Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Dream and Self-Destruct: A New Take on the Torment of Pharaoh

When Pharaoh enslaves the Jews, he puts them to work on two projects: agriculture and construction - בחומר ובלבנים ובכל עבודה שבשדה. What are they building? Not housing (which, with their skyrocketing birthrate, would have been useful) but storage facilities. Huge storage facilities. Cities of storage facilities - ערי מסכנות.

Why does Pharaoh suddenly need so much storage space? According to Rashi in Divrei HaYamim (II 32:28), the word מסכנות is used exclusively to refer to granaries - and Rashi proves the meaning of the word from its appearance here in Shemos! An army of Jewish slaves working in the field is going to produce a huge surplus. Obviously, the Jews are building storage facilities for all the extra food. But why? Why is Pharaoh hoarding grain?

"A new Pharaoh arose over Egypt who did not know Yosef" (1:8). According to one opinion cited by Rashi, this was not a new king. (If it were, the Torah would presumably tell us that the old Pharaoh died, as it says later in 2:23.) Rather, the same old Pharaoh who knew Yosef personally was now ignoring him. But what does that mean? In what way is Pharaoh ignoring Yosef?

Years back, Pharaoh had two similar dreams on the same night. In his first dream, Pharaoh sees himself standing by the Nile River. He watches seven fat cows rise out of the water, only to be consumed by seven skinny cows who also come out of the water. In Pharaoh's second dream, seven fat ears of grain get consumed by seven thin ears of grain. 

Pharaoh awoke terrified. ותפעם רוחו - "His spirit was agitated and was clanging inside him like a bell" (Rashi 41:8). In other words, Pharaoh was having heart palpitations. To get a sense of the intensity of Pharaoh feelings, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar experienced the very same trauma - ותפעם רוחי - when he awoke after having a nightmare about a monster, a nightmare which foretold the destruction of his empire (Daniel, chap. 2). 

Pharaoh has premonitions about his dreams and the interpretations offered by his advisors reflected his fears. They suggested that the dream about the cows means that he will have seven daughters and he will bury seven daughters, and the dream about the grain means he will conquer seven kingdoms and seven provinces will rebel against his rule (Bereishis Rabba 89). However, Pharaoh is unsatisfied. He knows that his dreams are bigger and darker than that.

Called up from the dungeon to interpret the king's dreams, Yosef says that both the cows and the grain represent years (41:26-27). The two dreams are one and the same: seven years of plenty will be followed by seven years of famine, and the repetition indicates that Hashem is hurrying to make it happen (41:32). Yosef was pretty accurate; there were seven years of plenty, however, the famine lasted only two years. With the arrival of Yaakov the drought ended, as evidenced by the fact that the people began planting again (Rashi to Bereishis 47:19).

The premature end of the famine came as a great surprise to the Egyptians. Yaakov's sons understood that the destiny of the world revolves around Yaakov Avinu, but Pharaoh was sceptical. (If the presence of Yaakov can end a drought, why was there a famine in Israel?) Pharaoh could only conclude that Yosef was unreliable. He was a pretty good dream interpreter, but perfect he was not. There were inaccuracies. 

Pharaoh is now plagued not by drought, but by doubt. Yosef might have been completely wrong about the length of the famine. (Indeed, the Midrash cites opinions that the famine was originally destined to last not seven but twenty-eight or forty-two years, cf. Bereishis Rabba 89:9.) Then again, maybe Yosef was right and the famine will suddenly resume sometime in the future? (According to the Midrash ad loc., the famine did in fact resume centuries later in the days of King Yechezkel.) Either way, Yosef was off and that was a frightening prospect. Mistaken about the duration of the famine, he might also be wrong about some of the other details. Yosef claimed that the repetition of the dream indicated that it would begin soon, but what if not? What if the second dream refers to a second famine? The country must prepare itself! This is what the Torah means when it tells us that Pharaoh now chose to ignore Yosef (Rashi to Shemos 1:8). Pharaoh no longer accepted Yosef's interpretation of his dreams.

