J.J Gross
J.J Gross

Miketz: Was Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream really that impressive?

Thoughts on Parshat Miketz

1.The underlying brilliance of Josephs interpretation
2.Joseph’s self-imposed alienation from his father
3.Jacob’s inexplicable decisions

In retrospect one has to wonder why the viziers of Egypt could not interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. Those two dreams were hardly very abstract. It does not seem like rocket science for a skilled interpreter of dreams to figure them out – two identical dreams one about cows the other about grain; the thin consuming the fat, indicating a famine that would affect both agriculture and animals. One would imagine that Pharaoh would be greatly disappointed in his advisors once Joseph, in the style of Sherlock Holmes, virtually says “elementary my dear Pharaoh”. And yet Pharaoh instantly perceives Joseph as someone unique, truly in a class by himself. What triggered this realization?

Joseph says (Genesis 41:25) חלום פרעה אחד הוא את אשר האלהים עשה הגיד לפרעה . Pharaoh’s dream is one (אחד), that which G-d is doing he has told to Pharaoh. On the surface this verse makes no sense. Joseph should have said “Pharaoh’s dreams (plural) are the same”, rather than referring to the two dreams as singular.

I would suggest Pharaoh’s awe of Joseph is rooted in this sentence, rather than in the actual interpretation itself. “אחד” is a reference to Joseph’s G-d. This is made abundantly clear by the balance of the verse, i.e. Pharaoh’s dream is G-D (אחד). Not only does Joseph, unlike the Egyptian viziers, not take credit for his interpretation, he goes much further and gives credit for both the dream and its meaning to G-d himself.

In Egypt, Pharaoh is god. The only one who knows this is not true, of course, is Pharaoh himself. Others may suspect this to be the case, but none dare to say so openly. Hence, Pharaoh trusts Joseph instantly, as clearly Joseph is neither a self-promoter nor one to mince words even if it means risking his own life.

As part of his elevation to viceroy, Joseph marries Osnat who is referred to repeatedly as Osnat the daughter of Poti-phera Priest of On .   This is similar to the way the Torah refers later to Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law as the Priest of Midian. Why does the Torah share this seemingly irrelevant biographical detail? One would think hardly think it adds anything positive to either Joseph’s or Moses’ pedigree (יחוס) to have a pagan priest as their father-in-law. And yet we know that in Moses’ case he was very respectful of Jethro and heeded his advice. I would therefore suggest that Poti-phera was likewise no lightweight, and may have had a strong influence on Joseph’s development. Indeed, he have been a key advisor to his son-in-law the viceroy.

A minimum of nine years now elapse – seven years of plenty, two of famine – and Joseph makes zero effort to reconnect with his family, or to notify his father that he is alive and well, or even to inquire whether his father is still alive. His indifference is absolute.

 ויהי רעב בכל הארצות ובכל ארץ מצרים היה לחם “And there was famine in all the lands (including Canaan) but in all the land of Egypt there was bread” (41:54) …  וכל הארץ באו מצרימה לשבר אל יוסף“And every land came to Egypt to obtain bread.” (41:57).

Apparently it did not take prophecy on Jacob’s part when we read (42:1)וירא יעקב כי יש שבר במצרים “And Jacob saw that there was food in Egypt”. Clearly the traffic to and from Egypt was in full swing, and anyone could see where the food supply was coming from. Hence, when he says to his sons; למה תתראו (translated as why do you look at one another, and interpreted as meaning why do you make false appearances) I would suggest that תתראו is not from the root for the word “to see/appear” but rather from the root of the word “to fear”. Jacob observes that his sons are hedging. They are clearly afraid to go to Egypt even though all their neighbors are doing precisely that.

Of course, the brothers’ fear is understandable, as their only connection to Egypt is having sold Jospeh into Egyptian slavery. In all likelihood they were afraid of   מדה כנגד מדה (measure for measure; made abundantly clear by their words in 42:21;  אשמים אנחנו על אחינו אשר ראינו צרת נפשו בהתחננו  אלינו ולא שמענו על כן באה אלינו הצרה הזאת  “We are guilty over our brother … therefore this calamity has befallen us.”) that G-d would punish them in the manner of their crime. Or perhaps, remembering their brother’s dreams, they feared that Joseph may indeed have triumphed in Egypt. The last thing they wanted was to be within his grasp. Jacob, unable to understand the cause of their fear, prods them into making the journey to Egypt, as everyone else was doing.

וירדו אחי יוסף עשרה לשבר בר ממצרים“And the ten brothers of Joseph descended (to Egypt) to purchase grain” (42:3).

One has to wonder why such a large entourage was necessary. Why risk so many sons on such a risky expedition? Why didn’t Jacob assign two or three sons, or even one, and have them accompanied by servants? Why the need to dispatch the whole lot? Could it be that this was a decision made by the brothers themselves? That they needed strength in numbers for fear that they might run into Joseph who would be a formidable threat unless they were in a numerically overwhelming configuration?

