Joseph Interprets Pharaoh’s Dream, Then Tries To Get His Own Dreams Fulfilled
by Rabbi Avi Geller
It was the middle of the night. Joseph was sleeping in his prison chamber, regretting ever having trusted an Egyptian butler. Two years had passed since he interpreted the butler’s dream, and he had still not been rescued!
Suddenly he was awakened. “Hey, Joseph! Wake up!”
It was the angel Gabriel. “Fast!” the angel said, “Repeat after me, Une, Deux, Troix, Qatre, Cinq.”
“Why do I have to learn French?!” Joseph protested.
“Don’t ask questions from angels!” came the reply.
Then the angel taught Joseph some English: “Father, mother, brother, sister – repeat after me!” Joseph absorbed every word. Next came German, Italian, Spanish and Swahili.
“It’s getting late!” protested Joseph.
“Silence! We still have 50 languages to go!” replied the angel. They learned Hieroglyphics and cuneiform, Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Icelandic, Finnish and even Hungarian. In one night, Joseph became proficient in a Babel of all the world’s 70 languages.
No sooner had Joseph received his master’s degree in foreign languages, when suddenly the door burst open and he was freed. He bathed, shaved, changed clothes and was whisked off to Pharaoh’s palace.
Egypt was the center of international commerce and a person’s importance depended on how many languages he spoke. Pharaoh himself knew all 70, and a long staircase wound its way up to his throne, symbolized by 70 rungs. Every visitor to Pharaoh was only allowed to rise to as many rungs as the number of languages he knew.
When Joseph was summoned to the palace, they assumed that a slave boy from a foreign land would barely be articulate in Egyptian. Were they ever in for a surprise! Egyptian, Arabic, Dutch, and Amharic – Joseph passed every test. Fiji, Portuguese, Aramaic and Congolese.
At last, when Joseph was on the 70th rung, facing the throne, he greeted Pharaoh with a hearty Hebrew “Shalom aleichem!”
Pharaoh was totally unprepared. “What language is that?” he inquired.
“Mah nishma?” asked Joseph.
Pharaoh was stymied. “What does that mean?”
Joseph explained that he was speaking Hebrew, his native tongue, and the original language of Adam and Eve (not included in the 70).
“If people find out that you know one more language than I do, they will make you the new Pharaoh and remove my head! I beg of you, please keep this our secret. Take an oath that you will never reveal this to anyone.” And Joseph took an oath to Pharaoh. (adapted from the Midrash)
Parshat Mikeitz continues the story of Joseph, who becomes Prime Minister of Egypt, prepares for the coming famine, and finally confronts his estranged brothers.
* * *
TRUST IN THE ALMIGHTY
“At the end of two years” (Genesis 41:1) Joseph was freed from prison. The Sages explain this two-year delay was a punishment to Joseph for asking the butler to help rescue him. On one hand, we don’t just “pray for things to work out”; we must make an effort to accomplish in this world – e.g. take medicine; look for a spouse or a job, and quit smoking. At the same time, we are aware that solutions come only from the will of the Almighty!
Question: How much effort is a person required to make?
Answer: It all depends on his/her level of faith. A great chassid once proclaimed: “All I have to do for a living is buy a lottery ticket. It makes no difference to me whether I win or lose, the Almighty will provide once I have made this minimal effort.”
An average person needs more effort, while a tzaddik can make much less effort. Joseph felt that he was required to ask the butler to help, to demonstrate effort. The Almighty, who ordained two additional years of captivity, obviously felt that on Joseph’s level he should not have asked the butler.
Joseph should have considered: Wasn’t it strange enough that Pharaoh’s two most important ministers should be in the dungeon with Joseph? Couldn’t he understand that the ministers telling him their dreams, was a message to him? Wasn’t God telling him something? Ultimately the butler would help, even against his will, so why should Joseph embarrass himself and ask for help?