This explains why Pharaoh put the Jews to work: to prepare for the next famine. The storage facilities used last time will not suffice, for who can say how long the next famine will be? New and larger facilities must be built and the Jews will build them. After all, the famine is the Jews' fault. Dreams follow their interpretation (Berachos 55b) and Yosef the Jew was the one who interpreted the dreams to mean that a famine will strike Egypt. The Jews created the problem. Let them fix it.


Who was right about the meaning of the dreams? Yosef or Pharaoh? The answer is not so simple.

In the seventh plague of hail, the Egyptian harvest is severely damaged (9:25); only the thin and flexible stalks survive (9:32). And in the following plague, the crops that survived the hail are consumed by locusts (10:5). Here we have the destruction and consumption of the Egyptian harvest marked by the number seven. Pharaoh's fears are confirmed: the dreams are still in play! Faced with a new famine, Pharaoh is relieved to have plenty of extra grain in his granaries, but at the same time, the plagues reawaken old fears.

When Pharaoh first entertained the possibility that Yosef was wrong (or chose not to reveal the whole truth), Pharaoh was forced to think out of the box. What if the dreams are not limited to foodstuffs? What if the fat cows represent not years, but the state of Egypt itself? What if, like Nebuchadnezzar, his dreams foretell the catastrophic fall of the Empire?

Pharaoh cannot help but suspect that skinny cows eating fat cows portends the miraculous victory of a weak underdog over the mighty, but fat, Egypt. The enemy looks eerily similar to the Egyptians. Stranger yet, both the victor and the vanquished are sourced in the Nile.

Rejecting Yosef's interpretation, Pharaoh believes his dream to mean that there is a mortal enemy hiding inside the country. The conclusion is inescapable: It's the Jews! Pharaoh warns his people that despite all appearances, the Jews are actually stronger than we are (1:9), and in the event of an invasion, the Jews will join forces with the enemy (1:10). Alarmed by the Jewish population explosion, Pharaoh decrees that all Jewish boys are to be drowned in the Nile. 

Pharaoh is not a madman. His fears 
are well-founded. In fact, there is far more merit to this interpretation than Pharaoh would ever know. Egypt is compared to a cow, "Egypt is a beautiful heifer" (Yermiyah 46:20), and so are the Jews; the Midrash uses the analogy of a birthing cow to describe the exodus of the Jews from Egypt (Mechilta Beshalach 14:30). Seven starving cows consuming fat cows can thus refer to the seventy Jews who came to Egypt in search of food (Bereishis 46:27) and end up destroying the country. Yosef himself alluded to this interpretation of Pharaoh's dream when he said to his brothers, "Get your father and your families and bring them to me. I will give you the best of the land of Egypt and they shall eat the fat of the land" (45:18). 

Moreover, by the time of the Exodus the Jewish People had almost entirely assimilated into Egyptian culture. The Jews worshiped Egyptian gods (Rashi to Shemos 12:6) and they even looked like Egyptians, "both were uncircumcised, both grew their hair long, both wore shatnez..." (Shir HaShirim Rabba 2:6). It follows that thin cows eating fat cows symbolizes penniless Egyptianized Jews plundering Egypt of all its wealth (12:35-36). Nonetheless, just like the skinny cows in the dream, the Jews remain thin. Hashem starved them in the desert before feeding them Mannah (16:3), and the heavenly Manna had zero fat. (The body absorbed Mannah without producing any waste, Yoma 75b). Only later in the land of Israel do we find that "Yeshurun grew fat and kicked" (Devarim 32:15). The dream is thus a vision of the Chosen Nation living up to its mandate, remaining "thin" and recognizing its dependence on God, despite newfound wealth, independence and the heady illusion of power. 

