This Week's Torah Portion: Joseph Interprets the Pharaoh's Dreams (Part 10)

Dëvar Torah – Parashath Mi-Qétz (Genesis XLI,1-XLIV,17)

At the end of last week’s parasha, Yoséf (“Joseph”), having been thrown into prison at the instigation of the spurned and spiteful wife of his erstwhile master, Potifar, encounters two Egyptian officials whom he finds in prison with him, and interprets their dreams. Of these officials, the sar ha’ofim (“chief baker”) proves destined to be executed for his offense, while the other, the sar hamashqim (“chief cupbearer”), is restored to his former position.

Our parasha opens two years later, when Pharaoh suffers from disturbing dreams. In the first dream, eleven fat and healthy cows arise from the Nile, followed by seven thin and sickly ones, which proceed to devour the first set. This was followed by a second dream with the same pattern, in which seven healthy ears of corn are consumed by seven thin and sickly ones.

Pharaoh’s advisors are at a loss to explain these strange and disturbing dreams, and the sar hamashqim remembers Yoséf’s interpretation of his dream and sees an opportunity to gain favor in Pharaoh’s eyes. Yoséf is accordingly presented to Pharaoh, and successfully interprets the dream as signifying seven years of good harvests to be followed by seven years of famine. He advises Pharaoh to meet the crisis by appointing a wise and intelligent overseer to mobilize the country’s resources during the seven years of plenty, storing up grain against the coming lean years.

Pharaoh, taken by Yoséf, his interpretation, and his sobering advice, turns to his advisors and asks, “Can such a man be found in whom there is the spirit of G-d?” (XLI,38), and straightaway appoints Yoséf his right-hand man, mishneh lamelech, such that “only the [royal] throne shall I make greater than you” (ibid., 40).

The great 13th century sage Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban) offers an interesting insight into why Pharaoh seems almost to be requesting permission from his court advisors before appointing Yoséf his mishneh. When Yoséf asked the sar hamashqim to remember him, he stressed that he had been kidnapped mé’eretz ha‘ivrim (“from the land of the Hebrews”; XL,15), and the Ramban ad loc, notes that by so doing, Yoséf was deliberately calling attention to his illustrious lineage as a scion of Avraham, Yitzchaq, and Ya‘aqov, “and he did not wish that [the Egyptians] should consider him a Canaanite.” Accordingly, the sar hamashqim identifies him as a na‘ar ‘ivri (“Hebrew youth”; XLI,12) so that Pharaoh and his court were fully aware of Yoséf’s ethnic identity.

So, says the Ramban, Pharaoh turned to his advisors before appointing Yoséf “because he was a Hebrew, and they were bitterly hated by the Egyptians, who would not eat what they had touched or associate with them, for [the Hebrews] were unclean to them.” For this reason, Pharaoh felt it necessary to justify his decision, saying, in effect, that it was simply because no similarly qualified Egyptian could be found “in whom there was the spirit of G-d” that he had to resort to appointing Yoséf. It thus seems that, although Avraham’s name remained well-known, as the Ramban remarks (he was the first to be called ‘ivri; cf. Genesis XIV,13), it was not necessarily remembered with approval in all quarters.

Why, then, would Yoséf deliberately call attention to his ancestry among the Egyptians, when it would seem to have been a liability?

We can gain some enlightenment from the Talmudic elucidation of Yoséf’s appointment by Pharaoh. In Sota 36b we learn that Pharaoh’s advisors were not so easily convinced of Yoséf’s fitness for the task: “A slave whose master bought him for twenty pieces of silver you appoint over us?!” Pharaoh responded that he had seen marks of royalty in Yoséf, whereupon the advisors proposed a test: “If so, he should know seventy languages” — facility with languages being one of the marks of nobility (cf. Maharsha ad loc.). Yoséf received Divine aid through the agency of the angel Gavriel, and was indeed able to match Pharaoh, language for language.

At this point, Yoséf gave Pharaoh a taste of his own medicine, addressing him in the holy Hebrew language, which is not one of the seventy root languages of the nations, and which Pharaoh did not understand. Fascinated to discover the existence of a language with which he was not conversant, Pharaoh ordered Yoséf to teach it to him. Yoséf tried, but Pharaoh proved unable to learn Hebrew, whereupon he demanded that Yoséf swear not to reveal his embarrassment at not being able to learn the holy language.

