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Dreams and Circles

Adapted from a discourse of Rabbi Shneur Zalman, "the Alter Rebbe." by Rabbi Yossi Marcus[1]

In this week’s and last week’s parsha the Torah tells us of a number of dreams: the dreams of Yosef that led to his brothers’ jealousy, which led to his descent to Egypt; the dreams of Yosef’s prison mates and those of Pharaoh, which led to Yosef’s elevation to viceroy of Egypt, which eventually led to the descent of Yakkov and his sons to Egypt, the beginning of the Egyptian exile.

It is not a coincidence that the first and father of all exiles (Arizal) came into being through a series of dreams. What is the relationship between dreams and Exile?


Dreams accommodate impossibilities.  They allow opposites to coexist as one. This is because the part of the brain that discriminates between what can and cannot be does not function when one is asleep. All that remains is the power of imagination and fantasy, which allows for such imagery as a boat flying through the air (as in Rambam’s Eight Chapters, 1) or an elephant going through the eye of a needle (Berachos 55b). In a dream one can imagine oneself killed or dead while at the same time alive, or present in two places at once. Yet, the logical absurdity is lost on the dreamer.

So it is with the exile of the G-dly spark in the soul of man: it is asleep, its power of discrimination silenced. The life of a soul in exile is rife with contradiction. In the morning, during the prayer service, it experiences an awakening of love for G-d and a desire to leave its physical trappings and cleave to its Source. Yet it spends its entire day immersed in the mundane rituals of making a living. The meditations of the morning on the fact that nothing exists but He and the response of the heart to this awareness, quickly dissipates after prayer and the focus becomes the needs of the body. True, the Torah instructs man to work the field and gather its produce; but the intention of such work must be to utilize the physical world and direct it towards its Divine purpose. This, however, is not always the intention of the exiled soul when it leaves the world of prayer and enters the world of commerce.

The soul is liable to grow depressed, thinking that its prayer was an exercise in falsehood. Not so.

Let not a man’s heart fall, saying that his inspiration during prayer and his meditation were merely empty delusions. For exile is a dream-world; opposites can coexist. While he prays, he imagines that he has transcended an earthly consciousness and experienced a true love of G-d. But in fact, he has not transcended his self-love, thus it returns in full force after prayer. During the prayer of the exiled soul, self-love and love of G-d—which are mutually exclusive—exist in harmony. This coexistence may not make sense, but it is not falsehood; it is a dream. It is the nature of Exile.

In fact, the source of such a dream-like psyche, stems from a sublime source, the level of Iggulim, Circles.


The level of Circles is a nebulous “place” of latent potential that is beyond division. Like a circle, which has no beginning or end, the level of Circles does not contain higher and lower levels, nor right and left, kindness and restraint; all is one and equal.

(As the Talmud says regarding the differing opinions among the sages: “Both are the words of the living G-d.” [In other words, as the law exists on the level of Circles, there is only one opinion. However, as the law descends through the worlds of division, the law itself branches out to different but equally valid strains of kindness and severity, as in the arguments of Hillel and Shammai.])

[Iggulim and Yosher: Creation is described in Kabbala as a process including “circles and straightness,” iggulim and yosher (see Eitz Chaim, drush iggulim v’yosher). In short, iggulim describes the Divine light that does not conform or tailor itself to the recipient of the light. It remains “undefined” and infinite like a circle that has no beginning or end. Yosher represents the Divine light that conforms to the recipient; it is also called the “kav,” or “line,” which entered the “hollow” space of Divine concealment after the original tzimtzum. Yosher refers to the manifestation of Divinity through the ten sefiros as they are in the form of a man, the triads of Chesed, Gevurah, Tiferes etc.

One of the examples given for Iggulim is the soul’s powers as they exist within the soul, before they descend and manifest in the respective, and different parts of the body. The quality of energy that the soul delivers to the eye is different than that which it bestows to the foot. Yet as these powers exist within the soul, before their manifestation in the body, they are one and indivisible. (The proof for this is the fact that the energy of the brain, which is “cold and moist” exists side by side with the “heat and flame” of the heart. If these powers existed within the soul in a defined form, the “water” of the brain would douse the “fire” of the heart and vice versa. Thus it must be said that these powers exist in undefined form within the soul and can therefore coexist.) See Derech Mitzvosecha 76b. 