Despite the extra two years, when the time of salvation arrives, it doesn’t dilly-dally. “The salvation of God is like the blink of an eye” — immediately Pharaoh has a dream. The Sages say this was on Rosh Hashana, when many prayers are answered. And God remembered Joseph…
* * *
The first time this dream is mentioned, the “Author of the Bible” gives rich details of the dream, whereas when the dream is repeated later it is much more subjective. Pharaoh saw 7 fat cows grazing by the Nile River (the food source of Egypt) minding their own business. Seven skinny cows suddenly appeared, looking for something to eat. (If they had found food they would not have cannibalized their brothers.) The skinny cows consumed the fat cows and yet remained as skinny as before.
Pharaoh awakened, and went back to sleep. He observed 7 fat stalks of grain, and 7 skinny stalks that appeared and consumed the fat ones. (Stalks don’t even have mouths, but in dreams you can’t ask such questions!)
Pharaoh woke up in the morning and kept seeing the dream vividly before him. He demanded that his “engravers” (experts in the art of symbolism) interpret the dream. They all tried, but couldn’t. (heard from Rabbi Yosef Berger)
* * *
JOSEPH IN PHARAOH’S PALACE
The butler saw that Pharaoh’s health was deteriorating, due to the stress of the dreams. “If Pharaoh dies, I may lose my position!” The butler therefore felt he must tell Pharaoh about Joseph. After calling him a demeaning “lad, Hebrew, and slave,” the butler had to admit that Joseph did know how to interpret dreams!
Immediately Joseph was summoned to Pharaoh. Joseph, in his humility, made no extraordinary claims and asked no reward in return. He merely claimed that interpretations come from God.
When Pharaoh repeated his dream to Joseph, he changed it a bit, either purposely to see if Joseph really knew, or unintentionally, as we often don’t remember exact details. For example, Pharaoh started off on the shore of the river (taking a sun tan!) while the original dream said “On the river,” stressing the Nile as the sustenance of Egypt. Pharaoh stressed the aesthetic aspect of the cows: “I never saw such poor cows in all of Egypt” (Genesis 41:19), instead of the fact that they were skinny and fat.
Pharaoh’s advisors had tried their best to give an interpretation: “You will conquer 7 countries and then lose them. You will give birth to 7 daughters and they will die.” Yet Pharaoh still heard the dream repeated over and over. A dream can be interpreted any way from without, and then stuck into the dream! But a dream must be interpreted from within, until it is clear that we understand exactly what it means.
* * *
INTERPRETATION OF THE DREAM
“Your dream is one,” declared Joseph. God judges the world on Rosh Hashana and was giving foreknowledge of the future to the leader of the greatest empire. “The dream reveals there will be 7 years of plenty in Egypt (the surrounding countries got the famine, but not the plenty), followed by 7 years of intense hunger. Appoint a wise person to gather and store the grain for 7 years, to prepare for the years of hunger.”
Question: Pharaoh only asked Joseph to interpret the dream. Who asked Joseph to give advice? Doesn’t Pharaoh have his own advisors? Now he may go!
Answer: This was part of the interpretation. Pharaoh waking up in the middle, and the skinny cows eating the fat ones, meant that he would wake up in time to remedy the situation by having the lean years live off the fat ones. Also by advising Pharaoh to appoint people to supervise the grain storage, Joseph removed any opposition of the advisors who all wanted a position in the new department.
* * *
JOSEPH BECOMES PRIME MINISTER
Pharaoh appointed Joseph as prime minister. From then on, Pharaoh would only be a figurehead leader, while the actual power over the people would be in Joseph’s hands. Pharaoh gave Joseph a new name – Tzafnat Paneach, “he who reveals hidden things” – and presented him with gold jewelry and a special chariot for transportation.
Pharaoh also gave Joseph a wife, Osnat the daughter of Potifera. Does that name sound familiar? The Sages explain that Osnat was really the daughter of Joseph’s former master, Potiphar. (When the wife of Potiphar saw in the stars that she would be Joseph’s wife, she really saw her own daughter!) This was done to prevent Joseph’s former master, Potiphar, from claiming that the Prime Minister of Egypt was really his slave. When a master marries off his daughter to his slave, this is proof he has freed the slave.
The Midrash goes a step further. Who was the mysterious Osnat? Joseph’s niece! According to the Midrash, Dinah became pregnant from her stay in Shechem and later had a daughter. Since this daughter was embarrassingly born out of wedlock, Jacob put an amulet around her neck stating she was Jacob’s granddaughter and sent her down to Egypt where she was adopted by Potiphar’s family (presumably living in the same house as Joseph, unknowingly).
