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We’ve been wondering about this question, could there be such thing as non-prophetic communication between God and men and what would it look like? We’ve been looking at Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream as a possible model. If you haven’t seen the last couple of week’s Parsha videos, I recommend you go back and take a look.
What we have known in the last week is that in the run-up to Pharaoh’s re-telling of his dream to Joseph, the events that have taken place, seems to mirror events that took place 13 years earlier back when Joseph was thrown into a pit. As a matter of fact, the events that are taking place now seem to be the reverse of those events both in chronological order and in the significance of the events, everything that happened back then, the opposite is happening now and we ask, does that pattern continue as Pharaoh begins to tell his dream?
Vayidaber Paroh el-Yosef, so Pharaoh says to Joseph, bachalomi, ‘In my dream’, hineni omed al-sfat haYeor, ‘I was standing by the side of the river’, vehineh min-haYeor olot sheva parot briot basar, ‘and then, out of the river, came these 7 beautiful cows’, vifot toar, ‘they were beautiful of form’. If you were Joseph, what would vifot toar remind you of?
There are only two people in the entire 5 books of Moses, ever described as yifat toar or yifat mareh or yafeh toar or yafeh mareh; it is Joseph himself and Rachel, Joseph’s mother. So if you are Joseph, you are thinking, ‘Oh my goodness! These cows, they remind me of my mother, they remind me of me!’ this is really weird, what are they? Joseph cows, Rachel cows? But let’s continue, vatir’eynah ba’achu; roeh can mean to shepherd or it can mean to graze, depending upon whether you are talking about person or whether you are talking about an animal. Here we are talking about an animal. So these 7 beautiful cows, they were grazing but where were they grazing? They were grazing in an achu, well, what’s an achu? Turns out that the word never appears elsewhere in the entire 5 books of Moses but Rashi guesses that it means swamp. So these 7 beautiful cows, they were grazing in the swamp land, next to the river.
But you can imagine there might be another possible interpretation of the word and in fact, there is. Onkelos, an even earlier commentators than Rashi, translates it differently. Alef-chet-vav, echav, the other way of reading this is vatir’eynah b’echav, they were grazing with their brother cows. These 7 beautiful cows, they had other cows too. Remember the ugly cows. They were grazing with their brother cows. But if you were Joseph, what would that remind you of? Remember roeh, resh-ayin-heh, can mean two things, depending on who the subject is. If it is talking about people, it doesn’t mean graze, it means shepherd. Now what does it remind you of?
The yafot toar cows, the Rachel cows, the Joseph cows, they were shepherding with their brothers. Was Joseph ever shepherding with his brothers? Yes, that’s the very first verse of the Joseph story. Before Joseph was thrown in the pit, before he was stripped off of his cloths, before his father sent him away, before he had those dreams, before all that Yosef ben shva esreh shanah, he was 17 years old, hayah roeh, he was shepherding et-echav, with his brothers, batzon the sheep.
So it is crazy right? I mean there are these two sets of cows, these Joseph cows and then there are these brother cows, right? Joseph’s brothers. I mean if we are right then those brother’s cows, those ugly cows, right who are those be? They would be the children of Leah cows. Does the text give us any other indication of that there might be so?
Pharaoh keeps on speaking. Vehineh sheva-parot acherot olot achareihen, so after this, 7 really ugly cows came out of the river too. Raot toar, they were really ugly, rakot basar, they were thin and gaunt. Rakot, where have you heard that before? Spelled differently but it is a homonym, phonetically, it is the same sound. The only other time it’s used, describes a woman. The only physical description that we ever get of Leah, is v’einei Leah rakot. Her eyes were thin or her eyes were soft. They really are Leah cows, Rachel cows and Leah cows, grazing together. If you are Joseph, it is like this is my life but then, continue with Pharaohs dream because the next event that happened must have made Joseph’s blood run cold. The next thing that Pharaoh says, is that the ugly cows devour alive the beautiful ones.
Now, if you are Joseph, what are you thinking now? When did that happen in your life? It is the next thing that happened in that story 13 years ago. Those brothers, children of Leah, they swallowed me alive and then listen to what Pharaoh says, the ugly cows don’t even look any different after swallowing the beautiful cows. They looked exactly the same, it is the perfect crime. I was gone without a trace. I vanished and the brothers come back to father looking exactly like they did before and Joseph was wiped clean off the map of the family. This dream, it retells his life but now, let’s stand back and think about all of this. It is very intriguing theory but there is only one problem with it, it is a problem that actually must have bothered Joseph too if Joseph had seen these patterns. It is the number of cows.
You see if those beautiful cows really represent my mother, the yifot toar cows, so they represent me, Joseph. There shouldn’t have been 7 of them. There should be one of them, 2 of them and if the ugly cows, if they represent the children of Leah, there shouldn’t have been 7 of them either. I only have 6 brothers from the children of Leah. Why two sets of 7? 7 cows and 7 cows.
