To be of Troubled Spirit – and to Talk About It: D’var Torah for Parashat ‘Miketz’ 5773 by Rabbi Dr. Dalia Marx

2 Comments 10 December 2012


Pharaoh, king of Egypt, dreamt two dreams and the story of his dreams is told twice in our parasha. The first time they are described by the biblical narrator and the second time by Pharaoh himself, when we hear him relate the dreams that had troubled his spirit to Joseph, the Hebrew youth. A comparison between the two versions of the dreams opens up a rare window for us into the mind of the dreamer:

Narrator’s version (41:1-8) Pharaoh’s version (41:17-24)
1. It came to pass at the end of two full years, that Pharaoh was dreaming, and behold, he was standing by the Nile.2. And behold, from the Nile were coming up seven cows, of handsome appearance and robust flesh, and they pastured in the marshland.3. And behold, seven other cows were coming up after them from the Nile, of ugly appearance and lean of flesh, and they stood beside the cows [which were] on the Nile bank.4. And the cows of ugly appearance and lean of flesh devoured the seven cows that were of handsome appearance and healthythen Pharaoh awoke.5. And he fell asleep and dreamed again, and behold, seven ears of grain were growing on one stalk, healthy and good.6. And behold, seven ears of grain, thin and beaten by the east wind, were growing up after them.

7. And the thin ears of grain swallowed up the seven healthy and full ears of grain;then Pharaoh awoke, and behold, a dream.

8. Now it came to pass in the morning that his spirit was troubled; so he sent and calledall the necromancers of Egypt and all its sages, and Pharaoh related to them his dream, but no one interpreted them for Pharaoh.

17. And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “In my dream, behold, I was standing on the bank of the Nile.18. And behold, seven cows of robust flesh and handsome form were ascending from the Nile, and they pastured in the marshland.19. And behold, seven other cows were ascending after them, emaciated and of very ugly form and with meager flesh; I have not seen such ugly ones throughout the entire land of Egypt.20. And the meager and ugly cows devoured the first seven healthy cows.21. And they went inside them, but it was not known that they had gone inside of them, for their appearance was as ugly as in the beginningthen I awoke.22. Then I saw in my dream, and behold, seven ears of grain were growing on one stalk, full and good.

23. And behold, seven ears of grain,hardened, thin, and beaten by the east wind,were growing up after them.

24. And the thin ears of grain swallowed up the seven good ears of grain; I told the necromancers, but no one tells me [its meaning].”


Some of the differences are merely literary variations, while others may help us to understand Pharaoh’s perturbed state of mind. Through the latter we may also learn something about the dreaming psyche.

"Pharaoh is the unquestioned ruler, not only a king but also a god in his eyes and in the eyes of his people."

"Pharaoh is the unquestioned ruler, not only a king but also a god in his eyes and in the eyes of his people."

The First Dream

The first dream scene is revealed to Pharaoh as he stands upon the Nile. He is the unquestioned ruler, not only a king but also a god in his eyes and in the eyes of his people. He is upon the Nile, the source of Egypt’s bounty and blessing. Contrastingly, when he tells his dream to Joseph he displays a humble attitude, describing himself as standing on the bank of the Nile. Pharaoh’s dreams, which are not yet intelligible to him, show him that he does not posses absolute control. He is not existence itself, rather, he can stand in the periphery, on the river bank, and look upon his world from the side. Pharaoh is not trying to affect modesty before the Hebrew youth – his humble language reflects his having been shaken by his recent experience.

Pharaoh’s retelling leaves out one important detail from the dream: and they stood beside the cows [which were] on the Nile bank. First the healthy cows make their appearance and eventually they are eaten by the sickly cows, but between those two events there was a stage in which the two sets of cows stood next to each other. This was a kind of respite, a situation of uncertainty regarding what would occur next. Perhaps the two groups of cows gauged each other’s strength. However, Pharaoh sees none of this process; he only sees the impending calamity.

First Pharaoh emphasizes the bad looks of the second group of cows, which were unlike any he had seen in the entire land of Egypt (verse 19) and whose hidden threat would only be revealed later. Next, he offers his own evaluation of the event: And they went inside them, but it was not known that they had gone inside of them, for their appearance was as ugly as in the beginning.

