Pharaoh’s beef with the butler

We don’t often expect to learn good character traits from Middle Eastern despots, yet in this week’s parasha, Pharoah serves as an excellent role model.

In his dealings with his Royal Butler, Pharoah draws the praises of the Torah for the values with which he sees are paramount.

Nightmares in Cairo

After Pharoah’s dreams had given him several sleepless nights, he had called the best magicians, wizards and wisemen of the land to help interpret his unusual visions. Appearances of seven fat cows being consumed by seven scrawny cows and seven bountiful wheat stalks consumed by seven scrawny stalks had left all of Egypt clueless until the Royal Butler piped up and recalled his meeting with Joseph along wih the royal baker in jail:

Now the chief cupbearer spoke with Pharaoh…Pharaoh was angry with his servants, and he put me in prison, in the house of the chief slaughterer, me and the chief baker. And we dreamed a dream on the same night, I and he; each one according to the interpretation of his dream, we dreamed. And there with us was a Hebrew lad, a slave of the chief slaughterer, and we told him, and he interpreted our dreams for us; for each of us, he interpreted according to his dream. And it came to pass that just as he had interpreted, so it was; me he restored to my position, and him he hanged. (Bereishis, 41: 9-14)

Pharaoh’s reaction is to call for Joseph to interpret his dreams too, yet the words the Torah uses to describe this, point a spotlight on Pharoah’s suprising anger at his butler.

We might expect the Butler to be rewarded for his stepping up to help Pharoah? Perhaps a payrise, an honor of some kind, at least a ride on the royal camel…but no. Pharoah is enraged.

Let’s look at the next verse in the Torah,

So Pharaoh sent and called Joseph, and they rushed him from the dungeon, and he shaved and changed his clothes, and he [then] came to Pharaoh. (Bereishis, 41: 15)

One might expect Pharoah to have replied to the Butler to go himself and play a part in bringing Joseph to him, yet the Torah tells us, he overlooked the Butler and sent for someone else to bring Joseph from his prison cell.

Rather than giving the Butler the honor to continue to play a part in helping him, Pharoah called on other servants to do his will.

The Tzror Hamor, Rabbi Avraham Saba (1440–1508 Castile, Spain) explains what was behind Pharoah’s decision. Quoting from the Zohar he explains, Pharoah was enraged at his butler for two reasons.

Firstly, for his lack of gratitude for leaving Joseph languising in prison after he had helped him in his hour of need. “How could the Butler have just carried on his life and not done anything to repay the service Joseph had done him.”

Secondly, why didn’t the Butler tell Pharoah there was a man of such genius in the country who could interpret dreams in this way? “I need the best advisors around me and you didn’t tell me about this man!”

Pharoah was fuming and enraged with his Butler.

We can see these two character traits, which are also central to Jewish life give us a window into Pharoah’s personality. Gratitude is an attutude and an ingrate is not something Pharoah can stomach to see. The value he sets on wisdom not just force is also to his merit. Perhaps these are reasons why G-d saw fit to reveal a divine message to him in a dream.

About the Author
Rabbi Adam Ross is a British born Jewish educator and writer. He has a BA in Political Science from Birmingham University (UK) and semicha from Beit Midrash, Sulam Yaakov (Jerusalem). From 2015-2018 he was the Aish campus rabbi in Leeds where he shared many drinks with students while teaching the power of Tanach and Midrash to unlock deeper understandings of Jewish thought and practise.
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