Joseph, Freud, and the interpretation of dreams – thoughts on Parshat Miketz

And behold, from the Nile were coming up seven cows, of handsome appearance and robust flesh…. And behold, seven other cows were coming up after them from the Nile, of ugly appearance and lean of flesh… And the cows of ugly appearance and lean of flesh devoured the seven cows that were of handsome appearance and healthy; then Pharaoh awoke. And he fell asleep and dreamed again, and behold, seven ears of grain were growing on one stalk, healthy and good. And behold, seven ears of grain, thin and beaten by the east wind, were growing up after them. And the thin ears of grain swallowed up the seven healthy and full ears of grain; then Pharaoh awoke… (Genesis 40:1-7)

In the beginning of this week’s portion, the Torah relates to us the episode of the mysterious dreams of Pharaoh, along with their subsequent unsuccessful interpretations by the wise men of Egypt. The verses write, “Now it came to pass in the morning that his spirit was troubled; so he sent and called all the necromancers of Egypt and all its sages, and Pharaoh related to them his dream, but no one interpreted them for Pharaoh.” (Genesis 40:8). It was only after these unsuccessful attempts that the Chief Cupbearer remembered Joseph’s successful interpretation of his own dreams while in prison, and so Joseph was summoned to stand before Pharaoh to try his hand at interpreting the cryptic dreams. Joseph effectively interpreted the elusive meaning of the troubling dreams, and the Torah concludes the story with the words, “…the matter pleased Pharaoh…” (Genesis 40:37) Pharaoh accepted Joseph’s explanation, elevated him to an exalted position of power within his court and effectively changed the destiny of the Jewish people in Egypt. The question that arises from the above narrative is clear: why did Pharaoh accept the interpretation of Joseph –who up until this point had been an obscure and captive Hebrew slave — while disregarding all of collective wisdom of the necromancers and wise men of Egypt?

Dr Naftali Fish, a noted psychologist and author of the book “Nachas Ruach: Torah Based Psychotherapy and Tools for Growth and Healing,” gives a fascinating answer to this question based on a Torah perspective of Freudian psychology. This answer not only resolves the biblical text but also sheds light on the often overlooked cooperation between science and religion in everyday life. He cites Dr. Sigmund Freud, a 20th Century psychologist who is more commonly known as the Father of Psychoanalysis, who was a firm believer in the power and existence of the unconscious mind. And, as Dr. Fish notes, Freud was also of the opinion that our dreams are the medium through which we are able to access the unconscious. On dreams, writes Dr. Fish, “…their interpretation became a core component of classical psychoanalytical treatment, as a means to address the unconscious source of the client’s presenting problem.”(Nachas Ruach, pg. 228)

With this idea, Dr. Fish turns to the story of Pharaoh’s dreams which are depicted in this week’s Torah portion to point to the fact that Judaism holds great value to the power of dreams and that it recognizes the existence of an unconscious mind. Dreams are essentially a window to our hearts and minds, and oftentimes, their message is one that we know all along but for whatever reason cannot bring to the surface. This is exactly what transpired with Pharaoh in Egypt of old—the message of the dreams were just beyond his reach. Regarding the dreams, the verse states, “… but no one interpreted them for Pharaoh;” however, we know that cannot be the case in a literal sense for the previous verses clearly established that the necromancers were brought forth but that their interpretations were rejected.(Genesis 40:8) Rashi, the classical biblical commentator, explains that the wise men were summoned and did in fact interpret the dreams, however, their words were not to Pharaoh’s liking and fell on deaf ears. Why did Pharaoh reject them? According to Dr. Fish, “…One can assert that Pharaoh already knew the correct interpretation in his unconscious mind, but couldn’t access or recall it alone.” This answers why Pharaoh accepted Joseph’s interpretation—because the words of the unknown Hebrew slave “clicked” within his heart and mind, and it was the one which allowed Pharaoh to recall that which he already knew in his unconscious. (Nachas Ruach, pg. 239)

In addition to the novel interpretation of the biblical account, Dr. Fish’s explanation also sheds light on the strides that need to be made in understanding the integration between science and religion in our contemporary lives. The message we can take to heart is that, when viewed in the proper perspective, religion and science are not mortal enemies with divergent paths and viewpoints on life but rather the two can and should be joined together for the benefit of humanity.

We find many examples, both historic and contemporary, of Torah leaders who have understood this concept and applied it to Jewish life. The great sage Maimonides, who was both a master of Jewish law and a practicing physician, writes in Guide to the Perplexed, “He who wishes to attain human perfection must therefore first study logic, next the various branches of mathematics in their proper order, then physics, and lastly metaphysics.” (Book I, 34) Similarly, while describing the qualities needed to be appointed and considered a religious judge, he explains that in addition to vast knowledge of Torah, a judge must also possess “…a broad intellectual potential. They should also have some knowledge concerning other intellectual disciplines, e.g., medicine, mathematics, the fixation of the calendar, astronomy, astrology.”(Laws of the Court 1:1) The Sages in the Talmud Tractate Berachot 58a go as far as to write that there is a specific and unique blessing that must be recited when meeting a wise person of the nations of the world: “Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has given of his wisdom to mortal beings.” Finally, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his article “Religion and Science are Twins” eloquently sums up this idea: “The current argument between “religion” and “science” is deeply unnecessary. It involves a caricature of religion and a parody of science. It is structured around a set of absurd oppositions, between science and superstition, reason and revelation, knowledge and wishful thinking, as if scientists and religious believers were incapable of realizing the limits of their respective domains. We need both: science to tell us how the world is, religion (and philosophy) to tell us how it ought to be.” (

We see that rather than fleeing from the knowledge and application of science, the Sages of Israel have chosen instead to embrace and join with it in the perfecting of humanity. When understood and applied properly, this partnership between religion and science can enrich and ennoble our lives.

About the Author
The Author is a Jerusalem based Rabbi and Jewish Educator, and is the author of the Two Volume book "A People, A Country, A Heritage-Torah Inspiration from the Land of Israel."
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