Joseph brings to the interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream the Hebrew corrective measure for Egyptian idolatry. Like members of other successful civilizations, the Egyptians tend to believe in themselves: The abundance they have created, so they think, will last forever.
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As someone who believes neither in people nor in their tools nor in what his eyes see, Joseph identifies in Pharaoh’s dream, in this week’s Torah portion, Miketz (Genesis 41:4-44:17), a message that evades the Egyptian interpreters.
As in modern-day psychodynamic psychology, Joseph begins the interpretation of the dream by trying to understand its symbols. For him, the dream is the expression of the dreamer’s thoughts through images and pictures. The seven fat cows represent years of plenty in a prosperous land whose people’s bellies are always full; the lean cows symbolize famine. The seven lean cows that swallow up the seven fat ones represent a serious food shortage and a prolonged crisis that will erase all the gains of the past (Gen. 41:25-31).
Like present-day interpreters, Joseph regards the dream’s repetition with slightly different symbols – seven thin ears of corn swallowing up the seven full ears (Gen. 41:24) – as evidence that there is an important message here that is trying to reach the dreamer’s consciousness.
Since the dreamer is Egypt’s ruler, the interpreter can assume that the dream is expressing Pharaoh’s thoughts about his responsibilities and his role. Joseph identifies an subconscious worry in the dreamer’s mind: the possibility that all the country’s abundance might vanish one day – that what is here today might not last forever.
Modern dream interpreters stick to identifying content that weighs on the mind of dreamers, and which they are perhaps unaware of: hidden fears, desires they do not dare articulate during their waking hours. Jung would add: neglected spheres of life that present a challenge to the dreamer’s development.
For Joseph, the key to Pharaoh’s dream is to be found in people’s tendency to avoid accepting their real proportions in the world. The nature of the sin never changes: Mortals’ invariable attempt to cross the line that separates them from God. In Pharaoh’s case, it’s an emperor’s belief that he is omnipotent and that he can ensure continuous abundance for his empire.
Joseph’s advantage over the Egyptian wise men – an advantage that earns him the title of Zaphenath Paneach, or decipherer of secrets (Gen. 41:45) – lies not in a more sophisticated technology for dream interpretation, but rather in the system of values that guides him and in his having no illusions regarding the human condition in a world where mortals are not the ultimate rulers.
Egypt’s magicians believe in Pharaoh and believe that he will live eternally in the pyramid he is building for himself. Like another Hebrew whom we will meet later, Joseph knows there is a higher authority in whose presence Pharaoh is as fragile as any human being, “because the thing is established by God, and God will shortly bring it to pass” (Gen. 41:32).
In Joseph’s eyes, Pharaoh’s dream is a lesson in humility. You never really control creation. Nature or the universe, which you sometimes consider eternal, is not the supreme authority. The arrogant belief in shopping malls with a continual abundance of commodities, or in a free market that always knows how to regulate itself, will lead to your downfall.
Neuroses are not caused solely by denial of one’s childish desires, sexual impulses, aggression or developmental challenges. Dreams address a much more somber fact about the human condition: They recognize human limitations, the difficulty of our role in the universe. Psychologists might find it hard to offer help in this area if they themselves share the dreamer’s idolatry.
Joseph brings together two apparently contradictory traditions in dream interpretation: the view that a dream expresses the dreamer’s inner processes and the view that the dream contains a message from an external source. The message received from above about the human condition creates internal conflict. Those who can solve that conflict can resume their place before God.
If Pharaoh can accept his status as the subject of a higher authority, he can reduce the damaging consequences of his belief in himself, and accept the gifts of the seven good years without mistakenly regarding them as evidence of his power or his always victorious methods. If he recognizes human helplessness, he can reduce the damage and store up the energy and means for dealing with situations where he has lost control over reality.
Pharaoh knows how to accept the gift of a Hebrew interpretation of his dream and appoints Joseph viceroy: “And Pharaoh said unto his servants: ‘Can we find such a one as this, a man in whom the spirit of God is?’” (Gen. 41:38).
The dramatic upsurge in recent years in diagnosis of psychological post-trauma in Western culture is the product of a similar crisis. Those who were taught to believe in people, science, medicine or the free market or to believe that the Israel Defense Forces will always win, will lose after suffering personal crises not only this or that ability or someone close to them, but all the elements of their identity and beliefs.
According to Joseph, the key to treating trauma is the knowledge that the situation will be difficult and that, when things get tough, we might not be able to handle the difficulties that arise. However, if we know that we do not fully control reality and if we are prepared in all humility for future crises – our world will not collapse and our belief will remain constant. Those who do not believe in their money or in the technology at their disposal, or in themselves or in Pharaoh, who know the source of their grace, might also know how to accept from that source difficult situations and how to let God comfort them.