Silent Dreaming for the Silenced Life: Commentary on Parashat Vayyeshev 5783
By Rabbi Jonah Rank, President and Rosh Yeshivah of Hebrew Seminary

I’ve learned to listen through silence.

 – Sara Bareilles, “Between the Lines” (Little Voice, 2007)

Approximately a quarter of the Book of Genesis relays tales from the generation of Joseph—him, his eleven brothers, and their sister—devoting more words to Joseph and his siblings than to any generation that preceded them. By the Torah’s own standards, Genesis vividly paints Joseph’s persona and highlights the personalities of a few of his siblings. Far narrower though are the doorways that invite us in to learn more about the inner lives of the women who birthed Jacob’s children.

For thousands of years, Jews have read Parashat Vayyeshev as mostly evading the mothers to Jacob’s sons and daughter. Joseph’s mother, Rachel, the wife whom Jacob loved most (Genesis 29:30), was reported to have died several chapters earlier, in the same breath when she named Benjamin, Joseph’s only full brother (Genesis 35:17–21). Rachel can no longer reside as an immanent presence among her children, but her spirit may have never truly left the conscience of her eldest son, Joseph.

Although Joseph’s brothers had a low level of tolerance for him (Genesis 37:4), he opted to share with his kin the dreams that overcame him and imbued him with a prophetic sense of the future (Genesis 37:5–11). Joseph’s own style of dream-sharing earned him no further favor among his brothers (Genesis 37:5, 37:8, and 37:11) and could even upset his father (Genesis 37:10). Joseph’s first reported dream, a bit enigmatic in some of the ambiguous language, reads as follows in Genesis 37:7:


וְ֠הִנֵּ֠ה אֲנַ֜חְנוּ מְאַלְּמִ֤ים אֲלֻמִּים֙ בְּת֣וֹךְ הַשָּׂדֶ֔ה וְהִנֵּ֛ה קָ֥מָה אֲלֻמָּתִ֖י וְגַם־נִצָּ֑בָה וְהִנֵּ֤ה תְסֻבֶּ֙ינָה֙ אֲלֻמֹּ֣תֵיכֶ֔ם וַתִּֽשְׁתַּחֲוֶ֖יןָ לַאֲלֻמָּתִֽי׃

Behold, we had been me’allemim alummim (מְאַלְּמִ֤ים אֲלֻמִּים֙) within the field. Behold, alummati (אֲלֻמָּתִ֖י) arose and stood. Behold, alummoteykhem (אֲלֻמֹּ֣תֵיכֶ֔ם) leaned and bowed la’alummati (לַאֲלֻמָּתִֽי).


Interpreting those murky untranslated phrases above—me’allemim alummim, alummati, alummotekhem, and la’alummati—depends entirely on what we understand to be the meaning of the Hebrew root aleflamedmem (א-ל-מ), from which all of those words derive. In almost all understandings of the verse above, the root aleflamedmem relates to sheaves of wheat, and the dream report comes to mean:

Behold, we had been sheaving sheaves within the field. Behold, my sheaf arose and stood. Behold, your sheaves leaned and bowed to my sheaf.

Joseph’s brothers were irked in imagining these sheaves as a metaphor for their agency in life—that, despite whatever work they would do in their own lives, Joseph would be not only Jacob’s most beloved son (Genesis 37:3), but Joseph would rule over the remnant of Jacob’s children. Their knee-jerk reaction in Genesis 37:8, bespeaks the brothers’ unwillingness to hear out their brother and only to understand his words as a thread:

הֲמָלֹ֤ךְ תִּמְלֹךְ֙ עָלֵ֔ינוּ אִם־מָשׁ֥וֹל תִּמְשֹׁ֖ל בָּ֑נוּ

Will you be a monarch ruling over us? Will you subdue us into submission?

Indeed, Joseph never tries again to interpret that dream for them; by the next verse, he is dreaming a new dream to summarize for his brothers. As students though of the Torah and the holy teachers who have reread the Torah as meaning something deeper than the words that float at the surface of our stories—we are privileged to give Joseph’s first dream a second chance.

The kabbalist, Rabbi Chayyim Yosef David Azulay, who flourished in the 18th century until his death in 1806, traveled throughout Africa and Europe, propelled by two goals: (1) to raise funds for his fellow Jewish neighbors in the Land of Israel; and (2) to study the most obscure sacred texts (and even occasional experiences) along the way. This wandering sage wrote prolifically about nearly any unique Torah teaching he encountered (or perhaps imagined). Based on his Torah commentary Chomat Anakh (חומת אנך), when reflecting on our verse, it seems that Rabbi Azulay concluded that the brothers misunderstood the root of Joseph’s dream—for the Hebrew root aleflamedmem referred in fact to “silence.” Joseph’s first dream report therefore should be read as something of a greater riddle:

Behold, we had been silencing the silenced within the field. Behold, my silenced one arose and stood. Behold, your silenced ones leaned and bowed to my silenced one.

What is a “silenced one” though? After citing a midrashic tale where Rachel once saved Leah from shame through a surreptitious silent action and after offering several aphorisms on how silence can lead to wisdom, Rabbi Azulay imagines Joseph addressing our question:


ובודאי קאים לי משתוקא דאמי וזה רמז והנה אנחנו מאלמים אלומים…  דגם לאה שתקה ובאנו מלאה ורחל אשר שתק״ו יחדיו אמנם והנה קמה אלומתי שתיקה דאמי היא העולה

And certainly I exist because of the silence of my mother, and this is the hidden meaning of “Behold, we have been silencing the silenced…” for even Leah had been silent, and we have come from Leah and Rachel who together acted silently. “Behold, my silenced one arose” [refers to the] silence of my mother; she is the one who has risen…


We know of little to no respect that the children of Israel afforded their mothers. In fact, among the few tidbits the Torah preserves of any of the twelve sons with their mothers is the recollection in Genesis  35:22 that Reuben, Jacob’s oldest son initiated an incestuous relationship with Bilhah, a mother to several of Reuben’s half-brothers. In contrast to Reuben’s taboo instincts, Joseph’s unconscious thoughts challenged the family to offer to at least Joseph’s deceased mother the sort of honor that she and none of her fellow co-mothers ever knew. In the endless chaos of a household run amok by thirteen children, was Rachel ever truly mourned?

It seems that Joseph did not seek unshakable authority over his siblings or anyone. In fact, later in his career in Egyptian politics, Joseph only ever made it to second-in-command at best (Genesis 41:41–46). Rabbi Azulay informs us that Joseph sought silence from his family—perhaps to recognize that the words and teachings of his own mother were cut all too short and all too soon, like a sheaf of wheat that still had time to grow. Rachel, Joseph’s silenced one, had returned in a dream, and finally his brothers could lean forward and bow and pay some respects to this venerable matriarch. But were they ready to mourn? They barely respected the living members of their family.

Parashat Vayyeshev opens with a stern reminder: to honor those whom we have lost we must also know how to honor our loved ones who still remain with us. A little silence can go a long way.