Dvar Torah delivered by Mike Garmise on Shabbat, 2nd Tevet 5777, 31st December 2016
Yosef rises to power, takes over the Egyptian economy and makes his brothers jump through burning hoops when they come to buy food. The story is quite clear but several nagging questions arise, and today we will address two of them.
The first appears in the opening chapter of the parsha. Pharaoh dreams he is standing near the Nile; seven fat cows emerge followed by seven gaunt cows, who then eat up the seven gezunte ones. Second dream: seven corn-heavy stalks grow in the field, healthy and bursting with life; seven other stalks from a hunger strike appear and eat up the seven healthy stalks.
What is so difficult to interpret? Seven good, seven bad. Bad devours good. Why were the renowned wise men of Egypt unable to find an interpretation that satisfied Pharaoh?
The answer is that we are looking at the dreams from a modern point of view where cows and corn are merely agricultural appurtenances that signify farm life. According to Rabbi Ari Kahn, if we view the dreams from the ancient Egyptians’ point of view, the symbolism is much more problematic.
Let’s start with cows. They were holy, almost deities in Egypt, much like in India. This is brought home in next week’s parsha, when Yosef introduces a few of his brothers to Pharaoh. He instructs them to say that they have been herdsmen all their lives, and therefore they want to live in Goshen, because, we are told, people who herd cattle (a deity!) are an abomination to the Egyptians.
The Nile is also a deity in Egypt. It is the source of their life and their food, as symbolized by the corn. And Pharaoh is also a deity. So we have three deities and an offshoot of one of them in the dreams.
What was probably clear to the magicians of Egypt was that some cataclysm was about to occur – you don’t have a dream about so many deities unless they are plotting something. Perhaps the magicians couldn’t figure out what disaster was in store or, if they could, they were afraid to say what they thought.
Then along comes Yosef and in one sweeping interpretation clears away uncertainties. The gods were indeed going to come down hard on Egypt but – and here Yosef finally takes his fate into his own hands (with God’s help) – with the proper person and the proper preparations, Egypt will be saved. And so will Yosef.
A second niggling question that arises from our parsha is why Yosef didn’t contact Yaacov during the seventeen years he was in Egypt. Even without email it was possible to transmit messages from one country to another, and especially after Yosef became Viceroy of Egypt.
Several interesting and surprising answers have been offered. One of the standard answers is that he didn’t want his father to know how he had got to Egypt – that would have involved telling him that his brothers had sold him down the desert.
Nachmanides says that Yosef realized that his original dreams had actually been prophesies. Only in the second one did his father bow down to him. If he had informed his father and if Yaacov had come down to Egypt, the second prophesy would have been fulfilled before the first – not a good thing.
Another one. Yosef wanted to make sure his brothers had repented – that they were truly sorry for what they had done and would not do it to Benjamin, Yaacov’s new favored child (as the son of Rachel). Had he told his father, the brothers would never have had the chance to show that they would not do the same thing again.
Another one, a reverso. Yosef thinks that Yaacov has forsaken him. He does not know that the brothers sent a blood-dipped Technicolor coat to Yaacov, and he can’t understand why Yaacov has not come down to Egypt to look for him. Only in next week’s parsha does Yehuda’s speech clarify what happened and reveal Yosef’s mistaken assumption.
Here’s an even more extreme idea. Yosef fears that Yaacov was in on the plot to get rid of him. This seems preposterous, as Yosef was the apple of Yaacov’s eye, but the thinking goes that Yosef thought Yaacov had sent him to his brothers on purpose so that they could harm him or at least make him aware that he wasn’t the center of the world.
And, finally, a political reason: once he came to power, if he were to write to anyone in another country he might be accused of collaborating with Egypt’s potential enemies.
Which is true? Any, all or none. It is interesting to see how many interpretations can be given to given act.
The same can be said about Hannuka, albeit to a lesser extent. We have the Talmudic interpretation that says a cruse of oil was found that lasted for eight days. And we have the book of Maccabim which says that Chanuka marked a resounding victory of the few and weak over the many and the strong. The Hashmonaim were basically religious zealots, who were fighting against assimilation (this was as much Jew against Jew as Jew against Greek), so it is surprising that so little credit is given to God for the victories. As for the Talmudic explanation, this was probably an attempt not to ruffle the ruling authorities with talk about a great victory over a superior force.
Whatever the reason, let us enjoy the last days of Chanuka in light and cheer.
Shabbat Shalom, Chag Urim Sameach