When Joseph became prime minister, he traveled around Egypt in his chariot. All of the women were infatuated by the young and handsome PM and they tried to attract his attention. They stood on the walls to get a better view (see Genesis 49:22) and threw amulets and jewelry at him. Osnat also threw her amulet, and when Joseph noticed what was inscribed on it, he searched her out and married her.
Osnat gave birth to Ephraim and Menashe who, although they were born and raised in the palace of Pharaoh (as was Moses), were worthy of becoming tribes of Israel. Therefore we bless our children to be “like Ephraim and Menashe.”
* * *
The famine was the first of many historical events that, in hindsight, were the hands of the Almighty manipulating world events for the benefit of the Jewish people. Joseph prepared for the famine by storing away 20 percent of the produce during each of the 7 years of plenty, making sure there were store bins in every municipality, so the people could clearly see that the storage was for their benefit.
Finally, the famine arrived and the people all flocked to Joseph for grain. When he demanded a moral lifestyle from them in return, they protested to Pharaoh, who in turn derided them for not storing their own grain! The people replied, “We did, but it all rotted!” Pharaoh responded, “If he decreed that your grain should rot, he can also decree that you should all die. So be very obedient to Joseph!”
* * *
THE MASTER PLANNER
When the famine began, Joseph was prepared. He was not only the distributor of all stored grain throughout Egypt, but was also the retailer sitting behind the counter to make sure everyone had enough, and to prevent hoarding.
Question: After becoming prime minister, why didn’t Joseph inform his father that he was alive and well (even though beforehand this wasn’t possible)?
Answer: Had he done so, it would have caused a civil war! The brothers were afraid of Joseph when he was a young, defenseless boy. Certainly now as prime minister, he could have caused a war that would be the end of the Jewish people. (Rabbi S.R. Hirsch)
Joseph had a plan. He knew his brothers would eventually run out of food and be forced to buy from the Egyptians. So he made it illegal to take more than one donkey load at a time, so all the brothers would have to come down. Joseph also made everyone write their names in a registrar, which he examined every evening to immediately know when the brothers had arrived.
Joseph had an important objective. The House of Jacob was split. The brothers thought that Joseph wanted to get them out of the way. In addition, Joseph was upset with the brothers for the way they treated him. So Joseph wanted to rectify the situation by showing them they were wrong about him, and that even when he had them in his clutches, instead of taking revenge, he would be their benefactor.
Joseph had another objective: He wanted to put Benjamin in a situation of danger, to see if the brothers would protect him. This would remove Joseph’s own bad feelings toward them, and the family would then be reunited.
Let’s see how Joseph, the master planner, accomplished this double goal…
* * *
JOSEPH’S BROTHERS ARRIVE IN EGYPT
The scene shifts to the Land of Israel. Jacob was still mourning his son and therefore did not receive prophecy, which can only occur when in a joyous mood. Jacob did, however, retain an extent of Divine inspiration which hinted to him that “something positive is in Egypt.”
So Jacob sent his sons to Egypt to buy grain. Jacob was afraid of sending Benjamin, the last offspring of his beloved Rachel. Benjamin’s mother and brother (so he believed) both died on the road. Jacob warned the brothers not to be conspicuous, for fear of an “evil eye.” (“Wow! Look at those 10 tall, handsome brothers!”)
The brothers, for their part, decided to make an effort to find their long lost brother Joseph and bring him home. They each entered Egypt by a different gate, and spent three days searching all the gambling halls and prostitute dens where they assumed a handsome slave would be found. Of course, Joseph was not there!
Joseph continued to examine the “admissions list” every evening, eagerly anticipating his brothers’ arrival. Then one day he found the following entries:
Gate 1: Reuven, the son of Jacob
Gate 2: Shimon, the son of Jacob
Gate 3: Levi, the son of Jacob
Joseph had his secret police shadow the brothers, and was ready when they came to the prime minister’s office to request grain. The brothers all bowed before him. Joseph recognized them, as they basically looked the same as they did 22 years before. But they didn’t recognize Joseph; he had been sold as a slave before growing a beard, and was now dressed as an Egyptian. Of course, in their wildest dreams they did not imagine that the viceroy seated in front of them was their little brother!
