Following are some of the ideas, insights and interpretations that emerge from our weekly Chumash learning group at the Young Israel of Oceanside, Long Island. We cite sources when possible. Some of our interpretations may derive from ideas we may have seen elsewhere, possibly without attribution. Or we may simply have forgotten the source. For this we apologize. We invite your comments, observations and participation.
Pharaoh’s Dream(s) And their meaning
Rabbi David Fohrman’s Approach
The Unfolding Family Drama
Yosef Puts his Brothers to the Test
The Bothers’ Admission of Guilt
Why Didn’t Yosef Ever Contact His Father Yaakov?
Yosef interprets Pharaoh’s dream and…
Is appointed second-in-command ruler of Egypt
Seven years of abundance are followed by the onset of seven years of famine
Yosef’s brothers travel to Egypt to purchase food
Yosef recognizes his brothers but they do not recognize him
Yosef takes one brother (Shimon) prisoner and demands that the others return and bring their brother Binyamin back with them
The guilt-ridden brothers express remorse for their earlier mal-treatment of Yosef in front of him, unaware of who he is and of his ability to understand their conversation spoken in Hebrew
Yaakov initially refuses but eventually agrees to send Binyamin to Egypt with his brothers
Binyamin is imprisoned when Yosef’s missing goblet is found in his possession
Pharaoh dreams that he is standing in the Nile. Seven healthy-looking and fat cows arise from the Nile and feed in the reed grass. Seven other gaunt and thin cows come up from the Nile, stand by these healthy-looking and fat cows on the bank of the Nile then consume them. Pharaoh wakes up. He falls asleep and dreams seven ears of plump and good grain are growing on one stalk. Then seven ears of grain that are thin and blighted by the east wind appear and swallow up the seven plump and full ears. “And Pharaoh awoke and behold it was a dream.” Pharaoh wakes up (vayekaatz) in a cold sweat deeply worried about the dream whose meaning he felt on some level, thinking it was really happening and then is relieved that “behold it was [only] a dream”.
When the Hebrew word vayekaatz (which appears several times in the text) is used, it communicates more than just waking up. It means he “woke up” to -- he realized-- on some level the meaning of his dreams. For that reason, in the morning, when Pharaoh wakes agitated and troubled, and calls his Egyptian wise men and magicians he can reject their proffered interpretations. The name of the Parsha, Meiketz, is also related to the same root word. This Parsha is all about people suddenly gaining insight into the meanings of events in their lives. Pharaoh has a sense of the meaning of his dreams; Yosef’s brothers now think that the evil befalling them may be related to their shabby treatment of their brother Yosef when he was seventeen; and Yosef now realizes that his family did not disown or abandon him.
The chief wine steward speaks up, recalling Yosef’s correct interpretation of his own dream when he was a fellow prisoner, Yosef is hastily brought out of the dungeon, then shaves and changes his clothing and appears before Pharaoh. When Pharaoh explains that he had a dream that none can explain and that he has been told that Yosef understands the language of dreams, Yosef replies, “It is not in me; God shall give Pharaoh a favorable answer”.
Pharaoh states his dream but with some significant variation and comment. When describing the second set of seven cows he adds that they were “poor and very gaunt and thin such as I have never seen in all the land of Egypt for gauntness” and that after eating the seven fat cows “no one would have known that they had eaten them for they were still as gaunt as at the beginning”. He then describes the seven ears of grain growing on one stalk full and good that are swallowed up by the seven ears that are withered, thin and blighted by the east wind. Pharaoh’s repetition is more personal and drastic, colored by his fear and dread about the dreams’ possible meaning.
When Yosef is called upon to interpret the dream, he tells Pharaoh that “it is not me; God will give Pharaoh an answer of peace”. Yet when Yosef offers his interpretation there is no mention of God’s having communicated with a prophetic message. Rabbi Marc Angel’s answer to his question of “What role did God play in the story” is that He provided Yosef with “the intelligence and insight to be able to decipher the meaning of the dreams and to envision a sound plan of action”. When we praise God in our morning prayers “Who teaches Torah to Israel His people” we are giving voice to the idea that He has endowed us with a receptiveness to be taught by human teachers. We are given the potential to learn from others, to think, and to analyze. Yosef’s underlying but unspoken message is that it is ultimately God that provides us with the tools to learn and to accomplish.
