Skip Navigation

The Rabbi Writes

The Rabbi Writes



November 30, 2018
By Rabbi Yossie Denburg

In the second half of Genesis, everyone is dreaming; Jacob, Joseph, the butler and baker, even Pharaoh. In the butler’s dream:  Behold, a vine with three tendrils…blossoming… its clusters ripened…I took the grapes and squeezed them into Pharaoh's cup, and I placed the cup on Pharaoh's palm. 

Joseph explained: The three tendrils are three days. Thus in three more days, Pharaoh will restore you to your position and you will place Pharaoh's cup into his hand, according to your previous custom, when you were his cupbearer.

The baker is happy with what he hears, so he adds: Me too! In my dream, behold, there were three wicker baskets on my head. And in the top basket were all kinds of food, a baker’s work; and the birds were eating them from the basket atop my head. 

Joseph:  The three baskets represent three days. At that time, Pharaoh will remove your head, hang you on gallows and the birds will eat your flesh.

Question:  Considering all the similarities in their respective dreams - the three clusters and the three baskets, their dealing with their chosen specialties (wine and pastries) - why did Joseph interpret these dreams in such opposite ways?  Even more troubling: The butler’s dream is explained literally. His handling of the grapes means he will be restored to his former status.  In the baker’s dream however Joseph must resort to symbolism. The birds eating the bread does not mean that they will eat the bread; it means they will eat his flesh? Wow!

The famous Dubner Maggid (Rabbi Jacob Kranz, 1741-1804) explains it via a story:  A talented artist could paint a picture with such realism that it seemed at times impossible to distinguish it from actual life. He once portrayed a man in a field with a food-basket on top of his head. The painting was so authentic that actual birds were swooping down to try to eat the painted bread.  The artist even offered a handsome reward for anyone who could find a flaw. 

Many challengers came but the painting seemed perfect. One wise man countered. The painting had a serious problem. Birds would be too afraid to so closely approach a living person. Thus the painting possessed an inherent contradiction. Either the person in the painting is alive and the birds stay away, or the man is dead and then the birds enjoy the feast on his head. 

This was Joseph’s tipoff. In the first dream, the butler himself served Pharaoh. In the baker’s dream, he was passive, while the birds swooped down. This meant that he was not among the living. 

This was further demonstrated to Joseph by observing another striking difference. In his dream the butler was actively squeezing grapes and serving wine. In the other dream, things happen to the baker; but not by him. He did not place the baskets on his head, they are already on him. He is a bystander. He does not feed the birds, he merely observes.

This is the difference between life and its opposite. One pictures himself as a helpless victim of external circumstances. The birds swoop down and take at will while he remains a non-entity in his own circumstance. The other sees himself as a player and a doer. So Joseph knows that one dream represents life; the other, death. 

Joseph’s message speaks to each of us. They say there are three types of people: those who make things happen; those who watch things happen; and those whom you have to tell that something happened.  We all have challenges.  The question is, are we doing something about them, or are we waiting for someone or something to happen to us?

The sign of life is action. Do something. Make a move. Create change. Action is the path to freedom. So don’t go back to sleep. Inaction becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

One act is superior to one hundred sighs,” a great Rebbe once remarked.  This is true both in our personal and collective lives. We hear about the crisis of Jewish continuity or of the other maladies that plague our communities. We read reports, statistics, dire predictions…and we sigh. 

Stop worrying. DO something, anything. Sponsor a child’s Jewish education! Invite a lonely teen for a meal and a hug. Reach out to a needy neighbor.  Enough with the sighs! It’s time for deeds, even little ones. So squeeze a grape, serve another and G-d will do the rest.