By Rabbi Moshe Bloom
Torah VeHa’aretz Institute
“On the vine were three branches. As it was budding, its blossoms shot forth and its clusters ripened into grapes” (Bereishit 40:10).
Rabbi Elazar HaModa’i says: “Vine: this is Jerusalem. Three branches are the Temple, the king, and the high priest. As it was budding, its blossoms shot forth are the young priests. And its clusters ripened into grapes are the [wine] libations.”
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi interprets it as the gifts [that G-d gave the Jewish People]. “Vine” is the Torah. “Three branches” are the well, the pillar of cloud, and the manna. “As it was budding, its blossoms shot forth” are the first fruits. “And its clusters brought forth ripe grapes” are the [wine] libations (Chullin 92a).
A Breath Of Fresh Air In Prison
These homiletical interpretations are breathtaking. Even without understanding the significance of each detail, anyone who comes across them while reading the Biblical account—about a senior Egyptian official who “sinned against Pharaoh,” on the backdrop of the Egyptian prison—gets an unexpected breath of fresh air. If we consider the plain meaning of the verses, they deal with a man completely entrenched in materialism, the only thing on his mind being how to return to his former position (or simply get out of prison alive!). These interpretations, though, take us to places we would not expect to encounter in this dank, dark cell.
The question, then, is: What’s the connection? How can our Sages find such exalted references in the dream of Pharaoh’s butler? People dream about things on their mind during the day. We can assume that the ex-butler didn’t give much thought to the Jews’ redemption—inside or outside of prison.
It seems that this is precisely the point. Our Sages want to teach us that even when we are at the lowest point possible—both physically and spiritually—we can still take a deep breath of fresh air.
We can’t fathom what was on Yosef’s mind during his many years far from home. It could have been along the lines of: “What am I doing here? How is it that I, son of Yaakov, one of the pillars of G-d’s chariot, have become the slave of the most degraded and spiritually depraved nations?” Such thoughts can lead to total despair, which certainly leads to falling both spiritually and physically, since: “I can’t actualize my potential anyway; why don’t I just enjoy this world while I can?”
Yosef didn’t take this route. An inner voice prodded him to keep going. He did his best to excel wherever G-d put him, while maintaining his spiritual dignity and avoiding “sinning to G-d,” his rejoinder to Potifar’s wife following her repeated attempts to seduce him. This is what occupied his thoughts—not what Potifar might do should he catch Yosef.
Why does Yosef try to excel? What does he gain from it? Yosef himself probably didn’t know why he was there at the time, but he did understand that this was where G-d stationed him. Even if he didn’t understand everything, he had to do his job in the best way possible. In hindsight, we know how everything led up to Yosef’s appointment as viceroy of Egypt to save the nascent Jewish People and bring them down to Egypt. There they would be enslaved and ultimately become a nation worthy of receiving the Torah, and through it be able to rectify the world.
The Butler’s Dream Expresses Inner Truths
The butler’s story is not interesting on its own, and the clashes in the paranoiac courts (and there were many!) are generally not chronicled in the Torah. The significant part of the saga is the second time the butler appears on the scene, at the beginning of Mikeitz, when referring Yosef to Pharaoh thanks to their encounter in prison. This, in turn, paves the way for Yosef to quickly ascend to the top of the royal pyramid.
Just like anyone else, when the butler slept, his soul ascended to Heaven and saw many things. Here, it seems, the butler encountered the great visions of creation, but in his limited understanding he could only grasp the parable. When Yosef interpreted the dream, he tailored it to the butler’s understanding. However, that doesn’t mean that this is the most exalted level of its interpretation.
It might be more precise to say that the true significance of the dream is our Sages’ interpretations, while the one Yosef gave the butler was but a pale reflection of the dream’s true meaning. The dream was essentially about the grand vision, in which the Jewish People settle in its land, with all the resources it needs to accomplish its role in this world, as interpreted by R’ Elazar HaModa’i, one of the redemption-minded rabbis who supported the Bar Kochba revolt.
The ancient Israeli Amora, R’ Yehoshua ben Levi, adds an interpretation that essentially isn’t so different than that of R’ Elazar HaModa’i, yet it connects the spiritual to the physical in a more profound manner. Even the physical grapes—the same grapes the butler was so intimately familiar with—have a purpose in rectifying the world: wine libations on the altar of the Beit HaMikdash. While that was also mentioned by R’ Elazar HaModa’i, R’ Yehoshua ben Levi adds that there is also a bond between the physical and the spiritual: the water, manna, and physical protection came to the desert in a spiritual manner. The ultimate purpose of the Land of Israel’s fruit is to bring it to the Beit HaMikdash and pour wine libations, yet the ability to elevate the physical stems from the Torah, symbolized by the grapevine, from which everything originates.
Our Sages’ reading of these verses is to teach us to interpret correctly not only Biblical accounts, but also our lives as individuals and as a nation, where we keep sight of the fact that the ultimate goal at every stage, at every up and down, is to reveal the kingship of Hashem in this world.
Rabbi Moshe Bloom is head of the English department of Torah VeHa’aretz Institute. Torah VeHa’aretz Institute (the Institute for Torah and the Land of Israel) engages in research, public education, and the application of contemporary halachic issues that come to the fore in the bond between Torah and the Land of Israel today. Recently, the Institute opened an English department to cater to the English-speaking public living in Israel and abroad. For additional information and inquiries, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 972-8-684-7325.