Joseph remembered his dreams where 11 sheaves and 11 stars had bowed down to him. But here were only 10 brothers. A prophet desires to see the fulfillment of his prophecy more than anyone else. So Joseph knew that he had to get Benjamin down to Egypt…
* * *
“You are spies!” the viceroy bellowed. “You have come to see the weak spots of our land in order to attack us!”
The brothers denied the allegation. “We are all brothers, the sons of one man,” they proclaimed, unwittingly including Joseph as well. “We are 12 brothers, missing one, and the youngest is at home with our aging father. We have only come to buy grain.”
Joseph retorted: “My agents observed you spying out all the low-life establishments in our city. Did you expect to find grain there?”
The brothers, taken aback, were forced to admit, “We were searching for our lost brother.”
“And if you had found him?”
“We would ransom him for all the money in the world.”
“And if he was not for sale?”
“We came to take him in any case!”
“Aha!” screamed the viceroy victoriously. “As I said, you are dangerous spies ready to start an upheaval.”
Joseph then tapped his big silver goblet and added, “My goblet informs me that two of you wiped out the city of Shechem single-handedly!” (That really wowed the brothers!) “Now, I want one of you to return home and bring me your younger brother. He will never resist my interrogation and tell me the truth.” (Midrash)
Joseph then put the brothers in jail for three days to let them think the matter over, and have the seriousness of their situation sink in. Meanwhile, their families back in Israel were in danger of starvation if they didn’t return soon with some grain.
Question: Why did Joseph specifically accuse them of being spies? Why not just call them plain criminals?
Answer: Joseph was afraid that his brothers would be curious about this “Prime Minister” (not common in those days). If they had asked anyone who he was, it was common knowledge that he was a Hebrew slave boy who had interpreted the king’s dreams and was appointed prime minister. The brothers would have immediately guessed his identity. So how did Joseph prevent them from asking too many questions? Accuse them of being spies! (Rabbi S.R. Hirsch)
* * *
FEAR THE ALMIGHTY
Joseph released the brothers from jail on the third day, proclaiming, “I fear the Almighty” (Genesis 42:18) and don’t want your families to starve. (One of many hints they somehow didn’t get!)
Joseph suggested that one brother be kept hostage, while the rest bring home the grain they had purchased. Joseph chose Shimon, for fear he might connive with Levi to assassinate him. All of Pharaoh’s soldiers could not contain Shimon, until Menashe the son of Joseph (and his official Hebrew “translator”) calmed Shimon down and chained him. When the brothers saw Menashe’s great strength, they exclaimed, “This must be one of ours!”
* * *
THE HUMAN SIDE
In front of Joseph (who they assumed didn’t understand Hebrew), the brothers debated what transgression might have brought them to this debacle. The brothers claimed it was the cold-bloodedness of how they treated Joseph, ignoring his screams. Yet they did not regret the sale itself, which they felt was justified.
Reuven, however, argued that the sale itself was wrong, as Joseph was only a lad and had no bad intentions toward them. “We are therefore being punished for our actions,” he said.
Joseph, overhearing this conversation, could see that the brothers sincerely regretted his sale. Joseph became very emotional over this, and here the Torah reveals the sensitive side of Joseph.
* * *
AT THE HOTEL
On the way back to Israel, when the brothers stopped at a hotel to rest, Levi opened his sack of grain and found his money neatly returned. The brothers were frightened because this looked like a setup.
It was then that the brothers articulated a key verse in the parsha, “What is God doing to us?” (Genesis 42:28) They understood that all these events were the hand of God. (When one opens his eyes, he can perceive Divine Providence wherever he turns.) When the brothers got home, they discovered that all their money had been returned. “This must be a libel!” they feared.
* * *
When Jacob learned that Shimon was missing, and that the brothers now wanted to take Benjamin, he couldn’t believe his ears. “My mission in this world was to create a Jewish people with 12 tribes, and I missed it with the disappearance of Joseph. Now two tribes will be missing forever and you want to take away a third?!”