The thin "Jewish cows" might also indicate that the Jews are exempt from paying for the material and financial damage they inflicted on Egypt. When an animal inflicts damage, payment is collected מגופו, from its own body (Shemos 21:35). In the event that the damager has no value, it is exempt from payment. A skinny, worthless cow will thus not provide compensation for the damage that it inflicts, and in the case of the Jews of Egypt, this is perfectly just. Although the Jews did bespoil Egypt when they left, when you factor in all the years of enslavement, the Jews got the worse end of the deal (cf. Sanhedrin 91a). The description of the thin cows as דלות, "poor" (Bereishis 41:19), can now be taken literally, and we have a new interpretation of the dream: the skinny cows (the Jews) ate the fat cows (the wealth of Egypt), but yet the Jews remained poor - the spoils of Egypt was insufficient compensation for the centuries of enslavement.

Alternatively, cows rising out of the river may refer not to the Jewish nation, but to Yosef. Yosef appeared Egyptian (cf. Bereishis 42:8 where his own brothers don't recognize him) and was called an "ox" (Bereishis 49:6; Devarim 33:17). As Egypt fell and the Jews departed, Moshe used the expression "Rise, Ox!" to bring up Yosef's body from the river bed (Rashi to Shemos 32:4). The idea of the cows representing Yosef is further bolstered by the fact that Yosef and the cows are both described in the exact same way, יפה תאר ויפא מראה, "of beautiful form and beautiful appearance" (Bereishis 39:6; 41:2,18). We might also add that in the birth order of the sons of Leah and Rochel, Yosef is number seven. 


Pharaoh could not grasp the full import of his dreams, nonetheless, he understood enough to make him sweat. On the one hand, his second dream may signify a second devastating famine. If true, he needs to enslave the Jews to work the fields and build granaries. On the other hand, his dreams might mean that the Jews will destroy and despoil Egypt. If that is the dream's meaning, he must act to defeat destiny, defend his country, and exterminate the Jews. Unsure which interpretation is correct, Pharaoh does both. First he enslaves the Jews to prepare the granaries. After that is complete, he moves on to the final solution: drowning the Jews in the river.  

In a delicious divine comedy, Pharaoh's attempt to destroy the Jews is what ultimately destroys Egypt and saves the Jews. Due to her father's evil decree, Pharaoh's daughter finds a Jewish baby in the river, and the rest is history. In retrospect, the mysterious skinny cows which Pharaoh saw destroying his country may in fact symbolize the leader of the Jews, Moshe. Pharaoh's daughter named him "Moshe" because, like the cows, she "drew him out of the water" (2:10; משה=משיתיהו). The rise of the Jewish Nation and the destruction of Egypt thus emerges from the Nile - as prophesied by Pharaoh's dreams. In fulfillment of the vision of cows eating cows, the Torah tells us that Moshe looked like an "Egyptian man" (2:19), and in the vision of the Egyptian astrologers, it is impossible to tell if the redeemer is Jew or Egyptian (Rashi 1:22). Tellingly, when the Jews desire to find a replacement for Moshe, they forge a Golden Calf. We might also add that Moshe is the seventh generation in line from Avraham and was born (and died) on the seventh day of Adar.

Pharaoh's first response to his dreams was to release Yosef from prison and elevate him to the highest position in the Kingdom. It was a desperate move. Pharaoh did it because he was delighted with Yosef's positive spin on his nightmare, but little did Pharaoh know that the monster in his nightmare was none other than Yosef himself. In the short term Yosef's interpretation provided relief and seemed to put the dreams to rest, but in the long term it led to his brothers moving to Egypt and ultimately to the destruction of Egypt - as prophesied by the dreams.

As he saw in his dream, Pharaoh stands by the Nile the entire time, watching helplessly as Egypt is destroyed by his own errors of leadership. To his eternal dismay, Pharaoh can only fault himself for first accepting Yosef's interpretation and then recklessly ignoring it and reinterpreting his dream. Dreams follow their interpretation, but Pharaoh's dreams have a life of their own: whatever he does, the dreams adjust and destroy. Pharaoh is not only a passive observer; he is God's puppet, compelled by God-given nightmares to destroy his country with his own hands.   

