Genesis 41:1 - 44:17
Three Torah portions. Three dreams. In VaYetze Jacob dreamed of an angelic ladder reaching to heaven, and discovered God where he least expected. In VaYeshev Joseph dreamed that his entire family would one day bow down to him, prophesying a future in which he would be God's instrument for their very survival. The dreams of Miketz, however, are of a different flavor.
Pharaoh dreams two dreams in our parasha. In his first dream, Pharaoh sees seven 'ill-favored' and gaunt cows devour seven healthy and plump cows. Then he dreams that seven withered ears of grain devour seven 'goodly' ears. Although his dreams are prophetic in the way that Joseph's were, Pharaoh was not able to interpret them. Only Joseph was able to understand the dreams as a prediction of seven years of famine that will follow seven years of plenty.
Yet Joseph is not the only Jew who would eventually interpret Pharaoh's dreams. Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, the 19th century rabbi also known as the Sefat Emet (the language of truth), offered an intriguing observation. He connected Pharoah's first dream to one of the great challenges of human beings: controlling our inner urge to do wrong. In his close reading of the text, the Sefat Emet observed that the lean cows act in three different ways;
And, look, another seven cows came up after them out of the Nile, foul to look at and meager in flesh, and stood by the other cows on the bank of the Nile. And the foul-looking meager-fleshed cows ate up the seven fair-looking fat cows ... (Gen. 41:3-4, translation by Robert Alter - I have added the bold font)
The Sefat Emet taught that the foul-looking cows represent our Yetzer haRah, our inclination to evil, and the inclination to evil follows the same three steps as the cows in its determination to conquer us. First it comes up after us, to examine our actions. Then it stands by us, growing closer and creating a sense of familiarity and even comfort until, finally, it swallows us up completely.
How do we stop it? He doesn't say, at least not in this commentary. Perhaps just the knowledge itself is our best defense.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras