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Turning point. Thoughts on the parashat Miketz

Menachem Mirski

The Torah portion for this week contains the famous story of Joseph, Pharaoh and his dreams of seven fat cows that are swallowed up by seven lean cows, and of seven fat ears of grain swallowed by seven lean ears. Joseph interprets the dreams to mean that seven years of plenty will be followed by seven years of hunger, and advises Pharaoh to store grain during the plentiful years. Pharaoh appoints Joseph governor of Egypt. Joseph marries Asenath, daughter of Potiphar, and they have two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim.

Since our biblical story first shows us Pharaoh’s dreams, and then tells us about the real, according to its narrative, events which closely related to those dream visions, we must immediately ask the following questions: What is the connection between Pharaoh’s dreams and reality? Was the Pharaoh a prophet? Was Joseph a prophet? Or maybe they were together “one prophet”?

This question is answered in the verse 25 of this chapter (Bereshit 41):

And Joseph said to Pharaoh, “Pharaoh’s dreams are one and the same: God has told Pharaoh what He is about to do.

Since the dreams concerns affairs of state – the need to prepare for the coming calamity – God revealed it to the chief of state. And since it was a Divine communication, God wished to reveal its interpretation through His own servant, rather than the wizards of Egypt.

Pharaoh was concerned about this dream and this is a clue for us (Bereshit 41: 8). He was so frightened that he commanded all Egyptian fortune tellers and wise men to be called. He was at least as worried as if he knew what the dream was prophesying: that its content is not really about the seven years of abundance, but the following seven years of famine, as noted by Nachmanides:

For the truth of his [Joseph’s] word was not known until the years of famine began, since the years of plenty were not something out of ordinary.

It was the fear of Pharaoh that made him decide to get the advice of the sages. In fact, periods of famine (or using modern analogy: the economic crisis) occur periodically. Pharaoh had to be an enlightened man and he must have known that situations like that had happened in history or perhaps crop failure and famine disaster had already occurred during his reign earlier.

The symbolism of both pharaoh’s dreams is in fact quite simple and, as Joseph himself notes, it is one dream (Bereshit 41:25). We have the river Nile, on which the prosperity of Egypt depends entirely. We have crops and cattle, and therefore vegetation, including animal feed and animals themselves. All this is human food, the foundation of human existence with which something disturbing happens in this dream. Also, the external features of cows symbolize issues that are perennially connected with each other: prosperity and beauty as well as poverty and ugliness. In times of widespread prosperity, people become more beautiful to one another, both internally and externally, whereas in times of poverty and great misfortune the entire “inner ugliness of man” becomes, usually, widely revealed, and the beauty, especially the internal one, becomes a much rarer phenomenon.

Josef, apart from the fact that he quickly read this symbolism, is, according to our story, a man of extremely strong character. Despite the fact that really hard times are approaching, once again we see him calm and rational, and invariably cunning:

 

Accordingly, let Pharaoh find a man of discernment and wisdom, and set him over the land of Egypt.

(Bereshit 41:33)

Why did he say that? The first thought that appeared in my mind while preparing this drasha was the following: he had himself in mind. A moment later, I discovered that this opinion was already expressed by the medieval commentator of the Bible, Nachmanides, in his commentary on this verse. Joseph must have viewed as providential the sudden and dramatic manner in which he was brought before Pharaoh. He still had faith in the fulfillment of his adolescent dreams (Bereshit 37:5-9) and felt that the long-awaited turning point in his destiny had finally arrived. If so, he had to utilize this unique opportunity. He did so by offering his counsel. His advice was so relevant and wise that Pharaoh was enormously impressed.

Before the years of famine came, Joseph became the father of two sons, whom Asenath daughter of Poti-phera, priest of On, bore to him. Joseph named the first-born Manasseh, meaning, “God has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home.” And the second he named Ephraim, meaning, “God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction.”

(Bereshit 41:50-52)

At the same time, Josef got rid of the trauma that had constantly affected him. It disappeared completely when his first son was born. Why? To put it colloquially: Joseph simply grew up. He gained a position, set up a family and adopted full responsibility for everything in his life. From a materialistic and practical point of view, he did not have to do it. Having such a high position in this ancient, patriarchal system, he could lead a ‘rakish’ lifestyle, having many wives and concubines and not being obliged to take direct responsibility – besides the material one – for his family and offspring. It was the prospect of difficult times that made his entire situation serious.  What I believe is that it was the sum of all these events that brought this turning point to his life and made this young man a real man. I also think that this lesson made him later able to forgive his brothers. We are dealing here with a somewhat paradoxical situation: precisely because of the fact that he took up a fully adult life and took full responsibility, not only for himself, but also for others, his youthful dreams were realized.

This story gives us example how a one conversation or one meeting can diametrically change someone’s fate. It also shows how crucial is the proper awareness of the place and time and the ability to use them. This history teaches us that in order to radically change our individual fate it is often enough to be simply vigilant and open to what is happening in the world around us; that it is crucial and at the same time completely sufficient in certain circumstances.

But this story also teaches us that we must not waste our resources; it teaches us something that humanity has been trying to learn for centuries and still cannot learn it.

 

Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski