Author's Note on Parshat Mikeitz

Author's Note on Parshat Mikeitz

Date: December 31, 2016
2 Teves 5777

One evening, Dutch physicist Niels Bohr went to bed and had a dream. He saw the nucleus of an atom with the electrons spinning around it, just as the planets do around the sun. Immediately upon awakening, Bohr is claimed to have said that he knew the dream was correct. According to the story, he tested the idea and confirmed its accuracy. Bohr was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1922. Bohr’s dream changed history. In this week’s Torah portion, Mikeitz, a Bor’s dreamer changed history. Let’s see how that happened.

Joseph was a dreamer and an interpreter of dreams. Dream interpretation is and always was a very valuable skill. But what was it about his ability to dream and interpret dreams that caused Pharaoh to put Joseph in charge of the entire country? Admittedly, Joseph presented Pharaoh with a strategic plan. He was also better at interpreting dreams than the Egyptian sorcerers. Joseph also filled in gaps in the story that Pharaoh did not reveal. All of this explains why Joseph earned credibility. But what was it that caused Pharaoh to give Joseph power in Egypt second only to Pharaoh himself?

To find an answer to this question and what it means for us, consider the four famous dream stories in the Book of Bereishit and how Joseph’s story was different from the other three. In speaking of dreams, I’m not talking about a dream like the one you have where you forgot to study for a test you have to take the next day. I’m talking about serious biblical dreams.

As Rabbi Akiva Tatz wrote:

“Anyone who has ever dreamed has experienced the remarkable transition from what seems completely real to a state in which it is obvious that the reality of which he was so sure a few seconds before was entirely an illusion! After living through a few vivid dreams, a person must be faced with a very unsettling thought: when you dream, for argument’s sake let us say a terrifying dream, and you awake and sit upright in bed still sweating and shaking, you are enormously relieved to realize that it was only a dream and that now you are awake. But are you sure? Can you be sure? How do you know that you are awake now — because you simply know? … But in your dream, you were certain that you were awake too!”

A biblical dream is a humbling experience. It is intended to be an experience in this world that should sensitize the dreamer to the idea that there is more to physical existence than meets the eye. The dream — an illusion — is intended to teach us much more about true spiritual reality. That is the power of a biblical dream. It turns reality upside down and makes you re-consider everything.

The first of four significant dreams in Bereishit is Avimelech’s dream. After he had taken Sarah captive, Avimelech had a dream where G-d appeared and warned Avimelech that he would die for having taken another man’s wife. Avimelech had an entire conversation with G-d in his dream. G-d warned that Avimelech better return Sarah to Avraham or Avimelech would surely die. That dream clearly shook Avimelech to his core. This was not as much a dream as it was a revelation of reality in the guise of a dream.

In the next significant dream, Jacob was traveling from Be’er Sheva to Charan and, along the way, he stopped to rest. He had a dream where angels were ascending and descending the famous ladder. When he awoke, the Torah says “vayikatz Ya’akov” – Jacob didn’t just wake up; he was agitated. The dream clearly had a deep impact on him. According to Rashi, Jacob responded to the dream by saying: “Had I known that G-d was in this place, I never would have fallen asleep.” Perhaps Jacob meant to say that had he known better, he would have been able to see the reality of G-d’s presence without having to dream about it first.

Of course, in Parshat Mikeitz, Pharaoh had his famous dreams. He awoke twice and each time, the Torah says “vayikatz Paro” (just as it says “vayikatz Ya’akov”). Pharaoh did not just wake up from his dreams. His dreams had clearly shaken him and he could not rest again until he knew what the dreams meant.

Now consider Joseph’s dreams. Joseph was, indeed, a dreamer. Unlike Jacob, Avimelech, or Pharaoh, however, Joseph was not affected at all by his dreams. There was no indication that Joseph understood his dreams as a reflection of some greater divine reality or plan. To the contrary, he seemingly could not wait to tell his brothers and his father (or perhaps brag to them) about his dreams.

Although the dreams had no apparent transformative effect on Joseph, the same cannot be said of Joseph’s brothers. They were the agitated ones, the ones who stripped Joseph of his coat and threw him in a pit.

