SALT - Sunday, 24 Kislev 5780 - 22 December 2019

  • Rav David Silverberg
            Yesterday, we noted the question raised by many commentators as to why Yosef, after interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams as foretelling a seven-year period of surplus followed by a seven-year period of famine, proceeded to give Pharaoh what appears to be unsolicited advice.  Having been brought from prison – to where he was condemned on false charges of attempted rape – for the specific purpose of interpreting Pharaoh’s peculiar dreams, Yosef explained to Pharaoh the dreams’ meaning and then urged him to appoint an official to oversee the storage of grain during the surplus years.  It seems difficult to understand how Yosef had the gall to assume the role of royal advisor, extending beyond the role for which he was brought out of the dungeon. 
We might add that it is hard to imagine Yosef adding this advice in the hope that Pharaoh would select him for the job of overseeing grain – which is, of course, what ended up happening – because Yosef could have hardly expected Pharaoh to consider him for this position.  He had been imprisoned on serious charges of assaulting the wife of his master – a government official – and so there was certainly no reason for Yosef to anticipate earning a distinguished appointment by Pharaoh, even if the king accepted his interpretation of the dreams.
One answer to this question seems to emerge from the comments of Chizkuni, noting an oft-overlooked aspect of Pharaoh’s dreams.  The Torah tells that Pharaoh saw seven large cows emerge from the river, which were then followed by seven lean cows that “stood alongside the cows on the riverbank” (41:3).  Thereafter, the Torah tells, Pharaoh saw the lean cows devour the large cows.  What is the significance of the fact that the lean cows first stood alongside the large cows, before devouring them?  Chizkuni explains that as the large cows represented the years of surplus, and the lean cows represented the famine years, Pharaoh was shown all the cows standing together to indicate that there would be an overlap period, that would feature both surplus and famine.  As we read later (41:54), when the famine first struck, the people in the surrounding countries found themselves without food, whereas Egypt still had plenty of resources thanks to the rationing that took place during the previous seven years.  This period, when the region experienced severe drought but Egypt nevertheless had large amounts of grain, is represented by the brief period when the large cows and the lean cows stood alongside each other.  Soon thereafter, however, the lean cows devoured the large crows – foreseeing the point at which the stored grain was no longer enough to offer prosperity, even as it sufficed to save the region from widespread starvation.  (This explanation of the significance of the cows’ standing together was offered also by Seforno.  Netziv, in his Ha’ameik Davar, offers an entirely different approach.)
According to Chizkuni, then, the storage of grain during the seven surplus years was included in the dream, which alluded to a period marked by a combination of wealth and deprivation.  This easily answers the question of why Yosef felt it appropriate to instruct Pharaoh to appoint an official to oversee the storage of grain during the surplus years.  Yosef was not, in fact, giving an instruction, but rather interpreting the dream as foreseeing the storage of grain.  Since the dream included an indication that Egypt would have large amounts of food after the onset of the drought, Yosef informed Pharaoh that the dream foresaw the storage of grain during the surplus years in preparation for the years of drought.