Here too, Pharaoh focuses on the result rather than on its causes or on the process to which it belongs. The cow, the beautiful calf which symbolizes fertile Egypt, has been hurt. Pharaoh is not surprised so much by the cows being eaten, since they are quite vulnerable animals. Rather, he is mostly surprised that they were eaten by their fellow cows – by weak and sickly cows, rather than by some foreign force or beast of prey. The ridiculousness and grotesqueness of the scene is what generates terror.

seven ears of grain

"seven ears of grain"

The Second Dream

Careful readers will discover a similar pattern of differences between the second dream as it is described by the biblical narrator and as it is retold by Pharaoh, but let us go on to consider the way the dream experience is described. Both the biblical narrator and Pharaoh himself mention that he woke up after the first dream. However, while the narrator states, And he fell asleep and dreamed again, Pharaoh does not mention that he fell back to sleep. It seems that he dived straight into the dream. The boundary between dreaming and wakefulness is blurred for him. He feels confused and lost between the reality of his life as ruler and the virtual reality of his dream.

The necromancers cannot decipher Pharaoh’s dreams. Are they incapable of interpreting what any penny-psychologist would see? Pharaoh feels that the necromancers understand his dream’s message but refuse to tell it to him: no one tells me. How could they stand before the great sovereign and tell him that he suffers from anxiety due to his eminent status? That it is precisely his unquestioned status that makes him so vulnerable? That bountifulness brings fear of lack? That the blessing generates fear of the curse?

Now the Hebrew youth arrives. A slave, he was rushed from the prison, given a quick shave, and hastily dressed so that he could try to help the emperor. His first words to Pharaoh, Not I; God will give an answer [that will bring] peace to Pharaoh, exclude the possibility of the situation being interpreted as a contest of power between the two, and it allows Pharaoh’s troubled heart to speak without fear.

Are Pharaoh’s dreams (which, as Joseph says, are one dream) interpretable in only one way, the way that Joseph managed to reveal? Or could it be that thanks to the divine spirit that rested upon him, Joseph understood the king’s distress and addressed it? Either way, we can see that the essence of the dreams’ solution is the limiting of Pharaoh’s unlimited power. Every reasonable father or mother knows that they must set up clear limits in order to give their children a sense of security. Every religious man or woman knows that in order for freedom to be real it is necessary to set boundaries upon it.

To Derive a Meaning from Dreams

Pharaoh could have ignored his dreams but he chose to try to gain meaning from them. He asks and investigates, he invites all the necromancers of Egypt and all its sages, but they are unable to help. The necromancers are practiced in exhibiting showmanship with their impressive answers; they make snakes jump and fires burn, but they are unable (or unwilling) to understand the complexities of the human psyche.

Joseph, in contrast, understands that while people do not have control over their dreams they do have control over what they make of them. And so, the first dream interpreter we come across (an unconscious dream interpreter) is Pharaoh himself, who lends significance to his experience. The second interpreter is Joseph, who is a dreamer himself, and the son of a people whose experience is founded upon a dialogue with the divine and the eternal. He is able to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams.

Pharaoh rules over a vast land which, unlike its northern neighbor, is not dependent upon rain or the gifts of nature. The Nile is like a tremendous womb that supplies all of Egypt’s needs, just like the healthy milk-cow and the good sheaves. One must value nature’s gifts in order to feel some measure of security; one must limit irresponsible consumption and make preparations for the years of famine. Such years can be expected to come for such is the way of the world.

Limitation and restraint are the prerequisites of human civilization. Not limitation for the sake of hunger or self-denial, but rather restraint for the sake of always valuing and taking notice of the grace given us. This approach stands at the foundations of Beit Shammai’s ruling that we must remove a candle each day from the Hanukiya (lately we hear voices in Israeli society calling for the adoption of this view). In contrast, Beit Hillel is sensitive to human fears of extinction, the fear which stands at the basis of Pharaoh’s dreams and of the hidden fears born by many among us. That is why Beit Hillel calls for the light to be increased each day.

Each day, as we light another Hanukah candle, we become aware of the bounty with which we are blessed and recognize that it should not be taken for granted.

Your Comments

2 Comments so far

  1. Heinz Pütter says:

    In a moment of great tragedy, the challenge is always to you to bring the mind to rest and you deep inside your soul begibst.
    Fear not, for I am with you. This is the poetry of a man to
    say that faced with a tragedy. In your darkest hour I will be your light. In your schwärzendem moment I will be your consolation. In your most difficult and critical time, I’ll be your strength and power. Therefore, have faith!

  2. Angeline says:

    I can see around airports that women and girls hold the majority
    when it comes to using these types of luggage tags.
    It’s all right — it can still be saved and made into cute luggage.
    Then when you went into the assembly area after they called the flight it
    was checked again for size.

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