Famines were of concern in Egypt, and may well have been on Pharaoh’s mind. For example, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks cites biblical commentator Nachum Sarna who quotes from an ancient Egyptian text from the reign of King Djoser (twenty eighth century BCE): “I was in distress…since the Nile had not come in my time for a space of seven years. Grain was scant, fruits were dried up, and everything which they eat was short.”
Yosef’s divinely-inspired interpretation was formulated based on the combination of the…
o Intensity (boldly italicized above) of Pharaoh’s words
o Dream images of the Nile (source of fertility)
o Number seven (periods of time)
o Disappearance of the full in the empty without a trace (famine after abundance)
o Imagery of cows (plowing) and ears (harvesting)
He tells Pharaoh that there will be seven years of plenty throughout the land of Egypt that will be followed by seven years of devastating famine. The dreams are one and the same but are repeated for emphasis because God plans for these events to occur shortly. “Repetition and parallelism mean definiteness and emphasis” states Benno Jacob.
Yosef recommends that Pharaoh select a discreet and wise leader to organize the harvest during the years of plenty and store the surplus for consumption during the seven years of famine. This unsolicited suggestion from a stranger who was a slave summoned from a dungeon may be part of the dream interpretation:
According to Benno Jacob the imagery of the lean eating the fat yet still appearing to be just barely alive means there needs to be transfer of some abundance to the time of starvation
Rav Jacob Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865 author of Haketav Vehakabbala and cited by Nechama Leibowitz) maintains that Yosef understood Pharaoh’s words “and I awoke” to mean that he suddenly realized (i.e., awoke to) the need to make the necessary preparations in the years of plenty to minimize the effects of the subsequent famine
Abravanel (also cited by Nechama Leibowitz) thinks that Yosef could not restrain himself from offering advice because “it is the nature of the Holy Spirit, once it enters the heart of man to force its message out, so that he could not keep it back.”
Rabbi David Fohrman’s Approach
Symbols are the language of dreams. Each represents a feeling, a mood, a memory or something from the unconscious. Characters, animals, objects, places and numbers are important. Dreams can be mysterious, filled with bizarre or terrifying images. The actual imagery and events in a dream sometimes disguise the unconscious drives or feelings of the dreamer.
Rabbi David Fohrman analyzes the words, motifs and ideas in the text and comes to the innovative conclusion that Pharaoh’s first dream was a medium for God’s communication to Yosef about his own past. The events leading up to the meeting with Pharaoh contain phrases and associations with Yosef’s life prior to his being sold into slavery, but in reverse order and importance. The second dream interpretation derived from Yosef’s new-found awareness of his past and its implications for the future.
Yosef is removed from the pit (it was a dungeon but the Torah chooses to describe it as a pit) and rushed to Pharaoh; some thirteen years earlier when he was seventeen years old, he was thrown into a pit by his brothers
Then Yosef had been stripped of the special, new garment, a colorful long-sleeved coat his father Yaakov had given him; now, when summoned to Pharaoh, he is dressed in a new garment
Then Yosef was sent away from the authority figure (his father Yaakov); now he is being summoned to the new authority figure, Pharaoh
Pharaoh has become the father figure. It’s as if the current events are a Deja vu (the phenomenon of having a strong sensation that an event or current experience has been experienced in the past)
Pharaoh says he’s had an incomprehensible dream. This contrasts with Yosef’s youthful dreams about being bowed down to whose interpretation seems obvious, at least on the surface
Pharaoh wants to hear Yosef’s interpretation; thirteen years earlier, Yaakov didn’t want to hear about Yosef’s dreams
In the dream, seven healthy cows are grazing ba'achu (in the marsh grass/swamp)—a word that only appears here in the Torah and whose letters can also spell echav meaning “brothers”. In the dream there is “grazing with his brother cows”. This hearkens back to when Yosef is described as ro’eh echav, “a shepherd with his brothers”
The seven healthy cows in the dream are described as v’efos toar (i.e., handsome/ good looking), an adjective that on different occasions was applied by the Torah to Yosef and to his mother Rachel. The seven gaunt cows that follow are described as rakos basar (emaciated), a term that is reminiscent of the Torah’s description of Leah’s eyes being rakos (weak, sensitive, swollen from crying).There are now “Leah cows” and “Rachel cows”. The “Leah cows” swallowing the “Rachel cows” alludes to the sons of Leah having committed the perfect crime of getting rid of (“swallowing up”) the son of Rachel (i.e., Yosef) without anyone knowing! The two sets of seven (cows) is a reminder of the first seven years Yaakov worked first for Leah and then the seven more for Rachel
Once God “tapped him on the shoulder” through a Pharaoh dream that echoed his own past, Yosef began to understand that hardship does not automatically result in death. Never despair. The job of the healthy cows is to sustain the gaunt cows, even if the latter do not remember the kindness performed to them.