One thing is certain, these boys had no intention of looking for their lost brother in Egypt. It should not have been particularly difficult to find a Hebrew Semite – radically exotic in both appearance and accent – if they would only make the effort. Indeed, with צפנת פענח (Joseph) so powerful in Egypt, surely they could have asked him for help in finding their long lost brother. Yet they make no such effort, and there is not even a discussion among them concerning such a possibility. Their lack of interest in finding Joseph is as absolute as Joseph’s lack of interest in finding them.

As for what was going on in Jacob’s mind, one can only speculate. Which parent would risk nearly all his sons for an expedition that clearly did not require unanimous participation? One might even ask, who would take care of the flocks of sheep and cattle in their absence? Obviously there must have been plenty of trustworthy workers to manage the livestock.

 ויכר יוסף את אחיו והם לא הכרוהו“And Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him” (Genesis 42:8). This is puzzling. How come Joseph had no problem identifying his siblings, yet not one among the ten of them was able to identify him? Clearly, as an Egyptian viceroy, he had changed the least in appearance as he would have no beard, unlike his Hebrew/Canaanite brothers?

Joseph demands that the brothers return with Benjamin in order to ascertain their integrity. How would he know for sure that the boy they would bring back is indeed Benjamin? Likewise, why does it not occur to them to bring back some random person and simply claim he is the youngest brother? Surely Joseph would have no way of knowing the truth.

When they report back to Jacob in order to fetch Benjamin, their father says something startling: אתי שכלתם “you have made me childless” (42:36). If he is referring to Joseph, apparently he knows somehow that they were responsible for his disappearance. More likely, therefore, he is referring to Simeon who remained in Egypt as Joseph’s hostage.

Having returned to Canaan, the nine remaining brothers seem in no rush to redeem Simeon   ויהי כאשר כלו לאכל את השבר אשר הביאו ממצרים ויאמר אליהם אביהם שבו שברו לנו מעט אכל “And it came to pass when they had finished eating all the grain they had brought from Egypt, and their father said ‘return (to Egypt) and buy a little more food’.” (43:2). Clearly, were it not for their renewed hunger, both they and their father were ready abandon Simeon as well.

It is at this point that Judah takes over and manifests his leadership over Reuben and all the others. For openers, he and his brothers lie to their father’s face; ויאמרו שאל האיש לנו ולמולדתנו  לאמר העוד אביכם חי היש לכם אח “ And they said, the man (Joseph) asked us regarding our birthplace and whether our father still lives and whether we have a brother” (43:7). None of this information had been requested by Joseph. The brothers had offered it of their own accord.

And now two strange things occur:

First, Jacob acquiesces and allows Benjamin to go. Why was it necessary, yet again, to send all the remaining brothers? Could not Benjamin have gone only with Judah? Or, if the entire family was going, didn’t it occur to Jacob to go as well? He may have been old, but his health was apparently good enough for him to survive another 17 years in Egypt. Under the circumstances, fearful of losing Benjamin; mistrustful of his sons; having already lost Joseph and Simeon; surely Jacob would be more at ease joining the caravan rather than remaining entirely alone in Canaan? Instead he chooses to be uncharacteristically fatalistic  ואני   כאשר שכלתי שכלתי ”If I lose, I lose” (43:14).

Second, Jacob had suggested (43:11) that the brothers bring a gift to Joseph; “…take some of the choice fruits of the land in your bags, and carry a gift down to the man, a little balm and a little honey, gum, myrrh, pistachio nuts, and almonds.” Clearly, then, there were local foods available, thereby contradicting what we had read in verse 2.

From the foregoing it seems the brothers had been in no rush to return the money they had found in their bags, nor did they wonder whether this inexplicable bounty might have a negative effect on the welfare of Simeon as hostage.

Upon their return to Egypt they make a clean breast of it, and the man in charge (not Joseph) says something which should certainly have caused the coin to drop:  …אל תיראו אלהיכם ואלהי אביכם נתן לכם מטמון באמהחתיכם כספכם בא אלי“Your G-d and the G-d of your father placed the treasure in your sacks, your money came to me…” (43:23). Surely these were uncommon words for an Egyptian to utter, a clear signal that should have been instantly comprehended. Who was this man and why did he add the words  כספכם בא אלי “your money came to me”? I would suggest this was none other than Joseph’s father-in-law Poti-phera Priest of On.

And still, the brothers either don’t get the message or choose to ignore its implications.

The Parsha concludes with the discovery of Joseph’s goblet in Benjamin’s sack.   אשר ימצא אתו מעבדיך  ומת “He among your servants with whom it is found shall perish”, declares Judah  (44:9). This is an eerie echo of Jacob’s words when Laban accuses him of stealing his idols, for which Rachel paid with her life.

Fortunately in this case, the consequences are very different.

Stay tuned for the conclusion of this remarkable episode in next week’s column…

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
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