Rabbi Yehuda Schnall – “Pharaoh’s Dream”

Nov 27, 2014

Pharaoh, we are told at the beginning of Parshat Miketz, rejects his wise mens’ interpretations of his dreams – seven fat and full cows and ears of corn followed by seven lean ones. The Torah uses the expression, “No one could interpret the dream for Pharoah: V’ein Poter Otam LePharaoh” (Bereishit 41:8).

Rashi, following the Midrash, comments on the force of the word “LePharaoh” in this clause: It’s not that no interpretations were offered, but not for Pharaoh. Pharaoh did not accept their interpretation, which was that he would have seven daughters and bury (presumably those same) seven daughters.

Yosef is eventually brought from his prison cell and interprets the dream to Pharaoh’s satisfaction. He tells Pharaoh that there will be seven years of plenty, followed by seven years of famine, and suggests a plan for coping with the famine by taking advantage of the years of plenty.

What did Pharaoh find unsatisfactory in the interpretation offered by the wise men of Egypt? Why did he reject their interpretation and accept Yosef’s? Several answers have been given. I want to concentrate on two that I think are related.

One answer emphasizes the word “Le Pharoah” even more than Rashi does. “Pharaoh” is presumably a title, not a proper name like “Seti” or “Raamses II.” The problem with the wise men’s interpretation was that according to it, the dream was addressed to Pharoah – the individual person (to Seti, or Raamses, or whatever his name was), not to Pharaoh as Pharaoh, i.e. not to Pharaoh in his role as ruler of Egypt, as bearer of the title “Pharaoh.” What the verse is telling us in the clause “V’ein Poter LePharaoh” is not only that (as Rashi says) their interpretation was not acceptable to Pharaoh, but also that according to their interpretation the dream was not addressed to Pharaoh as Pharaoh. And the latter can be seen as a reason for the former; i.e. Pharaoh did not accept their interpretation because he felt that he was given this dream in his capacity as ruler of Egypt, not as a private individual.

A second answer to the question of why Pharaoh rejected his wise men’s interpretation of his dream but accepted Yosef’s is that his wise men’s interpretation was fatalistic, whereas Yosef’s was activistic. If the dream meant that he was fated to have seven daughters and bury them, then there was nothing he could do about it beyond merely passively accepting this decree of fate.

Yosef’s interpretation, on the other hand, left room for significant action. Yes, there will be a famine after years of plenty; there is nothing we can do about that. But knowing about it now, before the years of plenty, gives us the opportunity to act to minimize the damage that the famine could cause. The final outcome of the situation revealed in the dream is as yet unknown, says Yosef, and remains, to a large extent, up to us. So let’s do something about it!

This activist interpretation was one that Pharaoh could accept; for why, he felt, would he be shown something of the future, if not because he could do something about it? The essential message of the dream must be that Pharaoh, as the leader of the most powerful nation in the region, can do something to avoid disaster in the region.

Pharaoh is not the kind of person we should generally emulate. But in this part of the story he seems to be acting as a responsible statesman, thinking beyond his personal life, and wanting to act for the benefit of all. We also should aspire to have dreams that go beyond our interests as private individuals, addressing instead our respective roles in our families, our communities, Klal Yisrael, and the world as a whole – dreams that call upon us to act for the benefit of all concerned. May we have such dreams, and may we be instrumental in making them come true.

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