  כד וַיִּקָּחֻהוּ וַיַּשְׁלִכוּ אֹתוֹ הַבֹּרָה וְהַבּוֹר רֵק אֵין בּוֹ מָיִם.

They took him and threw him into the pit (the “Bor”); and the pit was empty; there was no water in it.

As we know, Joseph was pulled out of the pit by a group of roaming traders and eventually sold to be a servant in Potiphar’s house. Once there, the Torah “narrator” tells us five times that G-d (Havaya) was with Joseph and that was why he succeeded in Potiphar’s house. Even Potiphar could see that G-d was with Joseph and that G-d made Joseph prosper.

The only one who apparently could not see that G-d was with Joseph was Joseph himself. The Torah tells us that Joseph was of beautiful form and fair appearance. Joseph was, as Rashi explained, so involved with his self-image and looks (and curling his hair) that Joseph had to suffer the consequences of Potiphar’s wife’s advances. At this point, Joseph’s dreams still had not transformed him; he was still focused on and, perhaps, absorbed by his “self” more than his divine mission.

Joseph was then sent to prison — called the Beit Hasohar (or sometimes the Mishmar) — where he would have to start all over. The Torah explains that G-d (again Havaya) was with Joseph in the Beit Hasohar. And, indeed, Joseph now realized that there was something of a divine connection to his ability to interpret dreams. When the butler and baker came to have their dreams interpreted, Joseph acknowledged that the secret behind dreams belongs to G-d (Ha’Elokim). At the same time, Joseph still did not connect the fact that G-d interprets dreams to the fact that the dreams reflected a reality of a deeper more significant divine plan in this world.

This is why Parshat Mikeitz begins with:

וַיְהִי מִקֵּץ שְׁנָתַיִם יָמִים

Joseph was punished for an extra two years in prison for believing that his freedom would come by trusting the butler to remember his plight to Pharaoh instead of trusting in G-d’s plan. Moreover, Joseph himself seemed to sense something was not quite complete as he pleaded his innocence to his compatriots by saying that he had done nothing that warranted sending him to a pit (or a “Bor”).

Then, after Joseph spent two more years in captivity, Pharaoh needed his dreams interpreted. The butler remembered that when he was in the Mishmar, there was a Hebrew slave there with him who could interpret dreams. Hearing the news, Pharaoh hastily brought Joseph out of the Bor.

In both of these passages (when Joseph was sentenced to two additional years of prison and when Pharaoh sought to take him out), Joseph was not referred to as being in the Beit Hasohar (prison house) or Mishmar (detention facility). Instead, the Torah tells us that Joseph was pulled out of “the Bor.”

Now, this was not just any Bor — it was the same Bor (metaphorically speaking) in which Joseph was left after his brothers had abandoned him. As Nechama Leibowitz wrote, perhaps the memory of the first pit into which he had been thrown “impinged on him.” He realized that he was back in the pit “but was not yet aware of the mysterious purpose underlying his peculiar destiny.” The Bor thus represents more than a literal pit dug into the earth. It was a place where Joseph was surrounded by physical limitations and from which he would have to find the spiritual purpose of his dreams and the reason behind his ability to interpret dreams.

It was also the same Bor about which the Torah said “it was empty and there was no water in it” (“V’habor rayk, ain bo mayim”). The Midrash explains that the reference to Mayim in this verse was a reference to words of Torah (as is also alluded to in the Talmud (see Bava Kamma 15a)). Perhaps Joseph was not yet able to bring his Torah learning and understanding to bear in a way that would justify the removal of the restrictions and limitations of the Bor.

But by the time Joseph was brought before Pharaoh, he could explain to Pharaoh that G-d’s hand was guiding the result. Unlike his explanation to the baker and butler where Joseph was explaining what Joseph believed the dreams to mean, here Joseph explained what G-d meant by Pharaoh’s dreams. Importantly, when he explained to Pharaoh the significance of his dreams, Joseph explained that G-d (Ha’Elokim) was telling Pharaoh what was going to happen, even though Joseph never spoke directly to G-d in the Torah.

So how did Joseph come to this understanding? The Torah alludes to an answer in comparing how G-d is present in the story of Joseph in Potiphar’s house as opposed to Joseph’s explanation to Pharaoh.