So let’s go back to one verse that actually is the key to interpreting Pharaoh’s dream. It is the verse back in Parshat Vayetze that gives the physical descriptions of Rachel and Leah. V’einei Leah rakot. The eyes of Leah were soft, they were thin. v’Rachel hayetah yefat toar vifat mareh, and Rachel was beautiful of form and had beautiful appearance. Yefat toar, rakot. Right there, in one verse, it is the key for Joseph to understand how everything in the dream mirrors his own life.
And now, right after we hear about the rakot eyes of Leah, the yefat toar appearance of Rachel, the very next words, vaye’ehav Yaakov et-Rachel and Yaakov loved Rachel, vayomer, so he said to Laban, e’evadcha sheva shanim beRachel bitcha haktanah, I will work for you for 7 years, for Rachel, your younger daughter.
He worked for 7 years but Rachel was switched under the chuppah for Leah, so he worked another 7 years and got both Rachel and Leah. Two sets of 7 years and so it finally daunts on Joseph, the cows are years. The beautiful cows don’t represent me or my mother. The ugly cows don’t represent my brothers, the children of Leah. The two sets of cows represents years, the years that my father worked for Rachel and Leah. When I was out in the field, shepherding with my brothers, we were the fruits of those years. It was as if the 7 long years that my father worked for Rachel, they were out in the fields those years shepherding with the 7 long years that my father worked for Leah and when they swallowed me, it is like one set of years swallowed the others, it was like my father had worked for not for those 7 years for Rachel because the fruits of those years, I vanished and then Joseph understands, yes pharaoh, the dream means something for me but it also means something for you. The dream is telling me about my past life and when I connect the dots of that life until I come to the inexorable conclusion. I understand what the cows are and then I understand what the dream means for you. Your life is all about Egypt’s welfare, the dream means something for you too. There is going to be 7 beautiful years, those are the 7 beautiful cows and there’s going to be 7 terrible years, the years of famine that will make us forget that there were even 7 wonderful years. We better start saving now. And so it actually seems true. God is using Joseph’s life as the key that unlocks the meaning of Pharaoh’s dream.
When pharaoh is talking to Joseph, God is speaking too but only Joseph can understand.
It turns out though as remarkable as this is, there is yet a third layer of meaning in pharaoh’s dream because as we have seen, on the one hand the dream refers to Joseph’s past and once Joseph understands that he can connect the dots and understand the meaning of the dream for Pharaoh’s present but I also believe that once Joseph understands the meaning of the dream for pharaoh’s present, it unlocks the meaning of Joseph’s future. He won’t be able to understand it yet, but 9 years later he will.
Let’s go back to the interpretation that Joseph gives to Pharaoh of this dream. In essence he told pharaoh do not despair in your dream. The fact that the ugly cows swallow the beautiful cows, it doesn’t mean that we are doomed, that the famine is destined to wipe us out. We can survive because those beautiful cows, just because no one remembers them doesn’t mean they can’t have an impact, they have a job to do. The job of the beautiful cows, the beautiful years is to sustain everyone despite the fact that no one remembers them. During the years of famine, you are going to ask your average Egyptian on the street, you remember the good years? He is going to say, what good years? All I remember is starvation, but the crust of bread that he is holding on his hand, the good years are keeping him alive even though they have forgotten. The good cows can still have an impact even after they are vanished. The beautiful cows, the beautiful years have to give their bounty to the bad years, to the gaunt cows. Then they have done their job.
9 years later his brothers will show up at his door in Egypt, they do not recognize him but Joseph recognizes them and Joseph’s first response is vayitnaker aleihem, he estranges himself from them, he wants to have nothing to do with them, he is going to send them home but then something happens, vayizkor Yosef et hachalomot, Joseph remembered the dreams, maybe one of the dreams he remembered. It was this dream, the pharaoh’s dream and if he did he would have remembered how that dream characterized the people standing in front of him now. They are the rakot cows, they are the products of the gaunt cows, the gaunt years and in the language of the dream, who is he? Joseph, the product of the yifat toar cows, the beautiful cows, the beautiful years and what did he tell Pharaoh, the job of the beautiful cows, the beautiful years are – to sustain the terrible years. The job of the beautiful cows is to take care of the ugly one’s. he looks at the brothers and as angered as he is, as chagrinned as he is, he stays in conversation with them and when he sends them home, he sends them home with food. When the brothers come back again, he sends them home with food and when he finally reveals himself, the first thing he says is don’t be upset about what happened. I know why God put me here, to sustain you. He knew it from pharaoh’s dream. He hears about his own past in that dream. He sees the meaning of pharaoh’s present in that dream and finally he understands the meaning of his future, why God put him there – to take care of his brothers.
