This week’s parsha has all the makings of a bestselling novel – dreams and their interpreters, kings, famine, sibling rivalry and cunning plots. We will investigate the first aspect of this action packed parsha.
Parshat Miketz begins with the account of Pharoh’s dream. In the context of the story of Yosef this is not unexpected. We have thus far encountered two tales of dreams; those of Yosef himself and those of Pharoh’s ministers. However, as oppose to previously when the dream is retold by the person who had dreamt, here the Torah tells us of the dream in real time. The Torah informs us that Pharoh is dreaming and then tells us of the content of his dream. This seems a little strange if not superfluous. Seeing as Pharoh retells his dream to Yosef and this is also recorded in the Torah, one may wonder why there is a need for repetition. Furthermore, is a dream interpreted based on what objectively occurred during the dream or based on the perception of the dreamer? It would seem that Yosef merely interpreted what he had been told by Pharoh and had no knowledge of the dream described in the opening pesukim of the parsha.
In attempting to answer this question let us skip to the end of this section, the point at which Pharoh decides to appoint Yosef as viceroy of Egypt. Prior to announcing this appointment, Pharoh declares: “Hanimtza bateh ish asher ruach Elokim bo – Could we find another like him, a man in whom is the spirit of God?” (Bereishit 41:38)
What does Pharoh mean by this “ruach Elokim”? Maybe the answer to this question is found in the next pasuk as Pharoh states: “Acharei hodia Elokim otecha et kol zot, ein navon vechacham kamocha – Since God has made all this known to you, there is none so discerning and wise as you.” (Bereishit 41:39) It seems that Pharoh is attributing Yosef’s wisdom to God and thus sees in him the correct person with whom to entrust the responsibility for the economy of Egypt. The mefarshim, however, have different views on how to explain this pasuk.
Rashbam states that the “ruach Elokim” is seen in interpreting the dreams and, all the more so, in practical wisdom. Radak explains that Yosef’s wisdom is seen to be greater than that of the sorcerers and wise men of Egypt. This must be attributed to his “ruach Elokim”. Ramban makes a similar comment adding that Pharoh uses the phrase “ruach Elokim” in order to justify his appointment of a Hebrew slave to such a high governmental position.
It is possible that Rashbam, on the one hand and Radak and Ramban on the other are using two alternative understandings of the phrase “ruach Elokim”. Rashbam equates the dream interpretation with Yosef’s suggestions for running the country during the years of famine suggesting that both are based on logic, clarity and wisdom. These must stem from the Divine. This does not mean that Yosef was a prophet, rather that he had a gift of wisdom from God. (This is similar to the wisdom attributed to Shlomo Hamelech and which is actually the subject of the Haftarah for Parshat Miketz, rarely read due to Chanuka.) Radak and Rambam see the “ruach Elokim” as the spirit of God, a guiding hand which, Pharoh believes, will allow Yosef to make the correct decisions as viceroy of Egypt.
The distinction between these two approaches may become clearer on examination of another question which arises out of this parsha. Why is it that Pharoh accepted Yosef’s interpretation of his dream? What made Yosef’s theory more attractive than those offered by his advisors? The simple answer to this is Yosef’s suggestion following the interpretation of the dream. Yosef did not suffice with explaining to Pharoh the meaning of the dream, he continued to outline what Pharoh must do as a result of this dream. This was a somewhat brave move on Yosef’s part to say the least. Agreed, he had been brought before the mighty ruler of the Egyptian empire with a proven record in dream interpretation, but who gave him the right to advise Pharoh on economic policies. Surely that was neither expected nor wanted from him. It seems that Pharoh sees in this addition to the dream interpretation a sign of the truth in Yosef’s theory. Surely, a lowly Hebrew slave would not have the audacity to lecture him, the great Pharoh about his country’s finances if he was not totally positive of what was going to happen.
At this point we ask once again, what was the “ruach Elokim”? the ability to interpret the dream or the suggestions of how to deal with the impending disaster? If we see the “ruach Elokim” only in the dream interpretation, then we must adopt the approach of Ramban and Radak; it means that God shows Yosef what to do. If, however, we understand “ruach Elokim” as referring to everything that Yosef said then surely we are dealing with an abnormally wise man, a wisdom Pharoh acknowledges is a gift from God, as we explained based on the words of the Rashbam.
Now let us return to the dream itself. Yosef emphasizes time and again that the interpretations stem from Hashem. Here too, we might ask ourselves, is Yosef divinely inspired to use his innate wisdom or is Hashem using him as a vehicle for His prophecy?
On close examination of the two records of the dreams we find that Pharoh changes various details described in the original account of the dream. Some alterations are ones of style, the adjectives used to describe the cows and the sheaves. There is one important detail which Pharoh adds. After the fat cows are consumed by the lean cows, Pharoh states “Velo noda ki bau el kirbena umareyhen ra ka’asher batechila – one could not tell that they had consumed them for they looked just as bad as before” (Bereishit 41:21). Why did Pharoh add this or why was it omitted in the original account of the dream. Moreover, this statement is only made in reference to the dream of the cows but does not appear when Pharoh retells the dream of the sheaves. Rashbam explains that it would be irrelevant to add this detail in the original account of the dream for this is merely Pharoh’s personal impression.
However, are not all dreams a matter of personal impression? Dreams are not made of substance and what remains of them is primarily the impressions with which the dreamer awakens. Surely, all Yosef can interpret is what Pharoh tells him happened. This is true if we are dealing with mere wisdom, even if it stems from a Divine gift. If, on the other hand, we are witnessing the transfer of prophecy, then Yosef must be aware both of the objective, original account of the dream and of that retold to him by Pharoh. This explains why the Torah finds it necessary to recount the dream as it happens. This is the word of God, which will later be translated into action through the medium of Yosef. Yosef picks up on the differences between the objective, prophetical account and that told to him by Pharoh and therefore realizes that the addition of Pharoh must be telling him something. The fact that Pharoh perceived there to be no change in the state of the lean cows despite the fact that they had consumed the fat cows meant that there was something lacking in Yosef’s interpretation. He was required to find a solution to that impression. Thus after having delivered the interpretation, or prophecy, he continued by explaining to Pharoh how to cope with the impending famine. (Rav Meir Spiegelman suggests a similar idea in a shiur written several years ago on this subject. We have taken the idea to a different conclusion.)
Based on what we have stated above, Yosef was a form of prophet. However, he used his knowledge of the differences between the two accounts of the dreams to demonstrate his wisdom. Yes, he became aware that Pharoh had an impression of the dream which was not part of the prophetic account. But the ability to turn that knowledge into practical suggestions was based on his wisdom. We therefore have chosen to merge the two opinions cited above on the phrase “ruach Elokim”. Yosef was both a form of prophet and a man with a gift of great wisdom. For this reason, it would seem, Pharoh chose him as the viceroy of Egypt. For this reason too, it was Yosef who became the visionary of Am Yisrael and who understood that Hashem led us to Egypt to prepare us for an “extraordinary deliverance – lifleita gedola” (Bereishit 45:7).
[This understanding of the character of Yosef may helps us clarify another part of this story. Note that Yosef’s dreams were not interpreted by him but rather by his brothers. They, however, had neither the gift of wisdom nor had they been chosen by God to fulfill the role of prophecy. It follows, therefore, that their interpretation of Yosef’s dreams may have been incorrect. This must be taken into account when studying the remainder of the Yosef saga and especially the comments of Ramban on Bereishit 42:9.]
Shabbat shalom and Chanuka Sameach,