When Joseph spoke to Pharaoh, we see Elokim mentioned five times by Joseph. By contrast, when Joseph was in Potiphar’s house, we see Havaya mentioned five times as being with Joseph. Elokim has the gematria of Hateva or nature and refers to G-d’s presence in this physical world as opposed to Havaya which refers to that quality of G-d that is not directly involved in the actual creation, because it is above all restrictions and all limits.

Psalm 105 seems to pick up on this point when it speaks of Joseph’s growth in the Bor by saying that “his soul was put into iron until the time that His (G-d’s) words came; the decree of the L-rd (Havaya) purified him.” During Joseph’s final two years of captivity, he learned to connect to Havaya’s decree in a way that allowed him to see Ha’Elokim’s presence in this world through Pharaoh’s dreams. Torah had entered the Bor and Joseph was completely and permanently transformed in a way that his time for release had come.

To see just how permanent was his transformation, consider what happened when Joseph’s brothers first came to Egypt looking for food. At that point, the Torah says:

פרק 42

ט וַיִּזְכֹּר יוֹסֵף אֵת הַחֲלֹמוֹת אֲשֶׁר חָלַם לָהֶם…

Joseph “remembered the dreams” that he related to his brothers. It is not so much that he had forgotten them until seeing his brothers as much as it was that he now remembered them in light of his new understanding and connection to his G-dly mission. 

Joseph even explicitly shared this mission with those same brothers to whom he bragged about dreaming so long ago and with whom he was ultimately re-united. As Joseph said:

פרק 45

ח וְעַתָּה לֹא־אַתֶּם שְׁלַחְתֶּם אֹתִי הֵנָּה כִּי הָאֱלֹקים…

פרק 50

כ וְאַתֶּם חֲשַׁבְתֶּם עָלַי רָעָה אֱלֹקים חֲשָׁבָהּ לְטֹבָה

You, my brothers did not send me here; G-d sent me. You might have thought to do me harm; but G-d had plans and thoughts for good.

So back to our original question. Why did Pharaoh turn over control of the country to Joseph? Because Joseph exposed the reality behind the dreams that so bothered Pharaoh. As Pharaoh explained:

לח וַיֹּאמֶר פַּרְעֹה אֶל־עֲבָדָיו הֲנִמְצָא כָזֶה אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר רוּחַ אֱלֹקִים בּוֹ: לט וַיֹּאמֶר פַּרְעֹה אֶל־יוֹסֵף אַחֲרֵי הוֹדִיעַ אֱלֹקִים אוֹתְךָ אֶת־כָּל־זֹאת אֵין־נָבוֹן וְחָכָם כָּמוֹךָ:

Pharaoh understood and exclaimed to all of his servants that the spirit of G-d (Elokim) was in Joseph. Pharaoh said to Joseph: “Since Ha’Elokim has let you know all this, there is no one as understanding and wise as you.”

Joseph showed Pharaoh the truth — that his dreams reflected a deeper reality that was otherwise hidden from the Egyptian ruler.

Joseph did not start out understanding his divine mission. He had to work at it just like we have to work at it. Initially, Joseph was absorbed with “self;” with his image, his prestige, his abilities. G-d was with him, but he was not with G-d. Although Joseph was pulled out of the pit by the roaming traders, he never left the “Bor” even as he worked for Potiphar and even when he interpreted the dreams of the butler and the baker. It was during those final two years in the Bor that he learned the truth. He finally realized that G-d is the one who demands that each of us, His creation, learn to transcend our “self” (just as G-d transcends ego or self-image) and create the kind of world in which G-d can dwell. Until Joseph could bring that message down into this physical world, he remained trapped in a Bor of his own creation; an empty place with no water; no Torah.

All of us, at some point in our lives, are stuck in a prison or a Bor of our own construction. It is where we focus on “self” – selfish needs, selfish wants, and other forms of self-absorption. It is, therefore, empty. But we have a way out. The Talmud says (Berachot 5b) that a prisoner cannot free himself from the jailhouse. G-d is with us like He was with Joseph even if we (like Joseph) may never speak to Him directly and may be the last ones to notice His presence. Once we are ready to go beyond ourselves and our personal concerns and look for a way to reflect G-d’s wisdom, justice and compassion, we like Joseph can be rushed out of our “Bor” and into a world in which G-d’s presence may dwell.