Rabbi YY Jacobson
Rabbi YY JacobsonIsrael National News

It is a riveting story. Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, has two dreams, we learn in this week's Torah portion, Miketz.

In the first, Pharaoh sees himself standing over the Nile River, "And, behold, there came up out of the River seven cows, handsome and fat of flesh, and they fed in the reed grass. And, behold, seven other cows came up after them out of the River, ugly and lean of flesh, and stood by the other cows upon the bank of the River. And the ugly and lean cows ate up the seven handsome and fat cows.” [1]

In the second dream, Pharaoh sees seven thin, shriveled ears of grain swallow seven fat ears of grain. None of the wise men of Egypt can offer Pharaoh a satisfactory interpretation of his dreams.

Then, the "young Hebrew slave,”[2] Joseph, is summoned from his dungeon to the palace. Joseph interprets the dreams to mean that seven years of plenty, symbolized by the fat cows and fat grain, will be followed by seven years of hunger, reflected by the lean cows and the shriveled ears. The seven years of famine will be so powerful that they will "swallow up" and obliterate any trace of the years of plenty.

Joseph then advises Pharaoh how to deal with the forthcoming crisis[3]: "Now Pharaoh must seek out a man with insight and wisdom and place him in charge of Egypt. A rationing system will have to be set up over Egypt during the seven years of surplus," Joseph explains, "in which grain will be stored for the upcoming years of famine."

Pharaoh is blown away by Joseph's vision. "Can there be another person who has G-d's spirit in him as this man does?" Pharaoh asks his advisors. "There is none as understanding and wise as you," he says to Joseph. "You shall be over my house, and according to your word shall all my people be ruled; only by the throne will I outrank you." Joseph is appointed Prime Minister of Egypt, the most powertful man in the ancient superpower, besides the king.

Four Questions

Torah commentators struggle with four questions concerning this story.[4]

A) Following his interpretation of the dreams, Joseph proceeded to give Pharaoh advice on how to deal with the impending famine. How is a freshly liberated slave not scared of offering the King of Egypt, the monarch who ruled a superpower, unsolicited advice? Pharaoh summoned Joseph to interpret his dreams, not to become an advisor to the king! Such chutzpah could have cost him his life.

B) Pharaoh was thunderstruck by Joseph's solution to the problem. But one need not be a rocket scientist to suggest that if you have seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, you should store food during the time of plenty for the time of hunger. What was the genius in Joseph's advice?

C) Pharaoh also was amazed by Joseph's interpretation of the dreams themselves, which none of his own wise men could conceive. But Joseph's interpretation seems simple and obvious: When are cows fat? When there is lots of food. When are they lean? When there's no food. When is grain fat? When there is a plentiful harvest. When is grain lean? During a time of famine. So why was Pharaoh astonished by Joseph's rendition of his dreams? And why could no one else conceive of the same interpretation?

D) How did Pharaoh confer upon Joseph the highest position in the land not even knowing if his interpretation will materialize? Why did the Egyptian king immediately appoint Joseph as viceroy without any evidence that this young slave was the right man for the job?

Uniting the Cows

On Shabbos Parshas Miketz, 27 Kislev, 5734, December 22, 1973, the Lubavitcher Rebbe presented the following explanation.[5]

The dream experts of Egypt did conceive of Joseph's interpretation to Pharaoh's dreams, that seven years of hunger would follow seven years of plenty. Yet they dismissed this interpretation because it did not account for one important detail of the dream.

In Pharaoh's first dream, he saw how the seven ugly and lean cows that came up after the seven handsome cows "stood near the other (fat) cows upon the bank of the River."[6] There was a moment during which both sets of cows coexisted simultaneously, and only afterward did the lean cows proceed to swallow the fat cows.

It was this detail of the dream that caused the wise men of Egypt to reject the interpretation that Joseph would later offer to Pharaoh and compelled them to present all types of farfetched explanations.[7]

Because how is it possible that plenty and famine should coexist? Either you have fat cows alone or you have lean cows alone, but you can't have them both together! Either you are satiated, or you are starving, but you can't be satiated while you are starving, and you can't be starving while you're satiated! The seven years of famine simply cannot be present during the seven years of surplus. Either you have lots of food, or you have no food, but you can't have both at the same time. You can’t be wealthy and poor at once.

This is where Joseph's brilliance was displayed. When Joseph proceeded to tell Pharaoh how to prepare for the coming famine, he was not offering him advice on how to run his country; rather, the advice was part of the interpretation of the dream.

