After dreaming of seven lean cows consuming seven healthy cows and of seven thin ears of grain consuming seven robust ears, Pharaoh awakens deeply troubled. He commands “all of the sorcerers of Egypt and all of its wise men” to interpret his visions but receives no satisfactory response.
The butler recalls Yosef’s ability to interpret dreams and mentions him to the king. Pharaoh orders Yosef released from prison and brought to the palace. Pharaoh then repeats the content of his dreams to Yosef.
Why is Pharaoh so deeply troubled by his dreams?
Does the text offer any hint as to the source of Pharaoh’s fears?
The narrative before us is strangely repetitive. First the text describes Pharaoh’s dreams in detail as they occur. Then the dreams are described, again in detail, when the king recounts them for Yosef. The Torah could simply have stated, “And Pharaoh told the content of his dreams to Yosef.” Why the redundancy?
The Torah, as noted before (see Bereishit 3 and Chayei Sara 3), never repeats a conversation or an event without reason. In this case, the repetition within the text provides a glimpse into Pharaoh’s mind. When Pharaoh speaks to Yosef, he conveys not only his dreams but his perception of those dreams.
Specifically, two addenda appended by Pharaoh to his first vision may provide the key to the fears of this mighty king.
1. The king dreams: “And behold out of the river emerged seven cows, of beautiful appearance and healthy flesh…. And behold seven other cows emerged out of the river after them, poor of appearance and gaunt of flesh…”
The king recounts: “And behold out of the river emerged seven cows, of healthy flesh and beautiful form…. And behold seven other cows emerged after them, scrawny, and of very poor form and emaciated flesh.
Never have I seen such in all the land of Egypt for badness.”
Pharaoh is clearly disturbed by the possibility that “scrawny, emaciated cows” could even appear in Egypt at all. Like so many monarchs before and after him, Pharaoh prefers to live in a fantasy world of absolute power and success. There is no place in the king’s lush, rich empire for “weak cows.” Pharaoh, therefore, emphatically declares that no such cows have ever before appeared in his land, as he desperately attempts to avoid the ramifications of his vision.
2. The king dreams: “And the seven cows of poor appearance and gaunt flesh consumed the seven cows of beautiful appearance and good health, and Pharaoh awoke.”
The king recounts: “And the emaciated, inferior cows consumed the first seven healthy cows. And they came inside them and it was not apparent that they came inside them – for their appearance was as inferior as before; and I awoke.”
The world in which Pharaoh lives is governed by clear rules. In this world nations conquer other nations with regularity. Through subterfuge and cunning, the seemingly weak can even defeat the seemingly strong. The king can therefore accept the possibility of lean cows eating healthy cows.
What Pharaoh cannot accept, however, is the possibility that the victor in a battle should remain unchanged. In the king’s world, conquest invariably bestows upon the victor increased physical power and strength. This rule is the basis of Pharaoh’s own supremacy. When, in his vision, the lean cows remain visibly unaffected after consuming the healthy cows, Pharaoh’s world is threatened and he awakens abruptly, sorely troubled and distraught.
Yosef sets the king’s mind at ease by explaining both the existence of the lean cows and their unchanged status in symbolic terms. Pharaoh’s visions, he asserts, represent natural challenges which can be overcome through proper planning.
Little does Pharaoh know, however, that his fears are actually wellfounded. There is, unbeknownst to Pharaoh and perhaps even to Yosef, a hidden subtext to these visions. Pharaoh is about to be threatened in ways he could scarcely begin to imagine.
The king’s dreams set in motion a series of events which eventually give rise to the birth of a unique nation within his very realm. This eternal Jewish nation will not be bound by the rules governing Pharaoh’s world. Spiritual fortitude will overcome physical strength as this seemingly weak people outlasts the most powerful empires in the history of mankind. Pharaoh’s kingdom will be only the first to fall in the face of the Jews’ march across the face of history.
The victorious Jewish nation, however, will not change overtly for generations. We will measure our success, not in terms of increased physical strength, but in the unbroken maintenance and development of our enduring spiritual heritage.
“Lean cows” will consume “robust cows.” The seemingly weak will overcome the strong, yet remain unchanged.
Pharaoh’s world is about to crumble; he has good reason to be troubled by his dreams.