This week’s Torah portion tells us about Joseph’s interpretations of Pharaoh’s dreams as well as his subsequent economic advice. Joseph foresees seven years of plenty in Egyptfollowed by seven years of heavy famine. He advises Pharaoh to prepare for the years of famine by stockpiling food and seeds during the years of plenty.
Pharaoh’s reaction to these suggestions is surprising and seems extreme:
Pharaoh said to his courtiers, “Could we find another like him, a man in whom the spirit of God rests?” So Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has made all this known to you, there is none as discerning and wise as you. You shall be in charge of my court, and by your command shall all my people be directed; only with respect to the throne shall I be superior to you.” Pharaoh further said to Joseph, “See, I put you in charge of all the landof Egypt” (Bereishit 41:38-41).
Granted, Joseph’s interpretation of the dreams is impressive and wonderful. His advice in light of them demonstrates great wisdom. But are these sufficient to appoint Joseph as ruler over the entire Egyptian Empire? Is this not a hasty response on Pharaoh’s part? He clothes Joseph, gives him a chariot, and continues to shower authority upon Joseph by declaring:
I am Pharaoh; yet without you, no one shall lift up hand or foot in all the landof Egypt. (Ibid. verse 44).
Joseph is given absolute control, not only in the economic realm, but over all of Egyptian life. The Torah does not tell us what stands behind Joseph’s rapid rise, but there is a verse in Psalms which seems to be related. Thursday’s psalm, Chapter 81, speaks of the obligation of the Jewish people to praise and call out to God:
Take up the song, sound the timbrel, the melodious lyre and harp.
Blow the shofar on the new moon, at the time appointed for our festive day.
For it is a law for Israel, a rule of the God of Jacob;
He appointed it in Joseph for a testimony, when he went forth over the landof Egypt; I understood a language that I had not known.
I relieved his shoulder of the burden, his hands were freed from the basket.
These are very difficult verses, particularly the verse which relates to Joseph. The poet tells us that it is obligatory to praise and call out to God on the New Moon (Rosh Chodesh) and New Year (Rosh HaShanah). This joyousness is seen as a testimony to Joseph when he went forth to rule in Egypt. However, “Joseph” is written here in an unusual fashion (with an extra heh, which incorporates God’s Name into his name). Additionally, it is unclear what Joseph has to do with the second part of the verse, “I understood a language that I had not known.” Who spoke about acquiring a new language? Where is there praise and calling out to God when Joseph goes to rule Egypt?
Our Sages solve these problems with a wonderful story:
R. Chiya bar Abba said in the name of R. Yochanan: At the moment when Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Without you, no one shall lift up hand, etc.,” Pharaoh’s astrologers exclaimed, “Will you set in power over us a slave whom his master bought for twenty pieces of silver?!” Pharaoh replied, “I discern royal characteristics in him.” They retorted, “In that case, he must know seventy languages.” Gabriel came and tried to teach Joseph the seventy languages, but he could not learn them. Thereupon Gabriel added a letter from God’s Name to Joseph’s name, and he succeeded in learning the languages, as it is said, “He appointed it in Joseph for a testimony, when he went forth over the landof Egypt; I understood a language that I had not known.” The next day, in whatever language Pharaoh conversed with him, Joseph was able to respond. But when Joseph spoke to him in the holy tongue (Hebrew), Pharaoh did not understand what he said. He asked Joseph to teach it to him; he tried, but Pharaoh could not learn it. Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Swear to me that you will not reveal [that I cannot learn Hebrew];” and he swore to him (Sotah 36b).
Our Sages begin with our question, which they place in the mouths of Pharaoh’s astrologers: How can a slave, who was bought for twenty pieces of silver, rule over Egypt? Pharaoh responds that he senses that this is not your standard servant, and that he sees royalty within Joseph. The wise men object: Perhaps he is fit to be a provincial ruler, but is he fit to lead a world empire? Does he speak seventy languages? Pharaoh accepts this challenge, and decides to quiz Joseph the next day in the seventy languages. That night, Gabriel tries to teach Joseph the seventy languages, but Joseph doesn’t get it. He is a Hebrew who was kidnapped from the home of Jacob, and in fact is not connected to the cultural world of the seventy nations of the world. Now the surprise — a letter of God’s Name is added to Joseph’s, and he masters seventy languages.
What is the meaning of this story? How does adding a letter enable Joseph to learn seventy languages?
According to our Sages, the key is to be found in the call of the shofar, in its praising and calling out (teruah) to the Sovereign of the world. The Jewish nation dwells alone. Left in its natural state, it does not speak seventy languages. However, the earliest law and rule of this nation, the foundation which allows one of its members to survive the misery of the Egyptian jail, is praise and calling out to God.
In the previous chapter (40:8), when speaking of the dreams of the inmates, Joseph says to them, “Surely God can interpret! Tell me [your dreams].” Joseph follows in the footsteps of his ancestors and constantly attributes everything to God. The patriarchs were engaged in spreading the name of God throughout the world and directing everything to Him. Drawing strength from this attribution, from the ability to connect all of existence to the will of God, Joseph is able to speak every language. We say this in prayer: “For every knee will bow to You, every tongue (language) will swear in Your Name.”
Joseph interprets the dreams for Pharaoh, but with the same breath he says to him, “God has revealed to Pharaoh what He is about to do” (41:28). The principle which motivates Joseph is the sovereignty of God in the world. This is also the principle informing our prayers on Rosh HaShanah, which is “the time appointed for our festive day.”
When Pharaoh understands this, he requests that Joseph teach him the holy tongue. Joseph tries, but it becomes clear that this is impossible. As long as Pharaoh thinks “I am Pharaoh,” he is unable to absorb the concept of God’s sovereignty in the world.
God created the world and rules over it. One who tries to tie all areas of life to the King of the world is able to become acquainted with and understand the spiritual roots of all languages and cultures. This role is destined for the Jewish nation, and so the poet promises at the end of the same chapter of Psalms:
If only My people would listen to Me, if Israelwould follow My paths,
then would I subdue their enemies at once, strike their foes again and again . . .
I would sate you with honey from the rock (Psalms 81:14-17).
If we learn one language well, if we can truly listen to the holy tongue and the sound of the shofar, then God will take the rocks — the toughest and hardest parts of life — and turn them into honey.