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Pharaoh summons Yosef from the dungeon and tells him, ‘I have dreamed a dream, and there is none that can interpret it. I have heard say of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it’. Yosef answers, ‘Not from me (biladai). G-d will answer Pharaoh’ (Genesis 41; 15-16). With Yosef’s first word to Pharaoh, biladai, he states his credo. Whatever happens, good or bad, it is G-d who is running the show. Therefore if G-d gave Pharaoh a glimpse of the future through a dream, He will also provide an interpreter to explain it. If Yosef has been divinely chosen to fulfil that task then he will be given the insight to do so, if not someone else will be found who will interpret it.
Yosef’s whole life was affected by factors beyond his control, and at each step of the journey he understood that this was the Divine plan, and therefore he should make the best of the situation, without questioning. His two dreams, the brothers selling him as a slave, Potiphar’s wife’s false accusations led to him being imprisoned as a slave in a foreign land. Unquestioningly Yosef tried to do what was required of him in each situation, and he saw G-d’s blessing on everything that he did. Similarly he knew that G-d has many messengers to perform His will. If G-d chose for him to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams he was only acting as G-d’s agent. The only time that Yosef tried to take control of his destiny was when he asked the butler to remember him to Pharaoh after he was reinstated to his duty. Rashi explains (40; 23) that because Yosef placed his trust in a person rather than in G-d, he had to remain in jail for a further two years. We are commanded to serve G-d in everything that we do, but whether we achieve the results we had hoped for is not in our control. To expect to be in control of our destiny shows a lack in our faith in G-d. The Mishna summarises this idea beautifully, “It is not for you to complete the work, neither are you free to desist from it” (Avos 2:16)
This also explains why Yosef never sent word back to his father that he was alive in Egypt. Even if he was unable to do so while a slave, or in prison, why did Yosef not end Ya’akov’s mourning upon his appointment as viceroy? The Midrash states that when the brothers sold Yosef they made a decree of excommunication on anyone who would reveal the truth to Ya’akov. Since Reuven and Binyamin were not with them, and Yosef did not take part, they needed a tenth for the minyan to give the decree validity. Therefore they included G-d as the ‘tenth’, which is why He never revealed the truth to Ya’akov prophetically. Yosef understood that if the Divine plan called for Ya’akov to remain in mourning for the 22 years until he was reunited with his son, then Yosef himself would have been powerless to inform him until the plan was complete.
There is a Yiddish saying to the effect that ‘people plan, and G-d laughs’. We have no idea what lies in store for us or how events will pan out. In these areas we have no free choice, and all we can do is rely on G-d that everything is for the best. Our free choice lies only in how we make use of the opportunities which G-d has given us. We are commanded to follow His commandments to the best of our abilities, and try to live up to our potential. Everything else is ‘not from us’. This idea which was personified by Yosef can be very comforting. If we attribute our successes to G-d and acknowledge that we are only acting as His emissaries, then we are also not culpable if events don’t work out as we had planned. Those things that we consider failures often lie in areas which are beyond our control. The only failure for which we must take responsibility is not trying our best, or doing as much as we could. Judaism considers failure or success not on the outcomes, which is the yardstick of Western culture, but on the effort which we put into doing our best.
Yosef appears an enigma. On the one hand he is so humble, he insists that all dream interpretations are a gift from G-d and that without Him, he is unable to accomplish anything. Yet he is not intimidated by Pharaoh, although he came from jail literally moments earlier. He not only interprets Pharaoh's dream for him, but also suggests policy strategies to run the country. It seems that his ego has completely carried him away. Even more amazingly, Pharaoh listens to his advice and appoints him “prime minister” to implement his plan.
With hindsight, the meaning of Pharaoh's dream is so obvious to us. What was so special about Yosef’s interpretation that made Pharaoh listen to him? Why could none of Pharaoh's wise men, astrologers and necromancers understand what the dreams referred to?
The text says that there was no one to interpret the dream “to Pharaoh”. In other words, the men of Pharaoh’s court could interpret the dreams, but not to Pharaoh’s satisfaction. They all explained the dream in terms of events affecting Pharaoh personally, for example that he would have children and bury them. But Pharaoh realised that he had received this dream as the representative of all of Egypt. This is what the Torah means when it says “Behold, it was a [complete] dream”. Therefore he wasn’t satisfied until Yosef interpreted the dreams as having repercussions over the entire known world.
From the fact that the dream was repeated, Yosef understood that the famine was imminent. G-d was giving Pharaoh advance warning in order to prepare for it. Therefore the interpretation involved Yosef telling Pharaoh how to act in response to the dream. Setting up storehouses of grain was part of the meaning of the dream.
