“Pharaoh’s Dream: Learning Through the Nuances”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Mikeitz, we are presented with a unique opportunity to see the insightful nuances of the biblical text and the many cogent messages that are revealed through careful exegetical analysis of the scriptural narratives.

Chapter 41 of Genesis provides us with three accounts of Pharaoh’s dream: the Torah’s version, Pharaoh’s account, and Joseph’s reiteration. The Torah tells us that two years after Joseph was thrown into prison, Pharaoh dreams two dreams (Genesis 41:1-8). In his first dream, Pharaoh sees seven fat cows that are eaten by seven lean cows. In the second dream seven healthy ears of grain are swallowed up by seven thin, weatherbeaten ears of grain.

At the recommendation of Pharaoh’s chief butler, Joseph is summoned from prison to interpret the dreams. Pharaoh then relates his account of the dreams to Joseph (Genesis 41:17-24). Finally, in Genesis 41:26-27, Joseph reiterates Pharaoh’s dreams and begins to interpret them.

The nuances and variations in the three versions of the dream are quite revealing. While the scriptural account (Genesis 41:1) tells us that Pharaoh is standing by (literally “on”) the river, Pharaoh relates in his account (Genesis 41:17): “Hin’n’nee oh’mayd al s’fat ha’y’or.” Behold, I was standing by the bank of the river. Through this slight textual change we gain a sense of Pharaoh’s extraordinary respect for the Nile. While Pharaoh is regarded by the Egyptians as divine, Pharaoh himself shows ultimate deference to the all powerful river. Hence Pharaoh describes himself as only standing by the bank of the river, and not by the river itself.

As the biblical account continues, scripture describes the seven cows that emerge from the river as (Genesis 41:2): “Y’fot mar’eh, ooh’v’ree’ot ba’sar“–beautiful of appearance and physically healthy. Pharaoh, in Genesis 41:18, reverses the word order, in order to impress upon Joseph that while many countries have fat cows, only Egypt has cows that are beautiful. Of course all this is due to the fertility of the Nile.

In Genesis 41:2, scripture tells us: “Va’tir’eh’nah bah’ah’choo,” that the cows grazed in the marshland. This same point is repeated in Pharaoh’s (41:18) account to underscore the fact that the years of feast and abundance would be restricted to a location where there is an ah’choo–a marshland, which of course is Egypt. Since the Egyptian cows remain in Egypt’s marshland and never graze out of this area, it is obvious that no other country will be blessed with years of feast and abundance.

Scripture’s description of the lean cows is rather limited, saying only that they are (Genesis 41:3): “Rah’ot mar’eh v’dah’kote bah’sar,” ugly to look at, and very lean. However, because the bad cows made such a profoundly negative impression on him, Pharaoh’s account (41:19) is much more descriptive. Not only are the cows bad and thin, they are emaciated–not one ounce of flesh is to be found between the bones and the skin. Pharaoh therefore adds more descriptive language: Dah’loht–scrawny, “V’rah’ot toh’ar m’od”–very bad to look at, “v’rah’kot bah’sar”–not only lean, but emaciated, related to the Hebrew term “ray’kot“–empty. Furthermore, Pharaoh is so negatively impressed by the sight of the cows, that he adds: “Lo ra’eeh’tee chah’hay’nah b’chol Eretz Mitzrayim lah’ro’ah,” never have I seen the likes of such terrible looking cows in all the land of Egypt, in effect denying the possibility of these horrible cows being of Egyptian origin.

In Genesis 41:3, scripture tells us that the lean cows stood next to the fat cows on the bank of the river. In his version however, Pharaoh conveniently leaves out this fact, because in his chauvinistic view of Egypt the unhealthy cows could not possibly be associated with Egypt or with the Nile.

Pharaoh, in his account regarding the lean cows, adds an important observation that is not found in the scriptural account. (Genesis 41:21): “Va’tah’vo’nah el kir’beh’nah, v’lo no’dah kee vah’ooh el kir’beh’nah, ooh’mar’ay’hen rah kah’ah’sher bat’chee’lah.” Pharaoh notices that after the lean cows have eaten the fat cows, it was impossible to recognize that they had eaten the fat cows, and they remained as emaciated and as lean as before. It is this observation that leads Joseph to conclude that the famine will be so great that the years of plenty will be entirely forgotten.

When scripture describes the seven stalks of grain, the Torah tells us that they were (Genesis 41:5) “b’ree’ot v’tov’ot,” healthy and good, no infestation or disease. Pharaoh, on the other hand, uses the expressions (Genesis 41:22) “M’lay’ot v’tov’ot,” full and good. It was inconceivable to Pharaoh that stalks of grain that come from Egypt could be anything but healthy, and therefore, in Pharaoh’s version, noting that the stalks were “healthy” would be totally extraneous. What is important, is “m’lay’ot,” full and good, a hint that there will be such great abundance in Egypt that the extra grain will be exported to other countries.

In Genesis 41:8, the Torah notes: “Vah’y’hee vah’bo’ker va’tee’pah’em roo’cho,” that when morning came, Pharaoh’s spirit was agitated. In his account, Pharaoh leaves out the out fact that he was agitated that morning, because it was beneath his dignity to even suggest that he was agitated. Scripture tells us, “Va’yish’lach va’yik’rah et kol char’too’may Mitzrayim, v’et kol cha’cha’meh’hah,” that Pharaoh sent and summoned all the magicians of Egypt and all its wise men to relate his dream to them, but they were not able to interpret the dreams for Pharaoh. Pharaoh, however, leaves out the fact that he called the cha’cha’mim–the wise men. Since the dreams appeared illogical, there was no need for wise men, but Pharaoh did hope that the char’too’mim, the soothsayers, might be able to interpret it.

Our commentators attribute great significance to the subtle textual nuances, such as the additions and omissions we find in Pharaoh’s dreams. Particularly, since the Torah usually economizes on every word, the Torah could have rather easily avoided the repetition entirely, unless, of course, the differences were intentional. The Ha’amek Davar (Commentary on the Pentatuach by R’ Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, 1817-1893, Rosh Yeshiva of the famous yeshiva of Volozhin in Russia, popularly known as the Netziv) observes that “the Torah did not have to make any changes at all in the account, but could have simply said, ‘then Pharaoh told Joseph his dream.'” The fact that the Torah did not do so, maintains the Netziv, indicates that these details have special significance and that every variation in the wording has a special meaning.

There are commentators who suggest that some of the changes noted in Pharaoh’s reiteration are due to the fact that Pharaoh did not grasp the implications of the symbolisms. Other commentators suggest that Pharaoh purposely disguised these essential points, to test Joseph’s ability to interpret. The Midrash Tanchumah (homiletic commentary on the Torah), Mikeitz 50, says that Joseph would actually correct Pharaoh every time that Pharaoh would deliberately change the dream in order to confuse Joseph. “That is not what you dreamed!” Joseph would say to Pharaoh. Amazed, Pharaoh would ask, “Were you eavesdropping on my dreams?!”

Even when looking at simply the literal meaning of the text in Parashat Mikeitz, we find the biblical verses exceedingly rich. When exploring the nuances and the variations, the texts become a virtual treasure trove of understanding and wisdom.

Happy Chanukah!

May you be blessed.