“Pharaoh Was Agitated”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Mikeitz, Pharaoh dreams two well-known dreams, the dream of seven fat cows that emerge from the Nile River and are eaten by seven emaciated cows, and the dream of the seven fat stalks of wheat that are devoured by seven thin stalks. The Torah reports, in Genesis 41:7, וַיִּיקַץ פַּרְעֹה, וְהִנֵּה חֲלוֹם, and Pharaoh awoke and behold it had been a dream.

Most people have dreams. Some dreams are so compelling that the dreamer cannot fall back to sleep, either because the dreams are so exciting or because they are so frightening. Concerning the dreams of Pharaoh, the Torah notes, in Genesis 41:8, וַיְהִי בַבֹּקֶר, וַתִּפָּעֶם רוּחוֹ, and it was in the morning and Pharaoh’s spirit was agitated, so he sent and summoned for the wizards of Egypt and all its wise men.

Although Pharaoh related the dreams to his advisors, none could interpret them for him. Rashi maintains that there were indeed many interpretations, but Pharaoh did not find any of them satisfactory. Some interpreters told Pharaoh that he would have seven daughters who would die; Pharaoh refused to accept this interpretation.

There are commentators who maintain that dreamers often learn the meaning of their dream in their dream, but when they awaken they cannot recall the meaning. However, when they later hear the interpretation, they recognized it as the proper interpretation. This explains why Pharaoh would not accept the interpretations of the wise men.

Rabbi Shimon Schwab asks, why should Pharaoh find a dream to be so disconcerting, “certainly Pharaoh knew that most dreams are mere fantasy and the stuff of daytime musings.”

Rabbi Schwab explains that Pharaoh, like many monarchs, believed in resolving all disputes using might. The strong and numerous win out over the weak and the few. Pharaoh was certain that his subjects would not rise up against him because he was, by nature, always bold and confident. After all, he was Pharaoh.

These dreams, however, were different, representing a major departure from normative Egyptian elitist thinking. Emaciated cows cannot eat fat cows, and withered stalks cannot consume full, fat ones. Something is terribly amiss!

That is why the Torah states, וַתִּפָּעֶם רוּחוֹ, Pharaoh was not only agitated, he was consumed by anxiety that such thoughts, even in the form of dreams, would ever cross his mind. He understood that the message of the dream must be coming from an external, rather than an internal source. Maybe the gods were communicating with him, warning him of an impending successful rebellion. Despite the fact that the rebels were weak, and small in number, this time they would overwhelm the strong majority. This is why Pharaoh convened a meeting of his wise men and advisors. This was not an ordinary dream that an Egyptian Pharaoh dreams.

Writing on TorahMiTzion.org, Rabbi Assi Gastfreund of St. Louis, suggests that non-believers, who believe in the ultimate power of strength, could not ever accept the defeat of the mighty at the hands of the weak. However, people of faith could actually believe that, under certain circumstances, G-d could cause the defeat of the mighty at the hands of the weak and the many at the hands of the few.

The source of Pharaoh’s agitation is directly related to the story of Chanukah, where the few defeat the many and the weak defeat the powerful. Pharaoh is terribly agitated by the possibility that the power of Egypt was not absolute, and that the might of Pharaoh had been diminished, implying that he could somehow be defeated.

A committed Jew, on the other hand, is filled with confidence. Such a Jew recognizes that even the laws of history and the rules of nature do not apply to one who is committed to G-d and protected by the Al-mighty.

How futile are those who declare (Deuteronomy 8:17), כֹּחִי וְעֹצֶם יָדִי, עָשָׂה לִי אֶת הַחַיִל הַזֶּה, My power and the might of my hand has brought me this great success. The annals of history are littered with victims who subscribed to this terribly mistaken belief, including Jews and Jewish leaders who adopted this false philosophy.

As we light our Chanukah candles, increasing the number of lights every night, we pray that this beautiful ritual serves as a confirmation of our faith in the Al-mighty, and in His protective presence that watches over His people and keeps them strong.

As opposed to Pharaoh, an “agitated” Jew is not one who is concerned with power or might. An agitated Jew is one who strives, through faith and good works, to become worthy of G-d’s protection.

May you be blessed.

The festival of Chanukah began on Saturday night, December 24th, 2016 and continues through Sunday night, January 1st, 2017.

Wishing all a happy conclusion of the Chanukah festival.