Doubtless generations of Hebrew students have sympathized with Pharaoh’s plight, but we still need to ask why, if he was already such an accomplished linguist, should Hebrew prove so difficult for him.

In my humble opinion, the explanation of Pharaoh’s frustrations lies not in the intricate complexities of Hebrew grammar, but rather in the supernal spiritual light which suffuses every letter of the holy language. Names and words in the holy language are directly linked to spiritual realities in ways inconceivable with other tongues. Thus, when Gavriel granted Yoséf mastery over the entire gamut of that human spiritual capacity called speech, he did it by adding the letter from the Tetragrammaton to his name, as King David later sang: “[G-d] established testimony through Yëhoséf when he went out over the land of Egypt; ‘a language which I did not know, I understand’” (Psalms LXXXI,5, the only place in all Tanach in which Yoséf’s name is spelled with a ).

The Egyptian culture was the most hedonistic and depraved of the ancient world. Already when Avraham first encountered them, he had to fear that they would be motivated by Sara’s beauty to kill him in order to possess her (Genesis XII,12), and he forced the Pharaoh of his day to recognize the depravity and spiritual ugliness of his vulture. When Pharaoh suffered “afflictions,” and came to realize that the source of his trouble was his consorting with Sara, he told Avraham brusquely: “And now, here is your wife, take [her] and go!” (ibid., 19). Rashi tells us that this was because he understood the nature of his own people, “for the Egyptians were awash in lust,” and cites the verdict of the Prophet Ezekiel, vë-zirmath susim zirmatham (Ezekiel XXIII,20), i.e. they had all the self-restraint of horses in a barnyard.

This is why Avraham’s memory was in disrepute among the Egyptians and his descendants personæ non gratæ among them: He had forced them to recognize themselves for what they were, and they were repulsed by the picture. If ‘ivrim were considered “unclean” by the Egyptians, then it was a case of the pot calling the kettle black; it was the utter spiritual pollution which characterized Egypt and her culture that prevented Pharaoh from learning a language whose very essence was spiritual purity.

Yoséf had no illusions about the nature of the society into which he had been thrust. He understood that if he was to withstand its blandishments and remain unsullied by its coarseness, he would have to maintain a certain distance from the Egyptians. This he accomplished by being over-aware of who he was and what he was, even at the expense of the Egyptians’ esteem.

Rabbi Yisha‘yahu Halévi Horowitz, 17th century rabbi of Prague, known affectionately by the initials of his greatest work as the “holy Shelah,” tells us that there is an intimate connection between the seasons and the parashoth which are read during them. We are now in the midst of Channukka, the holiday which marks the victory of faithful Israel over the corrupt Hellenistic culture predominant at that time, and those who sought to assimilate to it, the Mithyavnim (“Hellenizers”). How is parashath MiQétz related to the season?

We see that the Egyptians, having decided that they could not do without Yoséf, tried their level best to assimilate him, flattering him with status and power, giving him an Egyptian name and the daughter of an idolatrous priest as a wife (XLI,45). Yoséf stood the test, so that when he sent gifts to his father at the story’s climax, he included with them a subtle hint as to what parasha he had been studying when he disappeared, a sign that he had remained the same old Yoséf (XLV,23, Rashi ad loc.). He had succeeded in raising the sons born to him in Egypt with such purity and sanctity that each merited becoming a tribe of Israel in his right. Through his noble and shining example, Yoséf laid the foundation for the resistance to assimilation which found its most poignant moment in the Chashmona’i revolt.

And this, too, is its meaning for us, for we are again surrounded by a hedonistic culture ready to embrace us with both arms, to assimilate us, and kill us with kindness. Quite a few years ago, Rabbi Re’uvén Feinstein, dean of the yeshiva of Staten Island, suggested in a talk at a convention of Agudath Israel of America that if we were to find a period in Israel’s history which serves as a paradigm for our experience in America, that period is the Egyptian exile. The story of Yoséf’s dedication and self-sacrifice teaches us that that culture can be resisted, and tells us how to do it.

A freilichen Channukka, chag Channukka saméach, to all!