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When the Torah reports the dreams of Pharoah, king of Egypt in this week’s Torah portion (Mikeitz), along with Joseph’s interpretations, at first glance all seems to make sense. Pharoah dreamt of seven cows who emerged from the Nile rive, fat and healthy. They were followed by seven thin and emaciated cows, who emerged from the river and stood next to the healthy cows, ultimately swallowing and consuming them. Pharoah woke up, only to fall asleep once more and dream of seven healthy sheaves of wheat, followed by seven thin and sheaves which consumed the healthy sheaves. He woke up, and the Torah records that “he was distracted,” like someone who had forgotten something important and needed to be reminded. He called on his advisors, who interpreted the dream, “but not for Pharoah,” meaning that although their interpretations made sense, they did not “sit well with him.” That was because he had received the correct interpretation while he was still asleep, but forgotten it, and it was that interpretation that he sought to recall. Then, one of Pharoah’s advisors – his butler – recalled that his own dream had been successfully interpreted by Yoseph – and Yoseph was removed from prison and brought before Pharoah.

Yoseph’s correct interpretation was that the seven fat and healthy cows represented seven years of plenty and abundance of grain and produce to feed the Egyptians. The seven thin cows represented seven years of famine, so destitute of food that they seemed to “swallow up” the previous seven good years as if they never occurred. After reporting his interpretations, Yoseph proceeded to advise Pharoah how to run his kingdom: “Pharoah should appoint a man who is understanding and wise to administer the land of Egypt…Gather all the food of the upcoming good years and put it under Pharoah’s surveillance in the cities” (Gen. 41:33-35). In other words, save the food from the good years in order to feed the Egyptians during the bad years. Pharoah was very impressed with Yoseph’s advice and made him viceroy of Egypt in order to carry out his own interpretation of the dreams.

Here are the questions:

1) What is so remarkable about Yoseph’s interpretation? It is fairly clear that fat and healthy cows and wheat represent times of plenty. And it is obvious that crops and animals occur in yearly cycles, so why did not Pharoah himself, together with his advisors, come up with this interpretation?

2) How could Yoseph, fresh out of an Egyptian prison, presume to mix in the government of Egypt and offer advice to Pharoah on what to do about the upcoming predicament, predicted by Pharoah’s dreams?

3) After Yoseph gave his interpretation, the Torah narrates that “the thing was good in the eyes of Pharoah,” referring to Yoseph’s advice. Why did Pharoah not first of all praise Yoseph’s dream interpretations, before going on to show respect for his advice?

4) Most of all; all of the above are questions on the simple textual meaning of the Chumash. And if so, why does not Rashi raise these questions? The fact that Rashi says nothing to explain the above questions means that they are patently obvious, even to the five year old learning Torah for the first time, and therefore there is no need for Rashi to offer explanation.

In order to answer the above questions, we need to understand why Rashi
mentioned the explanation offered by Pharoah’s advisors. Their interpretation was the following; “Pharoah would give birth to seven daughters and also bury seven daughters.” Since this explanation was rejected by Pharoah (as Rashi explains, “there were interpretations, but not suitable to Pharoah”), why does Rashi mention it at all? The fact that he did mention it leads us to the conclusion that Rashi considered the interpretation to be reasonable on the simple level of the text - albeit incorrect. And by analyzing the difference between his advisors’ interpretation and Yoseph’s interpretation of Pharoah’s dreams, we will understand what motivated Pharoah’s advisors as well as the greatness of Yoseph’s interpretation.

The Abarbanel suggests that the distinction between Yoseph and Pharoah’s advisors is the following: The advisors were knowledgeable regarding dream interpretation, as well as how the human imagination works to provide parables and symbols of real events in dreams. That is why they interpreted Pharoah’s dreams in symbolic terms, as parables (in this case, daughters), rather than understand them in a straightforward manner. However, Yoseph worked not only with knowledge and understanding of dreams, but also with ruach hakodesh – with divine inspiration. In this case, his divine inspiration told him that these were no ordinary dreams, to be interpreted symbolically. His ruach hakodesh led him to understand that these were dreams that meant exactly what they said, and they needed to be interpreted simply.

However, the Abarbanel’s commentary does not fit with the simple meaning of the text as we have seen it until this point in the Torah. All previous dreams in the Torah were meant to be understood simply, not symbolically. There was the dream of Yakov and the ladder, and there was Yakov’s dream of the sheep as they were mating. These were dreams that occurred naturally and meant exactly what they showed – angels ascending and descending, sheep breeding. The same is true of Yoseph’s dreams regarding his brothers – they applied to his family situation and it was not necessary to find any symbolic meaning behind them. Therefore, according to Rashi, it would be difficult to say as the Abarbanel does, that the difference between Pharoah’s advisors and Yoseph was the level of interpretation, since no dreams in the Torah up to this point carried a symbolic interpretation. And in any case it is always more elegant to find a simple interpretation that “works” rather than a symbolic interpretation that may or may not be accurate.

