great responsibility, becoming the greatest example of human power – and a fitting archetype to show the limits of that power in the showdown with G-d. The Jews multiply and are enslaved – perhaps their dependency on Joseph’s payments meant they could not afford to run. And the Egyptians are robbed of their humanity – allowing them to be the cannon fodder of the Exodus story.

It is a sobering story.

Instructional

This section is based on common questions and my answers.

Why didn’t Yosef tell his father he was in Egypt?

On some level, Yosef wanted nothing to do with his family. The name of his first-born son reinforces this.

41:51 And Yosef called the name of the first-born Manasseh: 'for God hath made me forget all my toil, and all my father's house.' 

I think, when he took Benyamin captive, Yosef might have meant to keep him had Yehudah not stepped up. After all, given the family he was cast from, Benyamin would have been better off in Yosef’s own house. It might have been his plan all along.

Why did Joseph relent for Yehudah?

When all the brothers offered themselves up, no single brother was willing to lose. When Yehudah stepped up alone Yosef saw the competitiveness that had driven them to sell Yosef had been overcome. The family, through their own lessons (see Tamar) and Yosef’s tests had grown beyond the family that Yosef had escaped.

Is Yaacov’s behavior unseemly?

Yaacov complains about how few and evil the days of his life have been. We might read this as some poetic commentary except that in recent readings he also seems to focus on the negative.

For example:

42: 36 And Jacob their father said unto them: 'Me have ye bereaved of my children: Joseph is not, and Simeon is not, and ye will take Benjamin away; upon me are all these things come.' ... 38 And he said: 'My son shall not go down with you; for his brother is dead, and he only is left; if harm befall him by the way in which ye go, then will ye bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to the grave.

He is telling his own sons that they don’t count and acting as if all the misfortune is his alone.

It is all very negative and self-centered.

Might his life had been better if he had not thought himself the victim and bereaved party? Maybe he wouldn’t have forced his brother to sell the birthright or tricked his father and never seen his mother again?

Then again, if he hadn’t been that person maybe he would never had become Israel – who battles against man and G-d and prevails.

I guess it goes to show that even the Torah can cast a tragic hero.

Conclusion

That’s it for the first edition of the new version of this podcast. If you enjoyed it, please share – either the podcast itself or whatever thoughts you harvested from it.

If you enjoyed this, you might enjoy a thriller I wrote about the ideas of blessing and curse. It is called The Hidden Agent and it up at josephcox.com/agent. It is also free.

If you have any feedback – things you liked or didn’t like – I happy and eager to take criticism.

Thanks for listening/reading and have a great week/Shabbat!

Photo by wilsan u on Unsplash

  1. Yosef Yaffe says:

    about Asnat: there is a midrash that she was the daughter of Dinah and Sh’chem, sent off to Egypt. By including her in the 70, the 33/32 discrepancy of Leah’s family is resolved too, without necessitating Yocheved, who is not mentioned by name in the parsha.

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