Friday, December 23, 2011

At First Sight

Parshat Miketz

by Rabbi Avi Billet

There are a number of mitzvoth which appear in the Torah multiple times: Shabbat, holidays, kosher animals, Shmittah (Sabbatical year), Eved Ivri (Hebrew servant), not to "cook a kid in its mother's milk." Even bris milah, tzitzis and tefillin each appear at least twice. Sometimes there are differences in the repetition, and the repetition usually serves a purpose.

When it comes to narrative, however, the Torah rarely repeats a story. Last week we read the story of Yosef and Potiphar's wife, and when she told her husband the tale, we are told "She said, 'This is what he did to me,'" (39:19) and as the text does not elaborate, we can assume she embellished the details. We need not know what she said, as all we need to know is that Yosef ended up in prision.

After Moshe is given the signs of the snake, the whitened hand, and to pour water from the river to turn it to blood before the people, he does so – the Torah does not repeat the details (Shmot 4:30)

But the two most blatant examples of repeated narrative are the story of Eliezer finding Rivkah (Chapter 24) and Pharaoh's dream here in Chapter 41.

In Eliezer's retelling of his own story, he changes some details to make the story and the setup more palatable to Rivkah's family. He achieves his goal: he convinces them of the divine hand in his trip, they agree to let Rivkah go with him, and Rivkah the wife for Yitzchak whom Eliezer was appointed to find.

But in our narrative, Pharaoh's dream is told to us, and then he repeats it to Yosef for interpretation with a few changes as well.

In his dream Pharaoh was standing "on the river," the first cows were "y'fot mareh," the second cows are "raot mareh v'dakot basar" and they stand next to the first cows. The cows who were "raot mareh v'dakot basar" ate the cows that were "y'fot hamareh."

In his retell Pharaoh stands "on the edge of the river," the first cows are "y'fot toar," the second cows are "dalot, v'raot toar m'od, v'rakot basar," and Pharaoh adds "I have never seen such bad looking cows in Egypt". The cows who were "rakot and raot" ate the first cows. The cows were completely swallowed, but it was not detectable because they looked as they had before [this last sentence is entirely new and was unapparent from the dream itself.]

In the second dream, the stalks are "briyot v'tovot" (healthy and good). The second stalks are described as thin and scorched by the east wind. They consumed the "healthy and full" stalks.

In the retell they are "m'layot v'tovot" (full and good). The second stalks are described as thin and scorched by the east wind, but are also "tz'numot" (shriveled). They consumed the "good" stalks.

Why the differences? Unlike Eliezer, Pharaoh isn't trying to convince Yosef of anything.

Or is he?

The Midrash Sechel Tov suggests Pharaoh dreamt the interpretation to the dream along with the dream, but forgot it. How else could he know that Yosef's interpretation was the correct one? Surely others tried interpreting it for him. Once he heard Yosef's interpretations, however, it triggered the memory, and he knew it was correct.

This line of thinking makes a lot of sense when we consider that Yosef's interpretation should have ended with verse 41:32 when he said "The reason that Pharaoh had the same dream twice is because the process has already been set in motion by God, and God is rushing to do it." But Yosef continued and said, "Now Pharaoh must seek out a man with insight and wisdom, and place him in charge of Egypt."

How did he get away with this bold statement?

Because when Pharaoh first laid eyes on Yosef, a memory was triggered that told him "This is the man who will interpret, this is the man I must keep close to me."

In other words, Pharaoh wanted Yosef to interpret correctly and to suggest a man be appointed, and Pharaoh presented the dreams with his own commentary in order to help Yosef produce the interpretation Pharaoh could not pull out of his subconscious mind.

First impressions are very powerful. Sometimes you meet someone for the first time and feel kinship, or feel this person is a person you'd like to get to know better. And sometimes there's a feeling you can't put your finger on that tells you this person will be a lifelong friend. There are many married couples who will tell you "they knew" when they first met, even if they did not hear bells and whistles or experience what Hollywood calls "love at first sight" (a concept I don't believe in).

Because Pharaoh wanted this encounter to work out (as he immediately set in motion in 41:38-35), he took the steps he needed to in order to give Yosef the chance to "earn" being close to him, the reward he carried for the rest of their days.

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