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Mordechai Silverstein
Mordechai Silverstein

The Need to Look Beyond One’s Self

The rabbinic sages were meticulous readers, cognizant of whatever seemed to them to be expressed unusually. And so, when Pharaoh recounts for Yosef his first dream, the Torah’s manner of speaking intrigued them: “And it was that after two years’ time, and Pharaoh dreams, and behold, he was standing by (literally: over) the Nile.” (Genesis 41:1) In one midrash, the sages noted that the phrase “he was standing over (עומד על)” seemed superfluous and, since, as a rule, they believed that no expression in the Torah was without purpose, they interpreted these words to be a description of Pharaoh’s religious outlook:

“‘For a dream comes with much business (here: expressing many subjects) and a fool’s voice with much talk.’ (Ecclesiastes 5:2) Said Pharaoh: ‘Who protects whom? Do I protect my god or does my god protect me?’ Those around him answered: ‘It is you who stand over (protect) your deity,’ as it says: ‘He (Pharaoh) stands over the Nile.’” (adapted from Genesis Rabbah 89:3)

This midrash uses the verse from Ecclesiastes to inform us that “dreams” tell us much more than their plain sense might initially indicate and, in the case of Pharaoh, his dream, indicated the foolishness of his beliefs. According to this midrash, when Pharaoh stands over the Nile in this dream, he is contemplating his relationship with his deity – the Nile River. Is he the “boss” or is the river in charge? The midrash has Pharoah’s followers reply, based on the words “he was standing over”, that he (Pharaoh) is in charge, namely, they assert that he is the “real god” here. It is this self-deification that the sages saw as foolish.

Of course, no one today is claiming to be a god (I make this claim with trepidation.), but on some level, all of us struggle with Pharaoh’s questions. The assumption that Pharaoh is totally in control does not allow him to have any sense of transcendence nor any sense that there is significance outside of himself. This same struggle faces modern people. The inability to cede some control to “Someone” (God) greater or even to share and be helped by others hampers our mental and spiritual growth. It is not without irony that for Pharaoh, it is Yosef, a lowly Hebrew slave pulled from a prison dungeon, who saves him from his false reckoning by interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams and setting him straight on the source of the wisdom which will save both him and his nation.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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