Miketz: Interpreting Dreams

In this week’s parsha, Parshas Miketz, Yosef’s fate seemingly changes overnight.  With hardly a moment’s notice, he goes from being slave-boy turned prisoner to viceroy of the most powerful country in the ancient world!

When Pharaoh dreams dreams that no one can interpret to his liking, the Butler recalls that there is a Hebrew lad, a slave, in prison, who can interpret dreams.  Immediately, Pharaoh sends for Yosef.  וַיִּשְׁלַח פַּרְעֹה וַיִּקְרָא אֶתיוֹסֵף, וַיְרִיצֻהוּ מִןהַבּוֹר; וַיְגַלַּח וַיְחַלֵּף שִׂמְלֹתָיו, וַיָּבֹא אֶלפַּרְעֹהand Pharaoh sent and called for Yosef, and they rushed him out of the pit, and he shaved, and he changed his clothing, and he came to Pharaoh (Bereishis 41:14). 

Pharaoh, very disturbed by his strange dreams, relates them to Yosef the בַּ֛עַל הַחֲלֹמ֥וֹת – “the master of dreams”.  In his first dream, he sees seven skinny, gaunt cows consuming seven healthy, robust cows, along the shores of the Nile River.  In his second dream, he sees seven ears of grain, beaten by the east wind, consuming seven healthy ears of grain.  Greatly unsettled by these dreams, Pharaoh declares to Yosef: וַאֲנִי, שָׁמַעְתִּי עָלֶיךָ לֵאמֹר, תִּשְׁמַע חֲלוֹם, לִפְתֹּר אֹתוֹand I heard about you saying: that you hear a dream to interpret it (41:15).   

Yosef immediately declares that interpretations are to G-d (v.16), and then proceeds to explain the dreams to Pharaoh.  He tells Pharaoh that Egypt will see seven years of great plenty, followed by seven years of famine.  Yosef suggests that Pharaoh appoint a wise and discerning man over Egypt, who will stockpile, ration and distribute the food, so that Egypt will survive the seven years of famine.  וַיִּיטַב הַדָּבָר, בְּעֵינֵי פַרְעֹה, וּבְעֵינֵי, כָּלעֲבָדָיו, and the matter was good in the eyes of Pharaoh and in the eyes of all his servants (v.37), and Yosef – renamed Tz’fanas Pa’nei’ach – is appointed Egyptian viceroy.  

What is the deeper meaning and message of Pharaoh’s dreams?  What do these dreams tell us about our lives, our society, our failures and success? 

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the Rav, zt’l, teaches, “The manner in which we enjoy G-d’s blessing, the seven good years, determines how we will manage to survive the seven lean years.  If one is wise and lives in accordance with the morality of the plentiful in times of abundance, if one does not cross the boundaries of moderation and measure; if one does not surrender to irresponsible and boundless hedonism – then the onslaught by  the seven thin-fleshed ugly cows will be a limited one, and man can manage to survive and pursue a good, knowledgable, civilized life.  However, if man fails during the seven good years of success, if he remembers only the dream of the seven good and happy years, if he exploits nature and reaches out for a voluptuous life, if he remains insensitive to the ethical norm and tries during good times to empty the cup of pleasure to its last drop – then the seven ugly cows will attack him ruthlessly and mercilessly.  A cow is not a carnivorous animal; it is herbivorous.  Yet suddenly the seven bad cows became cannibals, like predatory animals, because society did  not know how to behave during the seven prosperous years.  The capacity of an excited, persecuted, and abused crowd to commit cruelty and to take vengeance is unlimited.

“That is what Joseph told Pharaoh: your dream reflects human destiny.  Conquest quite often ends in humiliation, prosperity in famine, happiness in distress.  Man is indeed a creator; however, he is a destroyer as well.  He moves fast, but he pays an enormous toll on his journey.  The seven good cows are always followed by seven bad ones.  Whatever is accomplished by the good is annihilated by the bad.  This tragic dialectic is part of human destiny.  However, there is a way to avoid the distress and disaster which will be caused by the seven cows, and that is the intelligent handling of human success.  Of course, you can, if you decide to ignore my interpretation, enjoy the seven years of abundance with a careless attitude – not anticipating trouble and not preparing yourself for disaster.  Pharaoh and the aristocracy would be provided with nourishment, but the crowd may be nonchalantly left to starve.  If this is the way you are planning to meet the future, then you may expect the worst – destruction and revolution.  However, if you decide to meet the famine intelligently and feed the people, if you accumulate lots of food for people to survive the times of need and distress but without profiteering or speculation, then the damage which the seven cows inflict will be very limited.  On the contrary, the onslaught of the satanic forces upon civilization will, instead of annihilating, strengthen the constructive elements in our civilization.  Whether the hostile demon abiding in our midst will succeed in destroying Egypt depends upon our action.

“Pharaoh apparently understood Joseph.  He said to his servants, ‘Is there another one like this, a man in whom the spirit of G-d dwells?’ (41:38).  He then put Joseph’s plan into effect” (Vision and Leadership, p.26-27).  

Chazal teach us (Megilla 14a): נְבוּאָה שֶׁהוּצְרְכָה לְדוֹרוֹת נִכְתְּבָה וְשֶׁלֹּא הוּצְרְכָה לֹא נִכְתְּבָהa prophecy with relevance for all generations was recorded, and one that does not have relevance for all generations was not recorded or written down.  Pharaoh’s dreams, and Yosef’s interpretations, have relevance for all generations, and so, they were recorded for posterity in the Torah.  How we behave in times of plenty, how we utilize the bounty G-d blesses us with, what we spend and what we wisely save when we have more than enough, will determine if we will survive the lean times that will surely follow.

It is not the Torah way to live a gluttonous life, and freely overspend.  One who utilizes what he has for avodas Hashem, in a measured and tzanuah fashion (see Ramban to Vayikra 19:2), will always live with a feeling that he always has more than enough.  And then, he will surely survive all times – both the times of plenty and those times when there is less.

בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום, 


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