Parashat Mikeitz

by Cantor Sandy Horowitz

Parashat Mikeitz continues the story of Joseph which was begun in last week’s Torah portion. A theme that connects the two readings is that of three pairs of dreams, each with their own functions.

Last week the young Joseph, favored by his father Jacob and hated by his siblings, fueled the fires of hatred and jealousy by recounting two dreams. In the first, Joseph was an upright sheaf of wheat surrounded by his brothers in the form of sheaves bowing down to him; in the second dream, he was the center of all the 11 planets [read brothers] and the sun and moon. His recounting caused the siblings to become even more furious at this brother of another mother, they threw him into a pit and then sold him to a caravan of traders headed for Egypt. Even though the statement of the brothers’ hatred for Joseph (Gen. 37:4) precedes the recounting of the dreams (Gen. 37:6), these dreams do seem to act as the catalyst for the brothers’ actions.

The recounting of the first dream in particular may have another function, as it shows up again this week when, years later, the brothers come to Egypt seeking food. By then Joseph has become Pharaoh’s viceroy; the brothers bow to Joseph, not recognizing him, but he recognizes them as their act of prostration before him re-enacts the predictive dream of his youth. Perhaps the act of having spoken the dreams aloud all those years ago helped to trigger the memory.

The second pair of dreams serves as a bridge between the two Torah portions, and moves the narration forward; it also demonstrates Joseph’s continued connection with the God of his people. While in prison in Egypt, Joseph encounters Pharaoh’s chief cupbearer and chief baker who recount their dreams to him, seeking his insight. He interprets the dreams, while giving full credit to God as the interpreter (halo leiElohim pitronim, “don’t interpretations belong to God?” Gen. 40:8). The dreams come true, as the chief cupbearer is restored to his position and the chief baker meets his death.

Two years pass. Parashat Mikeitz begins with the third pair of dreams, this time they belong to Pharaoh. Seven fat cows are swallowed up by seven lean cows; seven fat ears of grain are swallowed up by seven lean ears. The cupbearer remembers Joseph, who is released from prison in order to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. Joseph does so, saying that the dreams represent the coming years of plenty and famine; as a result he is elevated to Pharaoh’s second in command in order to prepare Egypt for the times of famine. The dreams will have served their narrative function, bringing Joseph to his position in the royal palace, where he will eventually be reunited with his family. It is worth pausing the narrative here, in order to examine the language used by Pharaoh when he enlists Joseph’s help in interpreting his dreams. For this provides an added significance to the third pair of dreams.

Pharaoh says to Joseph, Shamati alekha leimor tishma halom liftor oto, “I have heard say of you, that you can understand a dream to interpret it” (Gen. 41:15). Various forms of the verb liftor — to interpret — are used throughout this narrative, but only here do we also see tishma, from the verb root “to hear”, shin-mem-ayin. Rashi explains tishma to mean, “you listen to, and understand a dream, to interpret it”.

In the next verse, Joseph attributes to God his ability to listen, understand and interpret Pharaoh’s dreams: “Not I, God will give an answer” (Gen. 41:16). Again, we are reminded that the God of his ancestors is his God still, and furthermore that it is God who provides the capacity for Joseph to listen as well as understand, in order to interpret.

How often do we experience our own disconnect from listening and understanding; how often do we, for example, recite the words of the Shema by rote, barely listening as we say the word “listen”, hardly pausing to try and understand. Shema Israel Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad, “Listen up My people, Understand Me! Adonai is your God, Adonai is One!”  Now more than ever in these divisive times, we may reflect on how we can each interpret and live by our understanding of the Oneness of God, the God of Joseph and his ancestors, our God, our Echad.


Cantor Sandy Horowitz is the cantor of Adas Emuno in Leonia, NJ.