Joseph Interprets Pharaoh's Dreams

June 24, 2009

3 min read


Mikeitz (Genesis 41:1-44:17 )

Understanding Joseph’s sudden rise to power.

The Chafetz Chaim, the leader of European Jewry in the early part of the 20th century, was known as a particularly righteous and saintly man. Once he was asked to testify in a Polish court on behalf of a Jewish defendant. Before calling the Chafetz Chaim up to testify, the defense counsel went through a lengthy explanation of the Chafetz Chaim's character, citing many stories of his righteousness and saintliness.The lawyer's words, however, did little to impress the judge, who doubted the veracity of these stories.

Observing the judge's doubts, the defense counsel acknowledged that some of the stories might be somewhat exaggerated. But then the lawyer added, "It may be that not every detail in these stories is true. But tell me, your honor, do people tell such stories about you and me?"

(Indeed, this courtroom saga had a happy ending. The Polish judge was so impressed with the Chafetz Chaim as a character witness, that he ultimately acquitted the defendant.)


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The impression one's moral character can make upon others is at the very heart of this week's Torah portion, Mikeitz. The parsha opens by describing the inability of Pharaoh's wise men to interpret two of their master's dreams.

Years earlier, Joseph had correctly interpreted the dream of Pharaoh's wine steward - who reasoned now that perhaps the Hebrew lad could do the same for Pharaoh.

Desperate for a suitable interpretation, Pharaoh agrees to the suggestion that the imprisoned Joseph be given a chance to explain the dreams. Joseph is brought before Pharaoh, and lo and behold, he correctly interprets the dreams! Pharaoh is so impressed by the Hebrew young man, that he appoints Joseph to be Prime Minister of Egypt, second in power only to Pharaoh himself.

(How exactly Pharaoh knows that Joseph's interpretation is correct is left unexplained by the text. Some commentaries say that Pharaoh included false information in describing his dream to weed out false interpretations. Others say that when he initially dreamed his dream he was given its meaning, but forgot it when he woke up; Joseph was able to refresh his memory.)


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Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz, the late dean of the Mirrer Yeshiva in Jerusalem, wonders how it was possible for Joseph to be appointed to such a position?Besides being young, Joseph was also a foreigner and a total unknown to the Egyptian royal court. And until now, he'd been sitting in jail! How could he come to be appointed the second most powerful person in the Egyptian emipre?

Rabbi Shmuelevitz says the answer is found in a careful reading of the text. Joseph refuses to take any credit for the wisdom that he is imparting. He tells Pharaoh that any insights he has to offer come through the grace of G-d. Over, and over, in his interactions with Pharaoh, Joseph emphasizes that the dreams are G-d's way of communicating to Pharaoh.

Joseph's conviction that G-d is the supreme force, and his refusal to see himself as having any importance, made a tremendous impression on Pharaoh. The Egyptian monarch realized that he was dealing with a righteous, G-d fearing individual. Such an individual could be counted on to possess an honesty and integrity not normally found among the intriguing, plotting members of a royal court. For the position of Pharaoh's top advisor, this was exactly what the Egyptian ruler was looking for.

In the final analysis, it was Joseph's impeccable character which yielded political power as well. Like his descendent the Chafetz Chaim, millennia later.

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