Despite conventional thinking, humility doesn’t involve false modesty. It means knowing exactly who we are, knowing our own strengths and weaknesses, and using them to serve G-d efficiently. Moshe is described in the Torah as the most humble of men, yet when the need arose he knew how to stand up against Korach and others. Not because he had an inflated sense of self worth, but because he knew that G-d had chosen him for a specific purpose, and that therefore he was best suited to that task.
So too Yosef. When he was brought before Pharaoh he understood why he had been sold into slavery and thrown into jail. He realised that G-d had placed him in this situation in order to provide sustenance for the world. For him to feign embarrassment or to seem unsure of himself would have defeated the purpose. Therefore he was able to stand up to Pharaoh without any feelings of intimidation.
Modesty and humility don’t mean belittling oneself; they entail knowing exactly who we are and how we can best utilise the opportunities that we are given. The story is told of Zusha, who always used to say “When I reach 120 and come before the heavenly court I am not concerned that they will ask me why I wasn’t Moshe. I can respond that I was never given his talents, upbringing or opportunities. Likewise I have an answer if they ask why I was not the Rambam, Yosef Karo or the Vilna Gaon. But when they ask me why I was not Zusha what will my defence be?”
Yosef stores provisions for the seven years of famine which are about to come upon Egypt. He takes a percentage from all the crops during the seven years of plenty, and warns all the Egyptians of the approaching famine so that they too can store food. However, once the famine arrives the Torah relates that the Egyptians also had to come to Yosef for food. “When all the land of Egypt hungered, the people cried out to Pharaoh for bread. So Pharaoh said to all of Egypt, ‘Go to Yosef, Whatever he tells you, you should do.” (Genesis 41; 55). The Midrash (Tanchuma) explains this strange dialogue. When the people came to Pharaoh asking for food, he asked them why they had not set aside provisions for themselves during the years of plenty. They replied that everything they had in their storehouses had rotted, so Pharaoh told them to go to Yosef. However they replied that Yosef would only give them food if all the males first circumcised themselves. Pharaoh told them to do whatever Yosef asked, for if he was able to make their grain rot in the storehouses, perhaps he would also be able to kill them if they did not comply with his demands. After the men had been circumcised Yosef sold them food.
There are many questions raised by this Midrash. Firstly, how was Yosef able to store the grain without it rotting, yet the Egyptians were unable to? If he knew of some special storage techniques why did he not also tell his subjects how best to prevent the rotting. Secondly, why did he not provide them immediately with food when they came to him? And why did he single out the Mitzvah of circumcision, a law that does not even apply to non-Jews, before giving them the food they needed?
There are several answers given by the commentators as to why Yosef wanted the people to circumcise themselves. The Yafeh To’ar explains that Yosef knew of the imminent exile of the Jewish nation to Egypt, and was worried that they may assimilate there. He knew that the Egyptians would make fun of them for being circumcised, which may have led to the cessation of this practice amongst the descendants of Avraham. Therefore he made all the Egyptians also circumcise themselves, in order that the Israelites would not feel embarrassed to do so when they eventually arrived in Egypt.
According to the Sh’lah, Yosef was trying to wean the Egyptians from their sexual depravity. The Torah (Leviticus 8; 3) warns the Israelites to refrain from the deviant sexual practices of the Egyptians, “Do not perform the practice of the land of Egypt in which you dwelled...”. Yosef foresaw that the Egyptians would eventually be punished in the future for their behaviour, and therefore hoped to temper or limit their actions through circumcision.
However, if this is the sole reason for his actions, did Yosef not realise that the Egyptians would abandon circumcision, and return to their former ways as soon as he was no longer in power?
There is another possible answer to why Yosef mandated circumcision. The Rambam (Guide for the Perplexed 3; 33) explains that the covenant of Bris Milah is sealed on the organ of reproduction to teach us restraint in regard to our sexual desires. Circumcision symbolically shows that we limit ourselves, and set guidelines and rules about our physical conduct. Clearly Yosef personifies the highest level of sexual restraint, in not succumbing to Potiphar’s wife. Therefore he is closely associated with the Mitzvah of Bris Milah. The restraint that the Torah advocates is not only in matters sexual, but in all areas to do with the material and physical world.
The fact that the food of the Egyptians rotted is a metaphor for their lack of restraint in anything physical. Food spoils because the microbes multiply at an exponential rate, symbolising an affliction of excess. The overabundance which they had stored caused them to lose all of it. When the Egyptians told Yosef that their food had spoiled he realised that the only way in which they would be able to retain food without it rotting would be through limiting their involvement with the physical world. This was the message he was trying to teach them through the command for them to circumcise themselves. It was not that he had magic powers to cause their food to rot, as Pharaoh had feared, but rather that he had the spiritual understanding to realise the root of the problem, and deal with it in that manner. This explains how Yosef himself was able to stockpile grain without it rotting. Since he personifies restraint, he was able to guard his food against the excesses which would have spoiled it.
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