“Pharaoh’s Dream: The Variations and Nuances”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Mikeitz, Pharaoh’s dream is repeated three times.

The dream is first recounted in Genesis 41:1-8, the scriptural narrative of parashat Mikeitz. The second reference to the dream is Pharaoh’s account of the dream, which appears in Genesis 41:17-24. The third iteration of the dream is found in Genesis 41:26-27, Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream.

Despite the fact that the repetitions deal with the same dream, there is much to learn from the nuances and variations in each of the accounts. For instance, despite the fact that the original scriptural narrative (Genesis 41:1) reports that Pharaoh is, “Oh’med al ha’y’or,” standing on the [Nile] river, in Pharaoh’s account, Pharaoh says (Genesis 41:17), “Ba’cha’lo’mee, hin’n’nee oh’med ahl s’faht ha’y’or,” In my dream, behold, I was standing on the banks of the river. Perhaps the fretful Pharaoh is concerned that he not appear superior to the Nile, which was regarded as a most powerful divinity, and is expressing humility because he suspects that the interpretation of the dream that he is about to hear may not be very favorable.

Describing the seven cows that emerge from the river, Scripture (Genesis 41:2) reports that they were, “Y’foht mar’eh, oov’ree’oht bah’sar,” beautiful in appearance and physically healthy. Pharaoh however, reverses the order, saying (Genesis 41:18), “Bree’oht bah’sar, ve’foht toh’ar,“–physically healthy and beautiful in form. In this manner, Pharaoh implies that many countries have cows that are fat-fleshed, but only his blessed Egypt has cows that are beautiful, all of which is attributable to the blessings of the Nile.

Both the Scriptural narrative and Pharaoh’s account report that the well-endowed cows graze in the marshland (Genesis 41:2 and 41:18), “Va’tir’eh’nah ba’ah’choo,” implying that the years of bounty will be limited to Egypt alone, since these cows graze exclusively in the marshland of Egypt and never wander out of Egypt. Fascinating is the fact that despite the healthiness and the physical beauty of the Egyptian cows, Pharaoh refuses to extol the Egyptian beasts, saying only what he saw in the dream (Genesis 41:18), “va’tir’eh’nah ba’ah’choo,” that these cows grazed in the marshland. As we shall see, Pharaoh is much more animated about the emaciated cows, who left a much deeper impression on Pharaoh.

From the biblical description (Genesis 41:3) we are told, “V’hee’nay sheva pah’roht ah’chay’roht oh’loht ah’chah’ray’hen min ha’y’ohr,” behold seven other cows emerged after them [the fat-fleshed cows], out of the river, “rah’oht mar’eh, v’dah’koht bah’sar,” inferior in appearance and of lean flesh. But when Pharaoh repeats the story (Genesis 41:3) he conveniently omits the fact that these inferior cows came out of the river, refusing to acknowledge that the Nile could in any way be the source of such substandard animals. In Pharaoh’s account (Genesis 41:19), he describes the thin cows as, “dah’loht v’rah’oht toh’ahr m’ohd, v’rah’koht bah’sar,” scrawny, very inferior of form and emaciated of flesh. They are not only bad, skinny and thin, but emaciated. By adding the word “rah’koht,” Pharaoh indicates that these animals have no flesh between the bone and the skin. He is horrified that creatures such as these could actually exist in Egypt, and consequently adds (Genesis 41:19), “lo rah’ee’tee kah’hay’nah b’chol eretz Mitzrayim,” I have never seen the likes of these in all the land of Egypt! Pharaoh’s personal impression underscores his embarrassment that these animals could possibly be of Egyptian origin.

When the emaciated cows swallow the seven healthy cows, Pharaoh adds a descriptive not included in the Scriptural version (Genesis 41:21), “Va’tah’vo’nah el kir’beh’nah, v’lo no’dah kee vah’oo el kir’beh’nah, oo’mar’ay’hen rah kah’ah’sher baht’chee’lah,” and they [the well-endowed cows] came inside of them [the scrawny cows], but it was not apparent that they had gone inside them, for their appearance remained as inferior as at the first. It is in this description that Pharaoh provides Joseph with a hint that the famine will be so intense that no one would ever remember the years of feast.

Scripture (Genesis 41:5) tells us that Pharaoh awakens and dreams a second time. Behold there are seven ears of grain sprouting on a single stalk, “B’ree’oht v’tovot,” healthy and good. The scriptural narrative describes these stalks as healthy, free of infestation and disease. In Pharaoh’s reiteration, however, there is no reference to the health of the stalks. He simply says (Genesis 41:22), “m’lay’oht v’tovot,” full and good, hinting that there will be a bountiful crop of grain and more than enough excess for export to other countries.

Scripture then states (Genesis 41:8), “Va’y’hee va’boker,” and it was in the morning and Pharaoh’s spirit was agitated, so he sent for and summoned all the necromancers of Egypt and all the wise men. Pharaoh anxiously relates his dream to them, but none could interpret them for Pharaoh.

However, when Pharaoh repeats his dream to Joseph (Genesis 41:24), he only says to Joseph that he told his dream to the chartumim, the necromancers, but no one could explain the dreams to him. Pharaoh also fails to mention that he was agitated, because it is beneath his dignity to acknowledge his distress. Pharaoh conveniently leaves out the fact that the wise men were also summoned, since his dream could not in any manner, shape or form be interpreted by logic, which is the realm of the wise men. But he does say that the soothsayers could not interpret it, because they would be expected to interpret it, since the dream was not based on logic, but more on emotions and feelings.

The repetitious narrative of Pharaoh’s dreams recalls the repetitions found in the encounter of Eliezer, Rebecca and Rebecca’s family. Each time the narrative is repeated, slightly different details provide important new information. Pharaoh, we see, is not just patriotic, he is wildly chauvinistic about Egypt. There can not be anything bad or wrong that emanates from Egypt. Yet, we also see that Pharaoh can be very precise with details when he wishes to, and of course is very concerned with his own security, so he dares not imply he is lord over the Nile. For Pharaoh, word of an impending famine must be traumatic. A thing like this should not occur in the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world. Not in his beloved Egypt. It takes time for Pharaoh to adjust to the terrible news and to assimilate what is happening, until he is ready to hear the truth from the mouth of Joseph.

Once again we see that when it comes to the bible, the story is often in the details. There is no detail too small, no nuance too insignificant to be glossed over or dismissed. To the contrary, these nuances and details often represent the essence of the story. It is through the details that G-d speaks to humankind. Close attention must be paid.

May you be blessed.

Wishing all a happy conclusion of the Chanukah festival.