J.J Gross

Was Yosef’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream really that impressive?

Thoughts on Parshat Miketz

1.The underlying brilliance of Yosef’s interpretation

2.Yosef’s self-imposed alienation from his father

3.Yaakov’s inexplicable decisions

In retrospect one has to wonder why the viziers of Egypt could not interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. These were hardly very abstract. It does not seem like rocket science for a skilled dream decoder 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 severely disappointed in his counselors once Yosef, in the style of Sherlock Holmes, virtually says “elementary my dear Pharaoh”. And yet Pharaoh instantly perceives Yosef as someone in a class by himself. What triggers this realization?

Yosef says (Bereishit 41:25)וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יוֹסֵף֙ אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֔ה חֲל֥וֹם פַּרְעֹ֖ה אֶחָ֣ד ה֑וּא אֵ֣ת אֲשֶׁ֧ר הָֽאֱלֹהִ֛ים עֹשֶׂ֖ה הִגִּ֥יד לְפַרְעֹֽה Pharaoh’s dream is one (ehad), that which G-d is doing he has told to Pharaoh. On the surface this verse makes no sense. Yosef should have said “Pharaoh’s dreams (plural) are the same”, rather than referring to the two dream as singular.

I would suggest Pharaoh’s awe of Yosef is rooted in this sentence, rather than in the actual explanation itself. “Ehad” is a reference to Yosef’s G-d, as is made abundantly clear by the balance of the verse, i.e. Pharaoh’s dream is G-D (ehad). Not only does Yosef, unlike the Egyptian viziers, not take credit for his interpretation, he goes much further and imputes 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 except at one’s own peril. Hence, Pharaoh trusts Yosef instantly, as clearly Yosef 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, Yosef 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 Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law as the Priest of Midian.

Why does the Torah share this seemingly irrelevant biographical detail? One would think it hardly adds any feather to Yosef’s or Moshe’s yihus cap to have a pagan priest as their father-in-law. And yet we know that in Moshe’s case he was very respectful of Yitro and heeded his advice. I would therefore suggest that Poti-phera was likewise no lightweight, and may have had a strong influence on Yosef’s development and may, indeed, have been a key advisor to his son-in-law the viceroy.

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

וַיְהִ֤י רָעָב֙ בְּכָל־הָ֣אֲרָצ֔וֹת וּבְכָל־אֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם הָ֥יָה לָֽחֶם: “And there was famine in all the lands (including Canaan) but in all the land of Egypt there was bread” (41:54) כָל־הָאָ֨רֶץ֙ בָּ֣אוּ מִצְרַ֔יְמָה לִשְׁבֹּ֖ר… “And every land came to Egypt to obtain bread.” (41:57).

Apparently it did not take clairvoyance on Jacob’s part when we read (42:1) וַיַּ֣רְא יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב כִּ֥י יֶשׁ־שֶׁ֖בֶר בְּמִצְרָ֑יִם “And Yaakov 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; לָ֖מָּה תִּתְרָאֽוּ (translated as why do you look at one another, and interpreted as meaning why do you make false appearances).

I would suggest that תִּתְרָאֽוּ is not from the root for the word “to see/appear” but rather from the root of the word “to fear”. Yaakov observes that his sons are hedging, clearly afraid to go to Egypt even though all their neighbors are doing precisely that.

Of course, this fear is understandable, as their only connection to Egypt is having sold their brother into Egyptian slavery. In all likelihood they were afraid of ‘mida k’neged mida’,(made abundantly clear by their words in 42:21;  אֲנַ֘חְנוּ֘ עַל־אָחִ֒ינוּ֒ אֲשֶׁ֨ר רָאִ֜ינוּ צָרַ֥ת נַפְשׁ֛וֹ בְּהִתְחַֽנְנ֥וֹ אֵלֵ֖ינוּ וְלֹ֣א שָׁמָ֑עְנוּ עַל־כֵּן֙ בָּ֣אָה אֵלֵ֔ינוּ הַצָּרָ֖ה הַזֹּֽאת “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 they feared that Joseph may indeed have triumphed in Egypt, and the last thing they wanted was to be within his grasp. Jacob, unable to understand the genesis of their fear goads them into making the trek to Egypt, as everyone else was doing.

