Genesis Fortune Telling and Fortune Shaping

By Rabbi Micha'el Rosenberg
Rabbi Michael Rosenberg

Miketz (Genesis 41:1-44:17)

When you know a story very well, it’s easy to take its twists and turns, its assumptions and its surprises for granted. So it is with a moment at the beginning of this week’s Torah reading, Miketz. While Joseph remains forgotten in jail, the Pharaoh of Egypt has dreamed two dreams — the first about two successive sets of cows, the one fatty and the latter lean, and another about similarly-sized sheaves of grain. With the court magicians unable to interpret these night visions, Joseph’s former cellmate, the reappointed cupbearer, tells of the remarkable Israelite who can interpret any dream. Pharaoh calls for Joseph, Joseph interprets the dream, and the rest, as they say, is history.

We know the story so well that we might never stop to ask a question raised by the medieval Spanish commentator Rabbeinu Bachya. Commenting on Genesis 41:8 — There was no one who could interpret [the dreams] to Pharaoh — he asks: Are these really such hard dreams to interpret? In premodern societies, cows are paradigmatic symbols of plowing and farming; sheaves an emblematic sign of harvesting. That the generous portions of cows and grain followed by the lean sets stand for years of plenty and years of famine, says Rabbeinu Bachya, should be easy to discern for anyone remotely skilled at dream interpretation. He therefore says that God must have interfered, temporarily stopping up the magicians’ intellectual facilities so that Pharaoh would have to call on Joseph, thus setting up the young Israelite’s rise to power in Egyptian society.

Rabbeinu Bachya’s answer to this question, however, is not the only one. A midrashic tradition, cited by many commentators, asserts that the court magicians indeed had interpretations of Pharaoh’s dreams, but that because they treated him as an individual, with personal and familial concerns, rather than as a political leader, obsessed with the meaning of his dreams for his nation and government, these interpretations “did not enter his ears,” that is, he did not pay attention to them, “and he had no satisfaction from their interpretations.” In what way were these earlier attempts at dream interpretation unsatisfactory? Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (often referred to by his Hebrew initials, as the Netziv) writes that Pharaoh’s personal dream interpreters misunderstood the nature of leaders. They saw the correct interpretation, the same one that Joseph would later report to Pharaoh; but since they assumed — correctly — that he, the privileged leader of the nation, would not personally suffer the effects of famine, they also assumed — incorrectly — that he, and by extension his dreaming unconscious, would be uninterested in that future. “Let them eat cake,” the sovereign would presumably say; the dream must be about something else. They therefore sought other ways to understand his dream. But a leader — not in the sense of someone who merely wields authority, but rather someone who embodies leadership and works to get the people where they need to be — identifies with the communities that they lead, whether they personally experience the effects of their leadership or not. Joseph understood this and could therefore see how Pharaoh’s dreams were telling a national, rather than personal, tale.

Another interpretive tradition likewise understands Joseph’s superior powers of dream interpretation in the context of understanding leadership. Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazy, in his commentary Maasei Hashem, writes that the unique contribution of Joseph’s dream analysis — what the Egyptian interpreters were unable to explain — was the meaning of this dream’s appearing to Pharaoh rather than someone else: “Joseph responded to him, saying ‘That which God will do, God has said to Pharaoh (v. 25),’ meaning that Pharaoh has the means to sustain the masses, and therefore the dream appeared to him and not to another.” A similar idea appears in commentarial anthology Sifsei Hakhamim: Joseph’s dream analysis was compelling to Pharaoh in a way that previous attempts had not been, not because it could understand what the dream meant — seven years of wealth followed by seven years of famine. Rather, Joseph’s innovation was including as his interpretation a response, a remedy. Joseph’s ability to foresee the future on the basis of Pharaoh’s dream was unremarkable; what marked him as a leader of distinction was his desire and ability to use that knowledge to plan for the future so as to mitigate the inevitable coming lean years.

We live in a moment when at least certain aspects of our future are easy to ascertain. Scientific studies might disagree about the extent to, or the speed with which, catastrophic effects of climate change are coming, but that they are coming is clear. Leadership, the Netziv teaches, is not predicting our future, but rather understanding that our leaders must thing globally rather than personally; though those with greater means will feel the effects less acutely, leaders must act on behalf of the people as a whole. And as the Maasei Hashem and Sifsei Hakhamim, the real trick is not announcing what’s coming, but using our knowledge to make plans for it; to be like Joseph, using our knowledge of what is coming to mitigate the pain and suffering that it can cause.


Rabbi Michael Rosenberg is an Associate Professor at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in Newton Centre, MA.

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