By Rabbi Joel Levy
In Genesis 41:8, Pharaoh has a disturbed night’s sleep. He calls for his wise men to explain his dreams, but no answer is forthcoming.
“And in the morning it was, his spirit was throbbing, he sent and called all Egypt’s magicians and all her wise men; and Pharaoh told them his dream; but no one could interpret them to Pharaoh”
The classical commentators offer various explanations as to why the wisest men in Egypt failed to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. Many note the curious shift between Pharaoh telling ‘his dream’ in the singular, and their failure to interpret ‘them’ in the plural. Perhaps the wise men failed to see that Pharaoh’s multiple dreams were really manifestations of one underlying truth? When they interpreted the two dreams separately it failed to still Pharaoh’s spirit.
Rashi suggests that the seemingly redundant final word of the verse – ‘to Pharaoh’ – relates specifically to Pharaoh’s role as king. He says that plenty of interpretations were offered, but Pharaoh rejected them because they mistakenly saw the dreams as relating to him as an individual, but not as a king representing the spirit of the country.
Rashi’s reading is literarily sensitive but dramatically far-fetched. Given Pharaoh’s role as the master of Egypt, his dreams would naturally be interpreted as signs for Egypt as a whole. Pharaoh was Egypt. On this basis, Rabeinu Bachya asserts that even ‘an unprejudiced layman would be able to see at a glance that the subject matter of the dream(s) was seven years of abundance followed by seven years of starvation.’ For Bachya, only miraculous divine intervention can account for Pharaoh’s advisors failing to see the obvious.
I prefer a solution hinted at in a Midrash in Bereshit Rabbah. After the king tells Joseph his dreams, he says: ‘va-omar el ha-chartumim ve’ayn magid li’ (Gen. 41.24) usually translated ‘I told them to the magicians but no-one could tell me.’ But what the verse seems to say is: ‘I told it to the magicians but no one would tell me’, or in the words of Bereshit Rabbah: ‘He quizzed all of them and couldn’t find a single person who would tell him the truth.’
It wasn’t that nobody could interpret the dreams, it was that nobody would. Pharaoh’s comment to Joseph does not imply limited capacity, but limited volition. According to this approach the amazing thing about Joseph is not that he was the only magical interpreter in town; it is that he was the only one prepared to tell Pharaoh about the impending disaster. Pharaoh promotes Joseph because he is the only one prepared to utter the truth that is staring everyone in the face.
Joseph is an archetypal diasporic dweller. He sees an opportunity to lift himself up from oppression and destitution, to rise to wealth and power. Only Joseph is smart enough, confident enough, desperate and naïve enough to become number two to Pharaoh, in charge of seeing the land through some utterly fraught years. In his new elevated role he ends up systematically dispossessing the Egyptians and creating seething resentment towards the Israelites. And of course, in the end, Joseph is the fall guy; useful to the administration for a while, but hung out to dry when that too serves his master’s interests. Joseph’s survival strategy works out well for him and his family, but only in the short term. We can see why the wisest men in Egypt colluded in feigning ignorance of Pharaoh’s dreams!
Rabbi Joel Levy serves as Rosh Yeshiva of the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, and is the rabbi of Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue