Parshat Miketz: Interpreting Pharaoh's Dream
By: Rav Moshe Stav
“Since God has informed you of all this, there can be no one so discerning and wise as you” (Bereishit 41:39)
The topic of dreams – their significance as well as their interpretation – has occupied human thought throughout the generations. It is a subject that interests philosophers and theologians, as well as psychologists and doctors, each of whom provide different perspectives on the matter of the meaning and interpretations of dreams.
In our parshiot, dreams play a prominent role. Indeed, one of the comparisons that Chazal draw between Yaakov and Yosef is, “This one was raised to greatness through a dream, and that one was raised to greatness through a dream.” In the present context, we will discuss specifically Pharaoh’s dreams, addressing a number of questions:
1) Why weren’t Pharaoh’s magicians able to interpret the dream? One might respond that Hashem concealed the matter from them with the goal of raising Yosef to greatness, but the peshat indicates that this was not a miracle. The chartumim simply did not know what the dream meant.
2) Why was the fact that Yosef knew how to interpret the dream deemed to indicate that there was no one as discerning and wise as him, and that he was fit to be king?
3) In the course of the discussion between Yosef and Pharaoh, Pharaoh says that he has heard that Yosef can “listen to a dream to interpret it” (41:15). What does this mean?
4) Yosef’s explanation of the dream does not parallel the order of Pharaoh’s presentation of the dream, nor does it parallel the order of the actual events that unfolded. Why?
5) Immediately after Yosef explains the symbolism of the details of the dream, he declares, “It is this matter that I have spoken to Pharaoh” (41:28). What does this mean?
6) Pharaoh’s reaction to Yosef’s interpretation – the appointment of Yosef as viceroy – reminds us of a similar story. Nevuchadnetzar also had a dream, and when Daniel reminded him of it and explained it, Nevuchadnetzar treated him as if he were a god. This reaction also demands some explanation.
On the simple level, a dream portrays to a person’s imagination a summary of his thoughts and impressions of his actions and experiences over the course of the day. The manner in which those images and experiences appear in his dream are the way that he interprets those events. If he endured a frightening and embarrassing incident, even if he denies those feelings on the conscious level, he encounters them in his dream without any obstruction. In most cases, a dream has no significance. For example, everyone has had the experience of hearing a phone ring while sleeping, and that is incorporated into one’s dream. In other words, one interprets his senses to be compatible with the image in his mind.
The ability to see the future in a dream is divided into two levels. On the lower level, the dream conveys matters that the person knows, but in the real world they are suppressed, such that they are only seen in a dream. On the higher level, the person’s soul becomes free of the sensual perception that he has while awake, joining its roots in the higher worlds, and they are then portrayed in a dream.
This is similar to the story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” in which all of the people think that the king is dressed, so that is what they see, and only the simple child, who is unaware that the king is supposedly dressed, actually sees reality and is free of “realistic” conceptualizations. This is also the meaning of Chazal’s statements that after the churban, nevua was given over to children and fools. For most people, intuitive knowledge is pushed aside by “knowledge of reality,” but that is not the case for children and fools. The same is true of a dream.
The more realistic a dream is, the stronger the impression left by the dream. In fact, the halacha attributes significance to the dreamer’s reaction when it comes to the necessity of a ta’anit chalom. In addition, the Rishonim write that dreams that one has right before daybreak are on a higher level, as at that time the mind is clear; the effects of digestion have past, and there is a greater chance that the dream derived from purer thoughts. Similarly, the more one remembers a dream, the more the dream indicates some level of truth.
In the dreams recounted in the parsha, Pharaoh dreamed on a personal level, but also on the level of a king, such that he saw reality through a more universal lens. Usually, Pharaoh dreamed as an individual, and his magicians – who knew him, his personality, his way of thinking, his aspirations, and the longings during the day that affected his dreams at night – interpreted his dreams in a manner that calmed him. But this time, the dream was different. It was on a higher level, deriving from the place where “the heart of kings is in the hand of Hashem.” The dream therefore bothered him, and the chartumim could not understand what he had experienced. As a result, they were not able to provide an explanation that satisfied him.
When Yosef mentioned the years of famine, this detail spoke to Pharaoh more than the other details. Because that was the gist of the message, Pharaoh felt relief that someone had finally understood him. Yosef realized this, and he therefore declared, “It is this matter that I have spoken to Pharaoh.” Yosef’s wisdom was not reflected in the fact that he explained the details, but rather in that he experienced the dream from the perspective of Pharaoh. He interpreted the dream in a manner that was psychologically satisfying to Pharaoh.
This was the meaning of Pharaoh’s statement that Yosef can “listen to (tishma) a dream to understand it.” “Listening” implies more than hearing. Pharaoh wanted someone to listen not only to his words, but to what lay behind them.
Wisdom and discernment do not simply entail knowledge of details and the ability to draw conclusions, but also the ability to grasp the larger picture. This is the level of perfection of the power of imagination. As the Rambam writes, those who have perfect imaginations have the ability to serve as leaders. Many people think that imagination is delusion, but this is a mistake. The power of imagination is the power to paint an accurate picture of reality based on the overall impression of the facts.
Both Moshe and Yehoshua heard the sounds emanating from the camp of Bnei Yisrael, and Moshe berates Yehoshua for failing to understand what those sounds indicate. This constitutes a flaw for one who is destined to be a leader (as Chazal note in the midrash there).
When Pharaoh saw that Yosef “read his mind” and understood the extent of the picture based on the details that he had heard, Pharaoh understood that Yosef possessed the perspective of discernment and understanding. Yosef did not simply provide a psychological analysis of the dream, but rather understood and explained the dream on its inner dimension – the element of prophecy in it. This perspective on the dream also led to the practical guidance that Yosef provided regarding the problem articulated in the dream, explaining that the vision of “swallowing” indicated that the food should be stored during the first seven years so that it could be used during the seven years of famine. There were other possible ways of interpreting this detail (such as that provided by Rashi, for example, who writes that the satiety of the first seven years would be forgotten). It also explains why Yosef interpreted the dream in the order in which he did, focusing on the elements that he knew to be important to Pharaoh.
Yosef’s interpretation was rooted in his understanding of the dream as providing prophetic guidance, and that perspective revealed that Yosef was gifted with the encompassing understanding that is appropriate for a king. (It is important to emphasize that Pharaoh understood that Yosef’s wisdom was not rooted in his talent or intellect, but rather in his spiritual perfection, as he declares, “Since God has informed you of all this, there can be no one so discerning and wise as you.”)
Based on this explanation, we can also understand why the wise men were unable to interpret the dreams of the Sar HaMashkim and Sar HaOfim, as well as the drashot of Chazal that viewed these dreams as prophecies of the future. Since the dreams revealed a Divine decree and not a natural occurrence, the Sar HaMashkim and Sar HaOfim viewed images from a higher world, one that they could not grasp. The chartumim, who had no understanding of that world, could not understand the dream, but Yosef was able to, in the sense of, “God said one matter, and I understood two.”
An example of Yosef’s unique listening ability relates to his description of the cows in Pharaoh’s dream. In his dream, Pharaoh saw cows that were “yafot mareh.” This term generally describes human beauty, and Rashi explains that it relates to interpersonal interactions. Pharaoh did not use this term in recounting his dream, as he deemed it inappropriate to describe cows. Instead, he described them as “of beautiful form and healthy flesh.” Yosef, however, used the word “good” to describe them, as he heard beyond the words.
Since Pharaoh’s dream related to his rule, he viewed Yosef, who understood the dream, as an appropriate candidate for kingship.
Nevuchadnetzar’s dream had to do with the Divine orchestration of the exile and redemption, and it left a strong impression on him, but because he had no true connection to the deeper level, he not only failed to understand the dream, but he also could not even recall it. He therefore viewed Daniel as Godly, even worshiping him as a deity. Sometimes, one cannot explain or understand the depth of his reaction to a particular event. (Indeed, this point may explain the fact that the nations of the world interact with Am Yisrael either in a manner that is overwhelmingly positive or overwhelmingly negative, in a manner that they themselves cannot explain.)
A dream presents the opportunity to free oneself of the vision of close matters and to grasp a different picture. Sometimes, in fact, this appears to be “crazy,” but as Yeshayahu described, “The man of spirit is crazed.” Even though prophecy was given to children and fools, it was not taken away from the wise.
Shiur ID: 7422