Beit Midrash

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  • Parashat Hashavua
To dedicate this lesson

Who’s on Top?


Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli zt"l

The parasha opens with an account of Pharaoh’s dreams: "Pharaoh was dreaming and he was standing on the Nile" (Bereishit 41:1). Chazal already pointed out that "wicked people exist on top of their gods" (Bereishit Rabba 69:3). The Nile was a god of the Egyptians because it sustained them, allowing a valley in the midst of a burning desert to be a flowering pearl. An Egyptian god is a god to the extent that "it provides" what is needed; a defeated nation may give up on their god. Egypt knew how critical the Nile was to its existence and prosperity and kept it looking good and provided all the "luxuries" they thought it would enjoy. Idol worship is seen as a symbiotic relationship. One gives to an idol based on an assumption that by giving, the worshipper will receive more in return.
The midrash says that in contrast, G-d is upon righteous people, as the pasuk says: "Hashem was standing upon him" (Bereishit 28:13). The goal of Yaakov’s life-long service was not to receive but to give. His work was to reach a purer and cleaner way of life, more honesty, and more serving without intention to receive reward. "Mitzvot are not given for benefit" (Eruvin 31a). They are not there to give taste or to make a person feel good about what he is but to minimize his own existence and become one with Hashem. As the Alter Rebbe from Ladi said: "I do not want the lower Gan Eden or the higher Gan Eden; I only want You." Certainly, not everyone reaches that level or can spend all day with such lofty thoughts. But this is the overall goal.
When the all-powerful Pharaoh, who divided attributed powers between himself and the Nile, dreamt, he could dream only about himself along with the gods. That is why Egyptians attributed self-interest to their gods, as the gods were created in the image of man. That is also why no one thought of the interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams. While it seems simple that the wheat stalks were a reference to food or famine for the nation, it would not dawn on an Egyptian that Pharaoh was dreaming about someone else. He must be thinking about something personal (seven daughters) or something for his honor (seven cities).
Yosef added something new to Pharaoh’s dream, which we find when Pharaoh reported the dream to Yosef: Pharaoh is standing on the bank of the Nile (Bereishit 41:17). Yosef taught Pharaoh: "that which Hashem is doing, He told Pharaoh" (ibid. 25). Pharaoh should do what G-d does, i.e., he should give to others, not just receive from them. From that point on, the dream is simple; it refers to plenty and famine.
The interpreter was Yosef, the leader, the one who was suspected wrongly by his brothers. He did not dream of being a leader of the type that wanted to receive, but rather "to give sustenance, Hashem sent me before you" (ibid. 45:5). That is why Yosef did not abuse his power and used it to find a special place for his father’s household – a place where even in the impure Egypt, a yeshiva could exist.
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