Reuven offered to “kill” his two sons (i.e. to have them lose the double-portion of inheritance), but this was rejected by Jacob.
The brothers decided to wait until Jacob would see the need to buy more grain. “He will see that he has nothing to lose because in any case we will all die of starvation,” said Judah.
When their food supply ran out, Jacob suggested another trip. Judah replied, “We cannot return without Benjamin. I will personally guarantee to protect him. If I don’t bring him home, I have sinned to my father for all eternity.”
Jacob agreed and provided them with double money, as well as a gift for the viceroy – a bit of honey and nuts and assorted goodies.
Question: Why didn’t Jacob include the delicious fruits of Israel?
Answer: It was a time of famine and no fruits were available!
* * *
IN JOSEPH’S PALACE
The brothers were separated from the masses and brought to Joseph’s residence. They were certain that the reason was to accuse them of not paying, so before even entering the house, they cornered an aide and explained that somehow they had found their money in their grain sacks.
“Peace unto you,” the aide replied. “Your God and the God of your fathers has given you a gift in your sacks. I received your money,” (Genesis 43:23). (This is another obvious hint that the brothers missed.).
Joseph arrived and the brothers bowed down, finally fulfilling the prophecy of the dream. Joseph saw his brother Benjamin and was full of emotion, so he ran out of the room and cried. Joseph washed his face and returned.
The meal commenced. The room contained three tables. One was for the Egyptians, who would not eat with any Hebrews (even their prime minister) who did not believe in their sheep-god. (They might serve lamb chops!) Another table was for Joseph and his family, and the third table was for their guests.
Joseph astounded the brothers by tapping on his silver goblet and grouping each brother by age and their mothers. The sons of Leah, Bilah and Zilpah were all seated together.
Then he turned to Benjamin. “You don’t have a mother, and neither do I. So you will sit at my table.” (How could he have known?!)
Joseph then gave the brothers presents and garments, favoring Benjamin five times more. This was to test the brothers’ patience and dedication to their younger brother.
“They drank and got intoxicated together” (Genesis 43:34). The Sages point out that this was the first time the brothers drank wine since the sale of Joseph, to express their sadness. Now they made an exception. Others explain that Joseph purposely wanted to get them a little drunk, so they wouldn’t notice when he put the money back in their sacks again!
* * *
BAD FOR GOOD
Joseph ordered his aide to return the brothers’ money and put his goblet in Benjamin’s sack.
When the brothers set off in the morning, he allowed them only a short distance and then sent his aide to overtake them. “Why have you repaid bad for good? My master was so good to you and you stole his goblet!”
This is the second time that this family, which was so exemplary in monetary integrity, was accused of theft! (The first time was when Lavan accused Jacob of stealing his idol.)
The brothers denied having stolen any goblet. They proclaimed, “He who is caught with the goblet should be put to death (the Noahide law for theft), and we, although not aware of this entire plot, will be your slaves as if we were accomplices.”
Joseph’s aide replied, “That is the correct judgment, strictly speaking. However my benevolent master will be lenient, and only the culprit himself will be his slave.”
The search began, starting with the oldest (as not to let on that he knew where it was), and ending with Benjamin’s sack — where the goblet was discovered. The brothers tore their garments at their bleak prospects for the future. They were angry at Benjamin, whom they suspected really did steal the goblet (as Rachel stole her father’s idol).
* * *
BACK IN THE PALACE
Joseph came to greet the criminally-accused brothers. “I knew you had stolen it even without my goblet in front of me!”
Judah (who now had everything to lose) and his brothers fell down at Joseph’s feet. “God has found the sin of his servants, we will all be your slaves.” This means they were convinced it was a punishment from God for selling their brother.
But the viceroy wouldn’t hear of it. “Far be it from me! Only the one who stole my goblet will be my slave, and you may return to your father” (Genesis 44:17). This purposely put the brothers in a dilemma. They had assumed this was God’s hand as a punishment, but if so, why was Benjamin — the only brother not involved in Joseph’s sale — being taken as a slave?
Rather, it now seemed that this Egyptian viceroy desired Benjamin as his private valet, so he planted the goblet in his sack. If so, the brothers knew that vengeful action must be taken. Judah, who had the most to lose, was ready to make the next move.