In this week’s Torah reading, Pharaoh — the most powerful man in the world — dreams some terrible dreams. He dreams of seven healthy cows emerging from the river Nile, but seven sickly cows emerge after them and swallow up the healthy cows. He dreams of seven full and healthy ears of grain growing on a single stalk, but seven shriveled ears of grain grow after them and swallow up the healthy ears. He awakes, and they are only dreams, but he is agitated.
What do these strange dreams mean?
Pharaoh’s court is filled with soothsayers. He has gathered the wisest men in the land. Yet when it comes to these dreams, the soothsayers and the wise men somehow have no knowledge. “None could interpret them for Pharaoh.” How could this be so?
The dreams do not really seem that hard to interpret, and when Joseph is finally called from the dungeon to solve their mystery, his answer does not really surprise us. “Seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine” seems to be a perfectly reasonable explanation of the dreams’ meaning. So why are they so impossible for Pharaoh’s courtiers to explain?
Let’s look at the Torah’s explanation that no one was able to interpret the dreams. If we look at the Hebrew — ein poter otam l’Pharaoh — it becomes clear that the line might be better translated as, “None would interpret them for Pharaoh.” With this translation, the wise men’s silence and the soothsayers’ seeming lack of knowledge start to make more sense. Perhaps they, like Joseph, immediately understand what the dreams meant.
But unlike Joseph, they hesitate to offer this somewhat shocking interpretation to Pharaoh — an interpretation that would truly shake his world and theirs. After all, bearers of bad news are rarely rewarded (Joseph is somewhat of an exception in this regard). Even when Pharaoh suspects that something is wrong, his wise men and soothsayers may choose silence over speaking this particular truth to this most powerful of men.
Joseph is different. He comes from the outside and has no standing at Pharaoh’s court to protect. He has been wrongly convicted of a crime, has seen the depths of Pharaoh’s dungeons, and has pinned his hopes on the somewhat unreliable memory of Pharaoh’s butler. He has nothing to lose and everything to gain in speaking the truth that will change both Pharaoh’s life and his own dramatically. That he is rewarded for taking this chance shows us where the Torah’s sympathies lie.
Like Joseph and Pharaoh, we live in a world in which many would prefer not to hear inconvenient truths. Will we be like the wise men and soothsayers, unwilling to rock the boat? Or will we be like Joseph, ready to take a risk in order to speak the truth and to promote change?
This week we celebrate Thanksgiving, filled with gratitude for what we have. Yet the truth is that there are so many people in our country who are hungry and hopeless. Who will speak up for them? This week, we celebrate Chanukah, rejoicing in the light.
of freedom. Yet the truth is that there are so many people around the world who are struggling in the darkness of oppression. Who will speak up for them? May the voice of Joseph speak through us for truth and for change this year. Hag Urim Sameah!
Rabbi Adam Zeff serves as the rabbi of Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia. Email him at: [email protected] .