Why is Joseph the only one able to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams?
Table for Five: Miketz
In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
Now it came to pass in the morning that his spirit was troubled; so he sent and called all the necromancers of Egypt and all its sages, and Pharaoh related to them his dream, but none could interpret them for Pharaoh.
Miriam Yerushalmi, CEO SANE; Author, Reaching New Heights series
Pharaoh was completely unnerved by the dream, sensing there was a very deep message behind it. The “necromancers and sages of Egypt” did not recognize the dream as a message from Gd, and therefore could not interpret it correctly, as a practical directive informing Pharaoh of what he needed to do. Yosef, though, understood that if Pharaoh, the leader of a huge empire, had such an experience, there had to be a method to the madness; there had to be a specific message of some proactive measures Gd wanted Pharaoh to undertake. In life, we may experience a moment that affects us strongly but seems meaningless, crazy, unfair, or totally random; we don’t recognize the divine message it contains. In times of crisis and challenge, if we are lacking in faith, then our spirit will be troubled and we will not understand what we need to do.
However, if “in the morning” we pray and invite Gd into our lives, then our spirit aligns with Gd’s plan for us, and we can function appropriately. It’s as though every morning, we receive a line drawing of our day’s destiny, but we can’t fully make out the picture, so we fill in the lines with shades of gray anxiety, sadness, hopelessness. Really, though, at every moment we have the opportunity to “color our day the Jewish way”: with pleasant shades of faith, hope, humility, and a happy attitude.
Interpret your dream day like Yosef: with positivity, so you can take action.
David Porush, Student, teacher, writer
Novelists would call this moment the crisis. Poets call it the volta. Magicians, the turn. Pharaoh’s dream is the hinge that swings open the door to free imprisoned Joseph, and thus Hebrew history.
R. Chisda said, “An uninterpreted dream is like an unopened letter.” If we render the Hebrew “chartume’im” correctly, it’s not “necromancers” who fail to open the letter but “hieroglyphic scribes” (inscribers) who can’t read the doubled, troubled dream. Their writing system, and hence their whole sensibility, is limited, inert. For Joseph, dredged out of prison, Pharaoh’s dream is transparent and dynamic with portent. His interpretation dissolves the boundary between dream and reality, this world and the next, last night’s dream and future actuality.
When Pharaoh resurrects this lowly Hebrew prisoner to decipher his dream, he loses control of the narrative, which flips. He will become a character in Joseph’s dream of enlargement, a more expansive vista of reality and destiny, where our purpose is to bring the holy into the mundane. When Pharaoh appoints Joseph as his *executive* to avert the drought, he implicitly acknowledges that Joseph has a superior grip on what’s what and is better able to bring it into being. It’s the premise for the rest of the Torah, as Joseph’s people ultimately emerge from Egypt massively enlarged and eventually inhabit the Promised Land.
Ibn Ezra notes the Hebrew root for Pharaoh’s agitation comes from פעם “anvil.” Pharaoh and Egypt are an anvil. The hammer striking them is held by the supernal Hand.
Rabbi Brett Kopin, Milken Community School; Base LA
My wife’s friend recently sent her a message asking about Judaism’s views on magic. The friend related that she had told her fiancé the story about Moses’ staff turning into a snake, to which he responded, “That’s insane; that’s magic! Why is there so much magic in the Bible, but there is no magic today?” Many people ask the same question. Where has the magic gone? Was it ever there to begin with, or were people more easily fooled in bygone times? But this is not just a question of modern times. Even Pharaoh saw the limitations of magic when it came to consulting his magicians.
I think there is an answer to the question of where the magic has gone. What Pharaoh’s courtiers do is magic, but it’s not what Joseph does when he interprets dreams. As Joseph says when asked for his counsel, “Not I! But God will see to Pharaoh’s welfare.” Throughout history, God has sent messengers to show the world that beyond the limitations of magic there is the much deeper element of divine energy, the presence of God manifesting in the ordinary and in the extraordinary. This is not the stuff of magic, but of the same energy that willed the world and the breath of life into being; the stuff that manifests dreams into waking reality. May we live in a world where those who no longer believe in magic will still seek out the power of the divine in their lives.
Rabbi Michael Barclay, Spiritual Leader of Temple Ner Simcha in Westlake Village
One of my favorite lines in the Talmud is, “A dream which is not interpreted is like a letter which is not read”. (Berachot 55a)
Dream interpretation is a vital part of Jewish theology that is too often ignored by modern rabbis, yet as we see in this verse, dreams are vitally important. The Talmud, in conjunction with more esoteric texts, teaches that dreams can be prophetic (as in this case); mystical, as in Jacob’s dream of angels and the ladder; and/or psychologically symbolic as pages 55a-57b in Berachot explain in almost Jungian language. Our texts are filled with techniques to help us remember our dreams more clearly; and include directions on what to eat or drink, what position to sleep in, how to record our dreams, and even how to hold our hands in order to facilitate lucid dreaming.
But perhaps the most important teaching is from Chagigah 5b. “Although I have hidden my face from Israel, I will communicate with him through dreams.” (based on Numbers 12:6) No matter how disconnected we may feel from God, He is always reaching out to communicate with us through dreams. God is speaking; but it is like a veiled whisper, and we must listen carefully.
Especially in these challenging times of war and Jew hatred, may we carefully listen to God through the veils of our dreams. If we do, we shall surely hear God’s everlasting promise… “I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God.” (Ex. 6:7)
Rabbi Mari Chernow, Senior Rabbi, Temple Israel of Hollywood
Chapter 40 of Genesis ends in despair. “Yet the chief cupbearer did not think of Joseph. He forgot him.” Joseph, stuck in prison, has no agency. His only route to freedom is the cupbearer who has, understandably, moved on in his life.
There comes a moment, however, when no one else can fill the role that Joseph is destined to play. The commentators tell us that Pharaoh’s agitation feels like a bell constantly ringing in his head. Pharaoh, who can afford all of the hired help money can buy, fails to find someone who can take away his pain. Suddenly, the cupbearer remembers. No less than Esther, Joseph’s life has led entirely to “a moment just as this.” I just returned from Israel where it would be natural to feel despair. No one has been spared grief, trauma, or fear. As one friend told me, “On October 7th, everyone tasted the taste of death.” And yet, Israelis have sprung into action. They are driven by a profound sense of meaning and purpose. Those, in turn, are leading to healing and hope.
Our lives, like Joseph’s, can turn quickly. Without a moment’s notice, we find ourselves alone in the pit. So too, without warning, we find a need in the universe or in our communities that no one else can fill. When that match is made, our dignity is restored. Our lives again make sense.
Image: “Joseph Interpreting Pharaoh’s Dream” by Philip Gyselaer, c. 1640
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