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Pharaoh said to his servants: 'Can there really be found such a person who has the spirit of G-d in him?' (41:38)
So declared Pharaoh after hearing Joseph's interpretation of his dreams: namely that the thin cows devouring the fat cows and the thin ears of corn swallowing the full ears of corn were G-d Himself communicating the oncoming seven years of plenty and seven years of famine. None of Pharaoh's wise men had any satisfactory (c.f. Rashi to 41:8) analysis, and Joseph's elucidation was the only one that struck him as correct.
However, the words 'Can there really be found such a person who has the spirit of G-d in him?' seem rather exaggerated in compliments. Cycles of abundance and famine have until very recently been characteristic of Egyptian history. Joseph's explanation on first sight seems rather obvious - something that anyone might come up with. And Egypt - together with Mesopotamia - was the most sophisticated society at that time in the Middle East. Pharaoh would have no shortage of highly educated consultants. What was unique about Joseph's handling of the dreams that so impressed Pharaoh?
It may be proposed that Joseph's approach was a specifically Israelite one - which today might be described as a Jewish one. That stood in contrast to the Egyptian culture at the time, as elaborated below.
The Egyptian culture was predominantly pagan. If things went wrong, it was because their deities were angry. It was no good trying to put things right, or even coming to term with the natural disaster. It was necessary to placate the gods - by monstrous ceremonies if deemed necessarily. There was nothing to be gained by relying on one's own resources and initiatives.
The Torah culture is actually far more liberal and advanced. It declares: 'See, I am giving you today life and the good, and death and the badů and you shall choose life' (Deut. 30: 15,19). The Torah does not encourage fatalism: it encourages working together with G-d to handle difficulties and hazards. It promotes taking initiative, whilst at the same time incorporating G-d as Helper. One example. In preparing to meet Esau, Jacob sent him a large piece of his newly-acquired wealth in the hope that it would calm his wrath (32:14). He used military sense by dividing his camp into two sections, so that at least half of his people would escape should Esau physically attack (32:9). And after he made use of all the physical courses of action at his disposal, he prayed (32:10), placing himself in G-d's hands, and at His mercy.
This teaching is actually implied in the dreams. The first dream was theoretically possible - starving cows will probably consume just about anything. But the second dream was implausible - plants do not eat each other. On one hand the dream was seen as a prophecy. On the other hand it was a piece of nonsense. Prophecy and nonsense work as follows: the prophecy may be rendered 'nonsense' by taming its effects - by taking steps to prevent its ravages,
The Torah promotes pro-activity, not fatalism. By itself, Joseph's talk of seven years of plenty and seven years of famine came to nothing new. The novelty lay in what he said afterwards. He did not suggest arranging some gruesome pagan ceremony with black magic. He told Pharaoh to actually 'seek out a wise understanding person' to ensure that 'they should store the food from the good years'. It was to be done 'under Pharaoh's hand' (40:33,35). That last phrase was the stroke of genius. Not only did Joseph promote in G-d's name (41:16) a central Torah value for humanity at large - that the country should act pro-actively and not as fatalists, but did it in a very subtle way. He implied that the land surviving the famine would be due to the preparation 'under Pharaoh's hand'. Thus the deity of the Hebrews, who 'would answer for the welfare of Pharaoh' (41:16) would (unlike pagan gods) ensure that Pharaoh would take the credit for it. He would guarantee that Pharaoh would go down in history for saving the Egyptians from extinctionů
[However, the fact that Pharaoh acknowledged the Hand of G-d does not mean that he abandoned paganism - as the saying goes 'a man who has twelve gods can tolerate a thirteenth'.]
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Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
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Also by Jacob Solomon:
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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