Yosef and his family were nomadic shepherds, thus the theme of herds and cows in the first part of the dream. Because Egypt was an agricultural society, the imagery of the second part of the dream is grain. Rabbi Fohrman concludes that as he reflected on his life, Yosef realized that his childhood dreams about sheaves of wheat and celestial bodies bowing down to him were not about his narcissism and self-centeredness but were a prophetic communication that a day would come when the people of the world would come and bow down to him in their search for relief from famine. It is the message that was as true for him as it is for us: the responsibility to prevent total ruin by anticipating and taking the necessary steps when times are good.
The Unfolding Family Drama Continues
• Interprets Pharaoh’s dreams
• Is appointed ruler over Egypt
• Is given a new name and wife by Pharaoh with whom he sires two children, Menashe [because God has made him forget (nasheh) all his troubles and Efraim [because God made him fruitful (p’ri) in the land of his suffering]
• Develops an economic plan for the seven tears of abundance and seven years of famine
• Repeatedly emphasizes his belief in God as the source of dream interpretation
• The first Jew to live in Galus [exile], manages to avoid absorbing the surrounding culture and manages to “keep the faith”
• Go down to Egypt to purchase grain at the urging of their father Yaakov when the famine starts in Canaan
• Are not permitted to bring their brother Binyamin with them because of Yaakov’s fear that a fatal accident might befall him
• Are brought to Yosef who recognizes his brothers though they do not recognize him
• Are accused by Yosef of being spies
• Are put in prison for three days…then released, except for Shimon
• Are told to go back to Canaan with the grain and then to return to Egypt with Binyamin at which time their brother Shimon will be released from prison
• Say to one another in Yosef’s presence (not realizing that it was him and that he understood their words) that this trouble occurred because they didn’t respond to Yosef’s distress when he begged to be saved from the pit years earlier
• Are shocked and dismayed to find that the money they used to pay for the grain was in their sacks
• After hearing the brothers’ report upon returning from Egypt cries out: “You have bereaved me. Yosef is gone and Shimon is gone and you want to take Binyamin. All these troubles have come upon me!”
• Rejects Reuven’s bizarre proposal to have his own two sons put to death should he not succeed in bring Binyamin home safely [Note: Jack Sherman speculates that it was his deep love for his brother or possible deep guilt about not having saved Yosef earlier when he could have that prompted this absurd offer.]
• After the grain is depleted, accepts Yehuda’s offer to guarantee Binyamin’s safe return and that should he fail, “I [Yehuda] will have sinned against you forever” [Note: It may have been Yehuda’s words or body language or perceived sincerity that convinced Yaakov to take him up on his offer.]
• Directs his sons to bring some of the land’s exclusive products (balsam, honey, wax, birthwort plant, pistachios and almonds) as a gift to Egypt’s ruler
• Sends the brothers to Egypt with the gifts, double the amount of money, and Binyamin
When the brothers arrive in Egypt a second time, Yosef …
• Invites them to dine in his house
• Directs his staff to provide water for the men to wash their feet and to supply fodder for the donkeys
• Is so moved by the sight of Binyamin that he quickly flees to a side room and cries
• Seats the brothers in age order of each of the mothers’ children
• Serves separate food for him and for his brothers and for the Egyptians who considered the Hebrews’ food an abomination (because it included animals that the Egyptians worship)
• Drinks with his brothers until they are all drunk
• Surreptitiously arranges for his silver goblet to be put in the sack of purchased grain belonging to Binyamin
• Feigns outrage at what they did and demands that the culprit, Binyamin, be his slave and that the rest of the brothers can return home
• Rejects Yehuda’s offer that, although they know that they have done no wrong, all the brothers volunteer to become Yosef’s slaves and…
• Replies: “Far be it from me to do this. The man in whose possession the goblet was found will be my slave and you all may go in peace to your father.”
