Abarbanel on the Parsha

For the week ending 31 December 2016 / 2 Tevet 5777

Parshat Mikeitz

by Rabbi Pinchas Kasnett
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Yosef Interprets Pharaoh’s Dreams

The main difficulty in this parsha is how to understand why Pharaoh accepts Yosef’s interpretation of his dreams and subsequently appoints him, a lowly Hebrew slave, to a position of enormous power and responsibility even before he can find out if Yosef’s predictions are correct.

The first key to answering the question is to analyze the wine steward’s recommendation to Pharaoh that Yosef be permitted to offer an interpretation. Besides the fact that Yosef interpreted the wine steward’s dream simply and correctly, he impresses upon Pharaoh several other points in Yosef’s favor:

  1. Yosef had no inside information as to the guilt or innocence of either the steward or the baker.
  2. Both of us were held in the exact same place, so Yosef could not draw any inferences from our respective positions in the prison.
  3. He could not make use of any astrological calculations, as we reported our dreams at the same time.
  4. He did not have access to any outside information, as he was with us the entire time.
  5. He is a Hebrew and a slave, and therefore ignorant of the customs and culture of Egypt and the ways of Pharaoh’s court.

Pharaoh is impressed and has Yosef summoned. Whereas Pharaoh’s astrologers offered deeply symbolic and metaphorical interpretations, Yosef’s interpretation is so simple that any Egyptian farmer could have said the same thing. Why then does it resonate so strongly with Pharaoh? First of all, it is important to understand that Pharaoh recognizes that his dream was clearly prophetic, and that the true meaning was blurred by images and metaphors that imitate but still obscure the simple message. Deep down the dreamer has an innate sense of the dream’s meaning. The correct interpretation simply triggers the proper response. When the interpretation is correct the dreamer is suddenly reminded, and feels in the depths of his soul that this was exactly what he saw. Yosef’s interpretation went straight to Pharaoh’s heart. He was not interpreting the dream. Rather he was revealing what Pharaoh already essentially knew.

Pharaoh already believed that dreams were a result of Divine inspiration, and that a correct interpretation could come only through someone with exceptional wisdom and understanding. Yosef informed Pharaoh of the enormous difficulties and complexities that would result from the fourteen-year cycle of plenty and famine. Pharaoh realized immediately that he had to appoint someone with that very exceptional wisdom and understanding to administer a new and comprehensive agricultural program. Yosef informed Pharaoh that whomever he chose would have to deal with the fact that the Egyptians would resist efforts to confiscate grain in order to prepare for the famine. This would require wisdom and sensitivity to guarantee the cooperation of the populace. He would also have to understand the intricacies of market economics, and would have to know how to store the grain properly to prevent it from spoiling. There would also be considerations in regard to selling the grain to other countries. Finally, there would be the complicated matter of supervising a large number of agents who would be tempted to steal for themselves. The bottom line was that Pharaoh would be faced with a monumental task that would require an extraordinary individual with the power of a king over the entire nation. In Pharaoh’s eyes Yosef was the obvious choice, despite his humble background.

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