The explanation is as follows; both Yoseph and Pharoah’s advisors experienced a difficulty with a specific detail of Pharoah’s dreams. And that is that when the thin and unhealthy cows emerged from the Nile, they stood next to the fat cows before devouring them. If the interpretation is, as Yoseph said, that the cows represent good and bad years, then the thin cows should have followed the fat cows, but not stood with them simultaneously. Just as one year follows another, and a set of seven years follows a previous set of seven without overlap, so the thin cows should have followed the fat cows, without standing together with them simultaneously. It was incumbent upon Yoseph as well as upon Pharoah’s advisors to find a solution to this inconvenient detail.

Pharoah’s advisors found a way out by giving the dreams a symbolic interpretation. By saying that the dreams symbolized “seven daughters born and seven daughters buried,” they got around the detail of the fat cows standing next to the thin cows in the Pharoah’s dream. In those days, a king could take several wives and concubines, and it was entirely possible that daughters of one wife or concubine would live while daughters from another would die. Since it may occur that some daughters would die while others were alive, it was possible for the two to be simultaneous. This is why Rashi mentions the interpretation of Pharoah’s advisors, rather than just saying that it wasn’t acceptable to Pharoah. The problem with this interpretation, however, was that it just wasn’t correct – it didn’t fit with Pharoah’s understanding of his own dreams. Pharoah knew that his dreams had to do with his governance of Egypt, and not with his own personal situation.

And that’s where Yoseph came into the picture. Rather than give a symbolic interpretation of Pharoah’s dreams, Yoseph found a way to make them understood elegantly, on a simple level. He said that the thin cows stood next to the fat cows because the thin years were actually together “with” the fat years at the same time. Since the advice implied in the dreams was to store produce during the good years in order to prepare for the bad years, it was as if the bad years existed at the same time as the good years. That is, if Pharoah followed the advice implied in his dreams, the thin years would accompany the fat years because, as Yoseph told him, it was necessary to gather and store the produce during the fat years in order to prepare for the thin years. Since Pharoah now had knowledge of the upcoming years of famine and could prepare for them by storing food during the preceding years of plenty, it was as if both sets of years existed together, just as the thin cows stood next to the fat cows.

And now we may understand why Yoseph had the “chutzpa” to offer advice to Pharoah, even though he was only a servant just out of prison. Yoseph did not offer advice. Rather, he revealed to Pharoah the advice that was contained in his dreams – “prepare food now for the upcoming years of famine.” To do so, it was necessary to establish an administrator over all of Egypt, who could ensure that produce was stored and not consumed. This was contained in Pharoah’s dreams; it was not Yoseph’s advice. Rather than simply predicting seven good years and the seven bad years, the dreams informed Pharoah how to prepare for the lean years. It was this that Yoseph gave over to Pharoah, not his own advice. The detail that was difficult for Pharoah’s advisors to interpret – that the thin cows stood next to the fat cows – was what Yoseph was able to interpret to Pharoah’s satisfaction.
And that is why the Torah says that “the thing was good in the eyes of Pharoah.” The “thing” refers to the overall advice, rather than to Yoseph’s interpretation alone. Pharoah was more impressed with the advice contained in the dreams than he was with Yoseph’s interpretation, but in truth the advice emerged from within the interpretation. It was not Yoseph’s invention.

As always, there are deeper dimensions to Yoseph’s interpretations. Pharoah’s dreams, and Yoseph’s interpretations were both the reason for and the beginning of the exile of the Jews to Egypt. This is obvious on the simple level, since it was the arrival of Yoseph in Egypt that led to Jacob’s and his sons’ arrival as well. It is written (Psalms 126), “As we returned to Zion, we were like dreamersŔ So, it is understood that within the dreams and the interpretations are to be found the riddle of galut, of exile. Just as in dreams, we find impossible opposites existing together, so in exile we find opposites co-existing. The opposites within Pharoah’s dreams – the famished cows standing next to the healthy cows – is reflected in the reality of life in galut. On the one hand, we strive for a life of spirituality, in which during prayer we ascend to the heights of spirituality. On the other hand, we are faced with the demands of making a daily living and putting food on the table. The two exist together; the thin cows correspond to the need to make a living, while the fat cows represent the life of spiritual ascendancy.

It is Yoseph who teaches us how to join and live with these two opposites. His interpretation of Pharoah’s dreams shows that a life of spirituality may co-exist with a life of physical demands. Because in his soul-source, Yoseph was from a world that joined opposites together, he was able to put this world-view into action down in this physical world. And in so doing, he established the model for all Jews to manage both needs in exile – the need to grow spiritually while meeting our physical needs and elevating the physical world.

From Likutei Sichot of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, ztz’l, vol. 15, pp. 339-347 Rabbi David Sterne, Jerusalem Connection in the old city of Jerusalem