Parashat Miketz 5780

The Dreams of Pharaoh
A D’var Torah for Parashat Miketz
By Rabbi Jill Hammer

Often when we come to this parashah, we think of the drama of Yosef: his rediscovery of his brothers and his decision to trick them in order to see if their character has changed. But this year, I am finding myself curious about a different drama: the story of Pharaoh. Not the one with a hard heart, but the first Pharaoh, the one who dreams. It is this Pharaoh who elevates Joseph to high estate. It is also this Pharaoh who teaches us something about the qualities of leadership.

At the beginning of Genesis 41, the Pharaoh of Egypt has two dreams in a single night, dreams that disturb him. In the first dream, seven healthy cows come out of the Nile, and then seven emaciated cows come out and devour the seven healthy cows. In the second, Pharaoh sees a grain stalk with seven healthy ears sprout out of the ground. Then a withered grain stalk sprouts and devours the stalk with seven healthy ears. After the first dream, we hear that “Pharaoh woke up.” (Gen. 41:4) The second time, we hear that “Pharaoh woke up; it was a dream.” (Gen. 41:7)

Pharaoh knows the dreams relate to a serious matter. How does he know this? For one thing, the imagery is very frightening. For another, the dream pattern repeats: seven cows, seven ears. Pharaoh is already interpreting the dream, even without an interpreter. He knows the dream matters. Rashi on 41:7 adds: “He knew a whole dream was before him and required interpreters.” Pharaoh knows that he needs to share the dream in order to understand it. And he knows he needs to act on this dream. This already indicates Pharaoh’s wisdom. He has had a prophetic dream and he senses its import.

Pharaoh now summons the court magicians, who are dream interpreters. The midrash says that they offer many interpretations: for example, in Genesis Rabbah 89:6 one interpreter says: “You will have seven daughters and bury seven daughters.” Pharaoh knows these interpretations are not correct. How does he know? The midrash suggests that while an individual person dreams a dream that relates to the self, kings dream for the whole world (Gen. Rabbah 89:4). Perhaps because the interpretations his dream interpreters offer him relate to him personally, he knows the interpretations are false.

It is at this point that the chief cupbearer steps forward to let the king of Egypt know that sitting in prison is a great dream interpreter, Joseph the Hebrew. Pharaoh demands that Joseph be brought before him, and the officials hurry to clean Joseph up and bring him into the throne room. Pharaoh is not put off by knowing Joseph has been in prison. He listens to Joseph’s interpretation and knows that it is a true one: his people will suffer a great famine.

In his interpretation, Joseph suggests Pharaoh find a wise man to manage the land’s food resources. Pharaoh might easily think that Joseph is being self-serving in making this suggestion, and discount his interpretation. But Pharaoh sees the spirit of God in Joseph and knows he will be wise and trustworthy. He appoints Joseph himself to the position Joseph has defined.

The Pharaoh of Genesis is showing us how to be a good leader. Pharaoh is wise enough to know many things, but he also knows what he does not know. He is not threatened by Joseph’s vision because he sees that Joseph is necessary to the creation of a good future. Pharaoh is willing to share leadership with another person and nurture that person’s wisdom and skill for the benefit of his whole country. And Pharaoh turns out to be absolutely right. Joseph does indeed save Egypt and many others as well.

We can learn from Pharaoh how to nurture leadership in our community. When we have a dream—a vision of community, justice, spiritual practice, creative expression, or whatever it may be—we may need that dream “interpreted” by others in order for it to be realized. Pharaoh’s trust in Joseph offers us one model of how to listen to and trust others in order to realize a collective dream.

The Hanukkah menorah also offers us this teaching, because as the nights go on, more and more candles add to the light. The power of the Hanukkah lights is not that one light gets bigger and bigger—the light grows because more and more candles are added. The Hanukkah ritual reminds us that each individual light has something powerful to add to the whole. Joseph, like the little jar of oil in the Temple, was hidden away until his time had come to be lit. So too, we can look for the jars of oil—the souls all around us—that are waiting to be discovered, lifted up, and lit. By supporting others in this way, we can nurture the growth of light and vision in the world.

I remain deeply struck by the statement of the midrash that “a king dreams for the whole world” (חֲלוֹם שֶׁל מֶלֶךְ שֶׁל כָּל הָעוֹלָם כֻּלּוֹ הוּא). My blessing for all of us at this season is that we be like kings who dream not for ourselves but for the whole world. May our dreams show us the way forward—and may we trust one another with our dreams, so that we can realize them together.
Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is the Director of Spiritual Education at AJR. She is the author of several books, including The Hebrew Priestess: Ancient and New Visions of Jewish Women’s Spiritual Leadership, Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women, and The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons—as well as the forthcoming Return to the Place: The Magic, Meditation, and Mystery of Sefer Yetzirah.