וַיֵּֽרְד֥וּ אֲחֵֽי־יוֹסֵ֖ף עֲשָׂרָ֑ה לִשְׁבֹּ֥ר בָּ֖ר מִמִּצְרָֽיִם “And the ten brothers of Yosef descended (to Egypt) to purchase grain” (42:3).

One has to wonder why such an entourage was necessary. Why risk so many children on such a risky expedition? Why didn’t Yaakov 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? That they needed strength in numbers for fear that they might run into Yosef 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, although it should not have been particularly difficult to find a Hebrew Semite – radically exotic in appearance and accent among the natives – if they would only make the effort. Indeed, with Zaphenat Paneah (Yosef) 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 Yosef is as absolute as Yosef’s lack of interest in finding them.

As for what was going on in Yaakov’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 hired hands to manage the livestock.

וַיַּכֵּ֥ר יוֹסֵ֖ף אֶת־אֶחָ֑יו וְהֵ֖ם לֹ֥א הִכִּרֻֽהוּ “And Yosef saw his brothers and recognized them, but they did not recognize him” (Genesis 42:8). This is puzzling. How come Yosef 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 his appearance as he would have no beard, unlike his Hebrew/Canaanite brothers?

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

When they report back to Yaakov in order to fetch Binyamin, their father says something startling:  אֹתִ֖י שִׁכַּלְתֶּ֑ם you have made me childless (42:36). If he is referring to Yosef, apparently he knows somehow that they were responsible for his disappearance. More likely, therefore, he is referring to Shimon who remained in Egypt as Yosef’s hostage.

Having returned to Canaan, the nine remaining brothers seem in no rush to redeem Simeon.

וַיְהִ֗י כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֤ר כִּלּוּ֙ לֶֽאֱכֹ֣ל אֶת־הַשֶּׁ֔בֶר אֲשֶׁ֥ר הֵבִ֖יאוּ מִמִּצְרָ֑יִם וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֲלֵיהֶם֙ אֲבִיהֶ֔ם שֻׁ֖בוּ שִׁבְרוּ־לָ֥נוּ מְעַט־אֹֽכֶל “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 Yehuda takes over and manifests his leadership over Reuven and all the others. For openers he and his brothers lie to their father’s face; “ And they said, the man (Yosef) 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 Yosef. The brothers had offered it of their own accord.

And now two strange things occur:

First, Yaakov acquiesces and allows Binyamin to go. Why was it necessary, yet again, to send all the remaining brothers? Could not Binyamin have gone only with Yehuda? Or, if the entire family was going, didn’t it occur to Yaakov 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 Binyamin; mistrustful of his sons; having already lost Yosef and Shimon; surely Yaakov would be more at ease joining the caravan rather than remaining entirely alone in Canaan? Instead he chooses to be uncharacteristically fatalistic; כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֥ר שָׁכֹ֖לְתִּי שָׁכָֽלְתִּי”If I lose, I lose” (43:14).

Second, Yaakov suggests that the brothers bring a gift to Yosef; קְח֞וּ מִזִּמְרַ֤ת הָאָ֨רֶץ֙ בִּכְלֵיכֶ֔ם וְהוֹרִ֥ידוּ לָאִ֖ישׁ מִנְחָ֑ה מְעַ֤ט צֳרִי֙ וּמְעַ֣ט דְּבַ֔שׁ נְכֹ֣את וָלֹ֔ט בָּטְנִ֖ים וּשְׁקֵדִֽים “…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 comestibles 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 Shimon as hostage.

Upon their return to Egypt they make a clean breast of it, and the man in charge (not Yosef) says something which should certainly have caused the coin to dropאֱלֹ֨הֵיכֶ֜ם וֵֽאלֹהֵ֤י אֲבִיכֶם֙ נָתַ֨ן לָכֶ֤ם מַטְמוֹן֙ בְּאַמְתְּחֹ֣תֵיכֶ֔ם כַּסְפְּכֶ֖ם בָּ֣א אֵלָ֑י “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 “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.

אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִמָּצֵ֥א אִתּ֛וֹ מֵֽעֲבָדֶ֖יךָ וָמֵ֑ת “He among your servants with whom it is found shall perish”, declares Yehuda (44:9). This is an eerie echo of Yaakov’s words when Lavan accuses him of stealing his votive figurines, 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 dispatch.

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.
Related Topics
Related Posts