Yosef Puts his Brothers to the Test
Rabbi Menachem Leibtag speculates that the arrival of the brothers in Egypt and their bowing down to him triggered the memory of his teenage dreams, which at that time seemed egotistical but now, in retrospect, were prophetic. Yosef mastered the art of dream interpretation when it was about others (Chief Baker, Chief wine steward, Pharaoh) but it’s only now that it dawns on him that his own dreams were also prophetic and their meaning was that he was destined to be the head and leader of the family. As such, he needed to develop a plan that would unite his family. He must give the brothers the opportunity to rehabilitate themselves by recreating a situation with his brother Binyamin that was like the situation he was in and see if they would treat Binyamin any differently than they treated him. (T’shuva is when one finds oneself in the same/similar situation again but this time acts appropriately and correctly.) So, he has his goblet placed in Binyamin’s bag as a test to see if the brothers would protect Binyamin, or if they would just abandon him. Demonstrating their defense of Binyamin was an important positive for family cohesion.
The Bothers’ Admission of Guilt
Guilt is about feeling responsible for a crime; for doing something bad or wrong; or a bad feeling caused by knowing or thinking that one has done something bad or wrong. It is the feeling of being responsible for, or cause of, another’s misfortune, whether it is true. Guilt can arise from many sources including something one did; or something one did not do but wanted to do; or something one thinks one did; or the feeling that one did not do enough to help someone; or the feeling that one is doing better than someone else.
The demand that the brothers return with their brother Binyamin, triggers a discussion of what must have been a long-festering guilt over how they treated their brother Yosef years earlier, and how they ignored his cries for help. Later, when they empty their grain-filled sacks before their father and find their money they cry out “What is this that God has done to us?” In Benno Jacob’s view this represents a second step in their growing awareness of guilt, something they could discuss among themselves but were unable or unwilling to confess to their father. During the incident of the goblet found in the grain sack of Benyamin, Yehuda’s acknowledgement that “God has found the guilt of your servants” is a further confession of guilt for behavior that is deserving of punishment (not realizing, of course, that he was talking to Yosef, the very source of their guilt)!
Why Didn’t Yosef Ever Contact His Father Yaakov?
…Not when he was appointed “Chief of Staff” in Potiphar’s house and not when he was promoted to Second-in-Command to Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt. Rabbi Leibtag cites several possible answers:
o Ramban (1192-1270) thinks that Yosef’s ultimate and primary goal was to ensure the fulfillment of his childhood dreams which he now realized were prophetic in nature rather than manifestation of internal thoughts and emotions. To this end, he engineered a situation in which Binyamin would have to be brought down to Egypt and in which his father would also come. The united family would then witness and acknowledge his leadership position. For this to happen he could not communicate with his relatives. This need to fulfill his dreams was the excuse for Yosef’s cruel treatment of his family.
o According to Abravanel (1430-1508) Yosef planned to ultimately reveal himself, but before doing so he needed to be convinced that his brothers had completely repented for their terrible treatment of him. [Note: this explains why he treated his brothers the way he did but does not shed light on why he did not contact his father. Perhaps he thought that, in view of the Egyptian xenophobia, it would endanger his position if he were to bring Yaakov to Egypt.]
o Rav Yoel Bin Nun, a contemporary Bible scholar, reasons that Yosef had no way of knowing that his father believed he was dead, since the brothers’ scheme of bringing his bloodied coat to Yaakov occurred after Yosef was removed from the pit and sold into slavery. Initially, Yosef assumed that his father would demand that the brothers find him, the missing son, and bring him home. Or that the brothers would ‘fess up to what they’d done. But as time passed Yosef’s hopes were replaced with feelings of dejection and rejection. He could only assume that his family had abandoned him and did not want to contact him because of some divine decision that excluded him from the bechira [selection] process of building the nation of Israel. So, he forgets his childhood dreams and gets on with his life.
Everything changes when the brothers come down to Egypt and Yosef remembers his teenage dreams. He accuses them of being spies so that he can elicit information about his family without suspicion. His goal is to find out if Binyamin is still alive and, if he, too, was rejected by the family. He wants to speak with him and find out why he had been sold into slavery some 22 years earlier and what the family’s feelings towards him are.