One recurring feature of the story of Joseph is his continual crediting of God with directing the many unlikely events that take place. God sends Joseph to Egypt. God interprets the dreams. God places Joseph in the role of Prime Minister. God is directing the show.
If God is secretly pulling the strings anyways, the midrash asks, why not bring Joseph out of prison right away to interpret Pharaoh’s dream, instead of having the magicians and wise men of Egypt have a first crack at it?
Well, it turns out that God has a flair for the dramatic. If Joseph had shown up right away and simply solved Pharaoh’s dream, then all the magicians and wise men of Egypt would have said: ‘Oh, we knew that, we could have told you if you had only asked us.’ Instead, they have to go first, and their incorrect explanations send Pharaoh into an even deeper funk than he is already in. So when Joseph shows up, he is seen as that much more of a hero.Pharaoh was having a tough time. He was dreaming of fat cows being eaten by skinny cows, and engorged ears of grain being consumed by shriveled stalks. He couldn’t sleep. He knew that his visions were unusual, and he sensed that they meant something big. But he did not know what. As the king of Egypt, the largest and most powerful empire in the world, Pharaoh was the most important and powerful man alive. The fate of millions depended on him. He could not afford to take such visions lightly.
The next steps that Pharaoh takes embody the qualities of a great leader demonstrates facing a crisis. Pharaoh demonstrates vision, wisdom, humility, and decisiveness in what comes next.
Our Torah portion describes what he does upon the arrival of dawn:
Next morning, his spirit was agitated, and Pharaoh sent for all the magicians of Egypt, and all its wise men; and Pharaoh told them his dreams, but none could interpret them for Pharaoh. (Gen. 41:8)
Does this mean that they did not offer interpretations?
Of course not! These guys are professionals. Dreams are their bread and butter. If Pharaoh has a bad dream and asks them to interpret it, that’s their shot at the big time. You bet they gave explanations.
Although the Torah does not go into the details, the midrash (B’reishit Rabbah 89:6) does. Rabbi Yehoshua of Sichnin in the name of Rabbi Levi says that they gave their interpretations, but they did not penetrate into Pharaoh’s ears. What were those interpretations?
In dream #1, the seven fat cows are the seven healthy daughters that Pharaoh is going to have. The seven skinny cows are the seven daughters whom he will bury. In dream #2, the seven full ears of grain are the seven nations that Pharaoh will conquer, and the parched ears are the seven districts that will be taken away from him.
So why doesn’t Pharaoh accept their explanations? They seem reasonable. Is Joseph’s interpretation, of seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, so qualitatively different?
Well, yes. When Joseph is brought up out of the dungeon, cleaned up, and presented to Pharaoh, the first thing he says is that he himself has no special abilities. “Not I!” says Joseph. “God will see to Pharaoh’s welfare.” (Gen. 41:16)
Impressed, Pharaoh tells Joseph his dreams, and Joseph immediately recognizes something about them that none of the magicians or wise men of Egypt has seen. But something that Pharaoh himself has seen. “Pharaoh’s dreams are one and the same: God has told Pharaoh what He is about to do.” (Gen. 41:25)
You see, there are subtle clues in the text that Pharaoh has already recognized that he has only dreamt a single dream. After the first half about the cows, the Torah says simply: וַיִּיקַץ פַּרְעֹה – “Then Pharaoh awoke.”
Then, after the second half about the ears of grain, it says: וַיִּיקַץ פַּרְעֹה וְהִנֵּה חֲלוֹם – “Then Pharaoh awoke: it was a dream.” Only after both parts have been dreamt does the Torah call it a dream. In other words, the two parts together make up a single dream. And Pharaoh knows this.
So when the magicians and wise men of Egypt start talking about him having and losing daughters, or conquering and losing countries, their words do not penetrate into his ears.
But there is something else that clues Pharaoh in as well.
For that, we turn to a medieval Rabbi, poet, and Bible commentator from Orleans, France named Joseph ben Isaac B’khor Shor. B’khor Shor’s commentary is focused exclusively on the p’shat, the plain meaning of the text. He comments on the inability of the magicians and wise men to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. “They thought that the two dreams were for Pharaoh’s benefit, about him personally; but he thought that all they told him was nonsense.” In other words, they were sycophants, kissing up to Pharaoh. The dreams are about you. You are going to have and lose daughters, and you will conquer and lose cities. But the problem is that Pharaoh does not actually appear in his own dreams.
Contrast this with the other dreams in the Book of Genesis, where the dreamer is always at the center of the dream. Jacob dreams of himself at the foot of a ladder going up to heaven, having a conversation with God. Joseph dreams of his sheaf standing up for the other sheaves to bow down to. Or he, as the sun, being bowed to by the moon and the stars.
Because Pharaoh is not at the center of his dream, he knows that it has much wider significance than his own person. And so he quickly dismisses his brown-nosing advisors.
And what really impresses Pharaoh, and seals the deal for Joseph’s rise from the dungeons of Egypt to become Prime Minister of the empire, is what Joseph says at the end of his interpretation:
As for Pharaoh having had the same dream twice, it means that the matter has been determined by God, and that God will soon carry it out. (Gen. 41:32)
Pharaoh, as the leader of Egypt and the most powerful man in the world, knows that his dream means something big. He does not know what exactly, but it is definitely significant. When Joseph confirms what Pharaoh senses, that his dream is a message from God, one that will be acted upon soon, he immediately takes action.
He asks this young Hebrew slave who stands before him for advice, and Joseph rises to the challenge, outlining a long range economic plan to use the budget surplus that is forecasted for the next seven years to create a rainy day fund that can be drawn upon during the economic recession that will follow. Not bad advice. Maybe someone in Sacramento should take notice.
Everyone in the room, not just Pharaoh, is impressed, and leaps into action by appointing Joseph to run the program.
Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz, of the Jewish Theological Seminary, who writes a weekly d’var Torah on Bekhor Shor’s commentary, identifies “five distinct steps in this brilliant narrative.”
First, is Pharaoh’s dream, which “represents a call to action.”
Second, is his “assembling of interpreters,” including hearing the voice of a forgotten foreigner who is languishing in prison.
Third, Pharaoh’s “discernment,” his ability to distinguish between the good and bad advice of his advisors.
Fourth, “his recognition of God’s presence.”
And fifth, the adoption of a “concrete plan” that addresses the situation directly and effectively.
Rabbi Berkowitz goes on to suggest the implications of this narrative to our world.
Each of us would do well to learn from the model of Pharaoh. When we are gifted with a vision and a dream, it is a call to action. The challenge is being able to seize the moment, assemble the proper group of interpreters, and implement an effective plan. Pharaoh and Joseph become partners in saving civilization—thereby affirming God’s Presence.
We are at a time of many crises facing our world. As we speak, global leaders have left Copenhagen with a relatively weak deal to manage climate change. We still face great unemployment and an uncertain economic future. We still don’t have a health care reform bill. And Iran continues to defy the rest of the world on its nuclear program.
At such times, the definitive leadership of Pharaoh in this morning’s parshah is be a model to us, and especially to our leaders.
To have vision, to listen to a wide range of voices and opinions, but to be able to discern the wise, visionary voices from those that are self-serving. To have an awareness of God’s presence, which I would suggest means being humble in one’s role as leader. And finally, to have the willingness, and the commitment to make a decision, and carry it out despite the hurdles that will definitely present themselves.
On this eighth day of Chanukkah, when we remember the decisive leadership, through both clear vision and bold action, of the Maccabees, may we and our leaders also find the strength to affirm God’s presence in the world by responding to the call to action to address the pressing needs of our day.