This too is foretold by the dream. The most basic and frightening feature of the dreams is cannibalization. The reason the skinny cows remain skinny after eating the fat cows is because they are the very same cows! Egypt consumes itself. Pharaoh is his own worst enemy - and it is his own dreams which drive him to self-destruct. In the end, the seven skinny cows coming out of the Nile refer to all the drivers that destroy Egypt: Yosef and Moshe, the Jews, the Egyptians, and Pharaoh himself.

As a postscript, we should point out the fascinating parallel to the dreams of Yosef. Frightened and jealous of Yosef's dreams, his brothers decided to eliminate him. "Let's kill him and throw him into one of the pits... and we will see what will become of his dreams!" (37:20). But Hashem saw to it that their attempt to wreak Yosef's dreams is what brought about their fruition. The brothers' sale of Yosef into slavery is what makes Yosef king and ultimately dooms the brothers to slavery (cf. Shabbos 10b) - the very things they were trying to prevent! Pharaoh suffered the same tragedy. The battle he waged against the nightmare that haunted him is what made it all come true.

Hashem works in mysterious ways, but sometimes he lets us watch the show.


  1. Remember R' Yaakov Weinberg's tape giving his "reviews" (your word) of the major commentators? He says about the Netziv that his questions are great. About the answers, he says something like "take them or leave them." (I don't like that, as I enjoy running with them.....)

    The questions here are great. As are the insights that could yield answers. Why granaries? Did "She'lo yada yosef" mean "who came to doubt him"? Was the consumption of the fat cows really just another entry in the "first-born falls" polemic of Bereishis, which is also an anti-Mitzrayim polemic (Mitzrayim held itself to be the first born of the nations, and took "first born status" as a sign of being strong/robust/a bully, etc., like fat cows vs thin cows)?

    The answers are incredibly creative but there is friction in that there's a "maybe yes/maybe not" hanging over them. There's also "what does it mean to us" that's missing. Just like when you said that Esav gave up the Bechora b/c being first-born to Avraham (from Sara) seemed to put Yitzchok in some danger and he's not signing up for any of that. That's brilliant but what does it mean to us?

    1. Rabbi-
      You are asking for relevance and that is certainly a fair question on this blog.
      For me, the takeaway is Emunah. Emunah in Hashem's power to manipulate man and history (sometimes through the dreams he puts in our heads) and the futility of doing battle with the Divine Will.
      I'm afraid that's a lot more relevant than many would care to admit.

  2. Alan Tsarovsky1/10/2016 2:29 PM

    This was a great piece. I particularly enjoyed the swerve where Pharaoh thought he was following the concept of the Gemara, that dream interpreters are the causes of the dreams outcomes in real life, and indeed that the concept was true except it was his interpretation that led to the destruction of Egypt.

    You know you stole my heart with your proofs from Nach and Midrash as far as why the Jews and Egyptians can be considered cows in Pharaoh’s alternate understanding of Yosef’s dream. Clearly Pharaoh was well versed in parshanut.

    Your pshat certainly fills in some of the gaps as far as his torment and touches on something fascinating, which is the psychology of a dictatorial terrorist. The balance of his populist rhetorical attack on his enemy versus his actual belief in their alleged super power (despite their status as an enslaved minority). I’ve always seen the Torah’s narrative portions as revelatory of its deep insight into the psychologies that motivate the protagonists and antagonists of history.

    The poetic justice of having his own daughter rescue the future source of his downfall is truly one of the great ironies of this story from our past.

    All in, a lovely presentation. Yashar Koach!

    1. Alan-
      Thanks for the feedback. That "swerve" at the end was my favorite part of the piece.
      We don't need Pharaoh to be well-versed in Jeremiah (or in this blog) for the pshat to work. As evidenced by the Golden Calf, the cow was one of the primary gods of Egypt. If you worship cows, dreaming of seven fat ones getting consumed isn't a good sign. This is a flaw in Yosef's interpretation of the dream. I think it is reasonable to assume that Pharaoh was not fully confident in Yosef, and when the famine ended early he began to explore other possible interpretations of his dream.