Truth in the Eye of the Interpreter Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1-40:23)

Lev Eisner is a seventh grader at Krieger Schechter Day School (KSDS) in Baltimore.
Lev Eisner is a seventh grader at Krieger Schechter Day School (KSDS) in Baltimore.

When Joseph is in jail, he interprets dreams for two fellow prisoners, Pharaoh’s former cupbearer and baker. He gives them opposite prophecies: The cupbearer will be released, while the baker will be executed. Does Joseph choose these interpretations, or is the meaning of a dream pre-determined?

Biblical commentator Or HaChayim writes that the way a prophet interprets a dream determines the future. The baker seems to agree. The baker tells Joseph his dream only after hearing Joseph’s positive interpretation of the cupbearer’s dream. He thinks he will get a good interpretation too.

But Joseph gives the baker a bad interpretation. Why? Wouldn’t it be better for him to give only good interpretations? Getting the baker released from jail as well as the cupbearer seems logical, as the more allies Joseph has out of jail, the more likely he is to be remembered and released himself.

Joseph’s motive could be to make the cupbearer further indebted to him. After the cupbearer is released from jail as promised, but sees the baker executed, also as promised, he will feel he has been spared. This will make him more grateful to Joseph and more likely to remember him.

However, it is disconcerting to think that Joseph would essentially kill a man for his own gain. At this point, we need to question who Joseph really is: a gentle dreamer trying to interpret realistically, or a hard-hearted prisoner willing to kill to be released?

A passage from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) provides guidance. “Judge every person in a favorable light,” it says. I think Joseph deserves a little benefit of the doubt, especially since we don’t have the full story.

We learn from this story how to judge people favorably. It is important to remember that whatever we think about other people, we almost never have the full story, and should act accordingly. We judge people almost every day without even thinking, but sometimes it’s good to stop and think about our thoughts.

Lev Eisner is a seventh grader at Krieger Schechter Day School (KSDS) in Baltimore.

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