This Week's Torah Portion: Why Couldn't the Pharaoh Learn Hebrew?

Dëvar Torah – Parshath MiQétz (Genesis XLI,1-XLIV,17)

At the end of last week’s parasha, Yoséf, 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, one, the sar ha’ofim (“chief baker”), proves destined to be executed for his offense, while the other, the sar hamashqim (responsible for the Pharaoh’s drink), is restored to his former position.

Our parasha opens two years later, when Pharaoh suffers from disturbing dreams. In the first, seven 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 on the same pattern, in which seven healthy ears of grain 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 dreams as signifying seven years of good harvests to be followed by seven years of famine. At the same time 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 seven lean years.

Pharaoh, taken by Yoséf, his interpretation, and his sober advice, turns to his advisors and asks: Hanimtza’ cha’ish asher ruach Elo-him bo? (“Can there be found such a man, in whom there is the spirit of G-d?” XLI,38). He straightaway appoints Yoséf his right-hand man, nishne lamelech, such that raq hakissé’ egdal mimmach (“only the [royal] throne shall I make greater than you”; ibid., 40).

The Ramban offers an interesting insight into why Pharaoh almost seems to be requesting permission from his court advisors before appointing Yoséf his mishne. 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”; XLI,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 take him for a Canaanite.” Accordingly, the sar hamashqim identifies Yoséf as a na‘ar ‘Ivri, (“Hebrew youth”; XLI.12), such 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 an ‘Ivri and they were bitterly hated by the Egyptians, who would not eat what they had touched or associate with them, for [the ‘Ivrim] were unclean to them.” For this reason, Pharaoh felt it necessary to justify his decision, saying, in effect, that it was only because no similarly qualified Egyptian could be found ki ruach Elo-gim bo that he had to resort to appointing Yoséf. It thus seems that, though 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: “You would appoint a slave whose master bought him for twenty pieces of silver over us!?” they asked. Pharaoh responded that he had seen marks of nobility, simanei malchuth, 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 trough the agency of the angel Gavri’él 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 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, did Hebrew prove so difficult for him?

In my humble opinion, the explanation of Pharaoh’s frustration 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 Gavri’él granted Yoséf mastery over that entire gamut of that human spiritual capacity called speech, he did it by adding the letter hé from the Tetragrammaton to his name, as King David would later sing: ‘Éduth bIhoséf samo bëtzétho ‘al eretz Mitzrayim, sëfath lo’ yada‘ti eshma‘ (“[G-d] established testimony through Yoséf when he went out over the land of Egypt; ‘A language which I did not know I shall understand’”; Psalms LXXXI,5), the only place in all Tanach in which Yoséf ‘s name is spelled with a hé).

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 culture. When Pharaoh suffered nëga‘im, “afflictions,” and came to realize that the cause of his troubles was his consorting with Sara, he told Avraham brusquely: Vë‘atta hinné ishtëcha, qach valéch (“And now, here is your wife; take [her] and go!” ibid., 19). Rashi ad loc. tell us that this was because he had come to understand the true nature of his own people, “for the Egyptians were awash in lust,” and cites the verdict of the Prophet Ezekiel: Vëzirmath susim zirmatham (XXIII,20), i.e. they had the self-restraint of horses in a barnyard.

This is why Avraham’s memory was in such disrepute among the Egyptians and his descendants personae non gratae 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” among 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 is 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 ever aware of who and what he was, even at the expense of the Egyptians’ esteem.

Rabbi Yisha‘ya haLévi Horowitz, the great 17th century rabbi of Prague, tells us in his monumental work Shënei Luchoth haBërith (Parashath VaYéshev 297a) that every season has an organic connection with the parashoth which are read at that time. We are now in the midst of Channukka, the holiday which marks the victory of faithful Israel over the corrupt Hellenic culture which prevailed during the Chashmona’i era, and those who sought assimilation to it, the Mithyavnim (“Hellenizers”). How is parashath MiQétz related to this 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 his wife (XLI,45). Yoséf stood the test, such 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 learning when he disappeared, a sign that he 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 own right. Through his noble and shining example, Yoséf laid the foundation for the resistance to assimilation which found one of its most poignant moments in the Chashmona’i revolt.

And this, too, is its meaning for us, for we are once again surrounded by a hedonistic culture ready to embrace us with both arms, to assimilate us, and so kill us with kindness. Some years ago, at a convention of Agudath Israel of America, Rabbi Rë’uvén Feinstein, the rosh yëshiva of Staten Island, suggested in a talk which he gave that if we want 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.