Look at the kindness of Joseph. You know kindness is one of those things that makes you feel all fuzzy inside but sometimes chesed, kindness, doesn’t make you feel warm. What happens when someone estranges you from your own family when they have forgotten about you? When you don’t matter to them but then, years later they are in need. Can you find it within yourself to take care of them? Anonymously, when they don’t even know who you are. Joseph fulfills not just warm, fuzzy kindness but the painful kind too.
And now, I ask you, might it be that even in our own day and age, when we have no prophecy then we have that too. God speaking without speaking. I cannot prove it to you but I will speculate with you after hundred and twenty years, after we die, we go up to heaven and you say to God, God I prayed to you, I talked to you and you know, sometimes, I wasn’t really concentrating but there were times that I really reached out to you and in moments of pain, where were you, where was your response? Did you ever said anything back to me? I wonder what God’s answer might be, did you ever look at your life? Did you ever watched for the patterns? As you were going through events, that feeling of Dejavu, that this has happened before, one time, two times, three times just that string of event, did that ever happened to you? That is how I talked to you and you may not always understand but you still have to learn how to listen, even Joseph didn’t understand immediately, it took him 9 years after he heard all this to finally, really understand and you too, may not understand but you understand enough sometimes to know it is not a coincidence. To know that I am tapping you on the shoulder and even if you don’t know what I mean, if you know that I am speaking to you, sometimes that’s enough. It is almost like we all have this private communication channel with the divine. Sometimes we understand and sometimes we really don’t but the slate is our own life. It is a personal kind of language that means something only to us, the same way pharaoh’s dream meant something only to Joseph. The communication comes from the most unlikely of sources, who would have thought that God speaking to Joseph was less through his own dream than through pharaohs but Joseph was wise enough to hear the echoes resonate in his life to discern the voice of God. Maybe we can pick up a little bit of that wisdom too and be ready to hear his voice in the most unlikely of places.
1. Noach: Why Aren't Dinosaurs In the Torah?
2. Lech Lecha: The Battle For Abraham's Legacy
3. Vayeira: Abram, Sarai, Hagar, Ishmael and...Exodus?
4. Vayeira: Epilogue
5. Chayei Sarah: Eliezer and Samuel's Surprising Connection
6. Toldot: What Is Isaac's Legacy?
7. Vayeitzei: Understanding Rachel's World
8. Vayishlach: From Jacob to Israel
9. Vayeishev: Does God Speak To Us Today?
10. Miketz: Reversing the Sale of Joseph
11. Vayigash: Understanding Pharaoh's Dream
12. Vayechi: A Tap On The Shoulder
13. Shmot: Does God Really "Love" Us?
14. Va'era: Seeing God in Science
15. Bo: God's Justice In Action
16. Beshalach: Fruit Trees In the Sea?
17. Beshalach: Epilogue
18. Yitro: Seeing Ten Commandments in the Burning Bush
19. Mishpatim: Does Our History Become Laws?
20. Mishpatim: Epilogue
21. Terumah: Angels In the Tabernacle? Part I/2
22. Tetzaveh: Angels In the Tabernacle?- Part 2/2
23. Ki Tisa: A Closer Look At Kiddush
24. Pekudei: A Giant Chiasm In Sefer Shmot
25. Vayikra: How Can We Relate To Sacrifices Today?
26. Tzav: A Deeper Look At The Priestly Role
27. Tzav: Epilogue
28. Shemini: What Does Aaron Teach Us About Loss?
29. Tazria-Metzora: Rejoining the Community
30. Acharei Mot-Kedoshim: Social Justice...and Sacrifices?
31. Emor: An Epic View of Jewish Holidays
32. Behar-Bechukotai: Walking With God
33. Bamidbar: Why We Count
34. Beha'alotecha: Where It All Went Wrong
35. Shelach: How Can We Relate To Such a Vengeful God?
36. Korach: Why Did Korach Rebel?
37. Chukat: Why Did Moses Hit The Rock?
38. Balak: What Is Israel's Purpose In The World?
39. Pinchas: What Is True Leadership?
40. Matot-Masei: The Art of Negotiation
41. Devarim: What Did Moses Do Wrong?- Part 1/2
42. Va'etchanan: What Did Moses Do Wrong?- Part 2/2
43. Eikev: Why Does The Nation Of Israel Merit The Land?
44. Re'eh: Why Do We Need Both Oral and Written Law?
45. Shoftim: The Significance of Saving Private Ryan
46. Ki Teitzei: How To Merit Long Life
47. Ki Tavo: The Pursuit of Happiness- Part 1
48. Nitzavim: The Pursuit of Happiness- Part 2/2
49. Vayeilech: Moses' Farewell To Israel, Part 1/3
50. Ha'azinu: Moses' Farewell To Israel, Part 2/3
51. V'Zot Habracha: Moses' Farewell To Israel, Part 3/3
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