Joseph understood that the coexistence of the two sets of cows in the dream contained the solution to the approaching famine: During the years of plenty Egypt must "live" with the consciousness and awareness of the pending years of famine as though they were already present. Even while enjoying the abundance of the years of plenty, Egypt must experience in its imagination the reality of the upcoming famine, and each and every day store away food. The seven lean cows ought to be very much present and alive, in people's minds and in their behaviors, during the era of the seven fat cows. Conversely, if this system was implemented, then even during the years of famine, the nation would continue enjoying the abundance of the years of plenty. The seven fat cows would be present and alive even during the era of the seven lean cows, becuase of all the food they saved up.

This is what impressed Pharaoh so deeply about Joseph's interpretation. To begin with, Pharaoh was struck by Joseph's ingenious accounting for that one detail of the dream that had evaded all the wise men of Egypt.

But what thrilled him even more was Joseph's demonstration that Pharaoh's dreams not only contained a prediction of future events, but also offered a solution, a remedy, on how to deal with those events. The dreams did not only portend problems, but also offered solutions.[8] Many people can tell you all about the pending problems; Joseph’s brilliance was that within the very dream which predicted the crisis he perceived the solution. In the very dream predicting calamity, he saw the way out of disaster,


The stories of the Torah describe not only physical events that took place at a certain point in history, but also timeless tales occurring continuously within the human heart.

All of us experience cycles of plenty and of famine in our lives. There are times when we have moral, emotional and spiritual clarity, and our consciousness is filled with love and connection; our souls are on fire with authenticity and truth. At other times, we are hungry: for integration, for clarity, for bliss. We are feeling anxiety and stress because we are not experiencing our connection with our souls and the soul of the universe.

This was Joseph’s power. He taught us how to integrate the two paradoxical states of consciousness. And this always happens in dreams: When we are awake, our brain shuns paradox. When we dream, or enter altering states of consciousness, paradoxes converge and dance together. Joseph is the master of explaining dreams—he knew how to help people remove the fear of paradox and integrate it into their regular state of consciousness.

And when we do that, we can discover that all the parts of ourselves are welcome; each of them contains the still inner voice of oneness and love. Each of them helps us bring light and truth into the spaces we need to work through.

We, the Jewish people, are living today with so much paradox (I can talk about myself, but I think it's true for many of us). We feel so much pain, but also so much love. We feel abandoned, but also profound resolve and resilience. We are dreamers. The two experiences coexist not only because of weakness and inconsistencies; but as Joseph, the master of dreams, has taught us—these paradoxes summon us into a much deeper space of consciousness, where infinite light can illuminate profound darkness. May we embrace each other with endless love, clarity, and resolve to become the people we need to become, to shine the light we are called upon to shine, to confront the nasty but meaningless powers of fakeness, stupidity, cruelty, and hate. Reality will prevail because it is real.


[1] Genesis 41: 1-4.

[2] Ibid. 41:12.

[3] Ibid. 41:33-40.

[4] See Ramban, Bechayah, Akeidah, Abarbenel, Ralbag, Alshich, Kli Yakar, Or Hachayim and Maharik—in their commentaries on the story.

[5] Published in Likkutei Sichos vol. 15, pp. 339-347. The Rebbe's explanation follows Rashi's interpretation of the story. See however Ramban to Genesis 41:4, Ralbag and Or Hachaim ibid. 41:33 for an alternative perspective, which would be invalid according to Rashi (Likkutei Sichos ibid. footnote #9).

[6] Genesis 41:3.

[7] See Rashi ibid. 41:8, from Midrash Rabah Genesis 89:6.

[8] There is a problem here. The detail of the cows coexisting at the river was not repeated by Pharaoh when sharing his dreams with Joseph. See Likkutei Sichos ibid. for an explanation. One possible approach is based on what the Ramban says here, that it is obvious that Pharaoh repeated all the details to Yosef and the Torah does not have to say it, because it is obvious. The Kli Yakar (41,3) says clearly that it was this coexistence which led Yosef to his interpretation, so although the Torah doesn't explicitly mention it in Pharaoh’s version of the dreams, Yosef certainly heard it (or sensed it) from him.

But maybe there is something deeper: Perhaps the Torah does not mention it because Pharaoh underscored it, as he could not find meaning in it. At times, we try to ignore or supress that which does not "make sense to us." This was part of Yosef’s brilliance to pick up on it and turn it into a central theme of the dream and the solution to the crisis. We see this in our lives: What we repress often turns into the most meaningful awareness in our lives.

[9] King Solomon in his profound wisdom put it simply: "A friend's love endures for all times" (Proverbs 17:7).