Iggulim “surrounds” its subject (makkif) and is not internalized. Yosher, on the other hand, is identified with ohr pnimi, a light that is internalized by its recipient.

Iggulim is associated with transcendence, faith, beyond nature and rules, while yosher relates to immanence, intellect and emotions, internalization, and the natural order.]

This level is expressed in a concealed way on the earthly plane—where there are differences, and right is the opposite of left—during a time of “sleep,” when the discriminatory mind absconds: the time of Exile, when opposites coexist. On the superficial level this takes place because during Exile the soul’s vision is disturbed. But on a deeper level, it is because the source of Exile is the level of Circles, where all is indeed equal and non-contradictory (Torah Ohr).

Pharaoh’s Dream

This explains a perplexing matter in the story of Yosef’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream.

Firstly, what was the great genius of Yosef’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream? And why were the Egyptian wizards incapable of such a simple interpretation?

Secondly, after interpreting the dream, Yosef tells Pharaoh to appoint someone to oversee the stockpiling of food. Why is Yosef giving advice to Pharaoh on how to run his country? He was asked to interpret a dream, not to dictate domestic policy.

And finally, Pharaoh reacts only to Yosef’s suggestion—“and the matter was good in his eyes”—not to his interpretation per se. Why is this?       


The main problem with Pharaoh’s dream was the fact that it contained opposites. The seven fat cows and the seven lean cows existed together at the same time, before the lean cows ate the fat cows. Thus the Egyptian wizards were thrown off. If the dream meant that seven years of plenty would be followed by seven years of famine, why was there a time when both cows existed together, implying that there would be plenty and famine simultaneously?

Thus they came up with other interpretations (such as the one cited by Rashi) that sought to account for this contradiction. They said that seven daughters would be born to Pharaoh and seven of his other daughters would die, at the same time. (It is not implausible that Pharaoh would have 14 daughters at the same time, since—as the king of the most decadent nation—he presumably had many wives and concubines.)

Yosef, however, saw the contradiction as the key to preparing for the upcoming famine. The simultaneous presence of both types of cows meant to say that during the years of plenty, Egypt should be conscious of the upcoming famine and prepare for it. Conversely, when the years of famine would arrive, they would simultaneously experience the years of plenty by drawing on what had been saved during those years.


So Pharaoh’s dream, which ultimately led to the father of all Exiles, contains within it the motif of contradiction, the symbol of Exile, when the “years of plenty”—love for G-d—stand side by side with the “years of famine”—spiritual lethargy.

And it is Yosef, who stems from the level of Circles, that sees beyond the immediate contradiction of the dream, and sees it its source, the level of Circles, where it is not a contradiction at all.

(That Yosef stems from the level of Circles, i.e., beyond the natural order, can be seen in the fact that he is punished for asking the butler to mention him to Pharaoh instead of relying entirely on G-d. Although, normally, one must create natural vessels for G-d’s blessing—as indeed Yaakov did by sending presents to appease Eisav instead of relying on miracles—Yosef was different, beyond nature, and was therefore punished for resorting to natural means (Toras Chaim, Vayechi). This is also why, unlike his brothers and father, who were all shepherds, living separate from the mundane world, Yosef was capable of living within mundane Egypt and at the same time remained Yosef the tzadik. Because he was beyond nature, he was able to live within it and above it at the same time. (This is the meaning of “the brothers did not recognize him”—they could not conceive of a person immersed in the physical world and yet remain a tzadik (LS 1, Miketz.)) 

Yosef’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream is therefore a fitting introduction to the Jewish people’s long history of Exile: with his interpretation he implanted the seeds of redemption—the ability to unveil the dream of Exile and reveal its source, the level of Circles (LS vol. 15).

(This is also the concept of the silver goblet that Yosef placed in Binyamin’s pack. Kabbalistically, this means that Yosef implanted the power of redemption within the Jewish people, which would give them the power to fulfill their mission throughout their exiles, from Egypt through the subsequent exiles. See Maamorei Admur Haemtzai, Miketz; Vayigash 5670, and next week’s essay.)

& [Adapted and summarized by Rabbi Yosef Marcus.]


[1] From a discourse of Rabbi Shneur Zalman, "the Alter Rebbe."



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