How long is two years? A lot? A little? Einstein will tell you – it’s all relative.
How long was two years for Yosef, in jail, after he had correctly interpreted the dreams of Pharaoh’s two servants and had begged the Holder of the Cup to intercede on his behalf when he returned to Pharaoh’s service? It was a long time. It was, as the opening phrase tells us, “two years [worth] of days.” Imagine sitting and counting each day, wondering when imprisonment would end.
Sounds a lot like what we’ve been doing here since March!
But then Yosef’s time finally comes, he is called to the palace, and it is show time.
Yosef’s opening disclaimer is special. Look Pharaoh, he says, I’m nothing in this story, just an extra. God will bring Pharaoh’s peace of mind back to him. But what he says is not so special. Couldn’t one of Egypt’s finest soothsayers, prophets and magicians have said the same thing? Seven cows for seven years? Seven sheaves of corn for seven years? What’s the problem?
According to Rabbi Shimon Felix, the problem was that the Egyptians, people who grew up and lived in that country, could not get themselves to think and say something as radical as what Yosef said. He said that the country’s fields, the country’s Nile would fail. That there would not be enough food. How could those who believed in Egypt the invincible utter such heresies, even if deep in their hearts they knew that just such a scenario was possible? Because nothing is forever, and the ball of history turns inexorably.
They couldn’t say it – there’s no prophet in his own land – but an outsider could. One whose vision was not limited by the blinders imposed by one’s culture and heritage. Basically, this is what a good interpreter of dreams does – he ignores barriers raised by cultural protocol and goes to the heart, to see what is hiding there.
Freud did the same, but he and Yosef approached dreams from opposite directions. Yosef thought that dreams and their interpretation were divinely inspired, indicating events that were yet to happen. Freud looked at dreams as bubbling up from below the conscious line, reflecting what had happened before.
What both approaches had in common was that both were intended to shape the future, in terms of steps to be taken, whether by heeding omens from above or unraveling the knots and bumps of earlier years.
What is ironic is that Yosef had troubles with his own dreams, not in inferring what they meant (Yaacov – no stranger to dreams – also perceived their meaning immediately), but in knowing what to do with them at the time.
Seeing yourself as a ruler with everyone bowing down to you is a wonderful daydream, but blabbing about it to the very people you expect will bow down to you is not recommended. It’s mean. And it indicates immaturity, a lack of awareness of other people’s feelings.
In the Egyptian jail, Yosef seems to have overcome this, when he offers God’s services to explain their dreams. It’s only when we compare Yosef’s words in jail to those to Pharaoh that we can understand the transformation that has indeed taken place, at least superficially.
In jail, Yosef tells Pharaoh’s servants that God will explain their dreams if they will “tell them to me.” In other words, Yosef is still at or near the center. To Pharaoh he says: “Forget about me. God will return Pharaoh’s peace of mind to him.” He has taken himself – his ego – out of the equation.
When he espies his brothers later, and speaks harshly to them, this is not revenge. He suffered from them and he is suffering with them. He cries when he hears them reflecting on what they did to him – because they understand they are being punished for it, and, just perhaps, he understands that he may have contributed to the hatred they felt.
But another question gives me pause. Why did Pharaoh choose Yosef as viceroy? A Hebrew, a slave, a prisoner. The answer given in the text is that he thought Yosef was brilliant, able to see to the heart of the matter. Another is that he was punishing all the others who couldn’t see something so obvious. A third is that as an outsider, Yosef could do things that locals could not. And connected to that is the fourth and most cynical reason: if there were problems with the supply lines, Pharaoh could always blame the stranger, Yosef.
Yosef has it made. Not only are his brothers bowing down before him, as he foresaw in his dreams. All of Egypt is bowing down to him as well. You’ve come a long way, baby.