By Rabbi Ben Sternman
Whenever I’m going to teach something based on history rather than the stories we grow up with, I always start off by asking if they really want to know because once we know something, we can’t unknow it. This week’s Torah portion is a good example of an inability to unknow something. In Mikeitz, the portion opens with Pharaoh having two disturbing dreams. In the first, he dreamed of seven fat and healthy cows arising from the Nile River, where they began to graze among the reeds. Then seven gaunt and repulsive cows rose out of the water and they ate the fat, healthy cows. Pharaoh woke up from his nightmare but went back to sleep. He dreamed a second time about seven good and healthy ears of grain growing from a single stalk. Seven more ears of grain grew after the first but they were thin and withered. The seven thin and withered ears of grain devoured the good and healthy ears of grain. Pharaoh again woke up from his nightmare.
To me, the interpretation of the dreams is obvious because I’ve already read ahead and know the interpretation as given later in the portion. I can’t unknow what I’ve already learned and it’s hard for me to put myself in Pharaoh’s shoes to understand how frightening, how unsettling, how confusing these two dreams must have been. You too would be disturbed if you dreamed about carnivorous cows, but didn’t know how it was going to turn out.
Since Pharaoh couldn’t interpret the dream for himself, he consulted experts. But no matter how obvious it seems to us in hindsight, they too couldn’t interpret the dreams for Pharaoh. Only the Hebrew slave, Joseph, was able to interpret the dreams that seven years of plenty would be followed by seven years of famine. Further, if Pharaoh didn’t prepare, then catastrophe would strike the land. Pharaoh looked at Joseph, said that it looked like Joseph was the man for the job and set him up to prepare Egypt for the famine to come. It was good leadership that Pharaoh didn’t try to interpret his dreams for himself and looked to Joseph’s expertise to prepare the country for the trials ahead.
Compare Pharaoh to the Greek myth of Cassandra the Trojan prophetess. Cassandra bargained with the Greek god Apollo to be given the gift of accurate prophecy, but after receiving the gift, she reneged on her side of the bargain. Outraged, Apollo cursed her to always give accurate prophecies, but to never be believed. As a result she was seen as a liar and a madwoman. When she accurately foresaw the fall and destruction of Troy at the hands of Greeks hiding within a wooden horse, nobody believed her. I have to wonder, though, if she was the one who was cursed because no one listened to her. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the people who ignored her prophecy were cursed because they became victims of completely avoidable tragedy.
The Pharaoh who listened to Joseph averted catastrophe for himself and his country. Ignoring Cassandra only led to the Trojans’ own downfall. The comparison is instructive.
Rabbi Ben Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano and the vice-president of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.