Parshat Mikeitz: Two Years

“And it was at the end of two years and Paroh had a dream. And he was standing by the river.” (Beresheit 41:1)

As the parasha opens Yosef is still in prison. Two years previously he had successfully interpreted the dream of Paroh’s butler. Yosef had correctly predicted that the butler would be released from prison and restored to his position serving Paroh. He had asked the butler to intercede, on his behalf, with Paroh. But the butler had forgotten Yosef and had not brought his case to Paroh’s attention. Now, Paroh has a dream. He is troubled by this vision and seeks an interpretation. The butler is reminded of his own premonitory dream and Yosef’s accurate interpretation. He tells Paroh of his experience and Yosef is brought to Paroh.

Yosef provides Paroh with an insightful and exact explanation of the dream. This episode results in Yosef’s redemption and immediate appointment as Paroh’s foremost minister.

The Chumash emphasizes the passage of two years from Yosef’s interpretation of the butler’s dream and this episode. Rashi maintains that this two-year delay in Yosef’s rescue was a punishment. According to this interpretation it seems that Yosef was overconfident. He felt that through the relationship he had forged with the butler he had secured his own rescue. Hashem undermined Yosef’s plan and caused the butler to forget Yosef. The Almighty taught Yosef that even the best plan can be ineffectual. We can have no security without the help of the Almighty.[1]

Rabbaynu Avraham ben HaRambam offers another explanation for the two-year hiatus. He argues that Yosef’s redemption and appointment to a high position was made possible as a result of this delay. If the butler had immediately approached Paroh and pleaded Yosef’s innocence, what would have been the outcome? At best, the butler would have convinced Paroh that Yosef had been unjustly imprisoned. This may have resulted in the restoration of Yosef’s freedom. However, Yosef would have lost the opportunity to meet Paroh and make a personal impression. Instead, the butler completely forgot Yosef. On the occasion of Paroh’s dream the butler suddenly remembers Yosef and his unpaid debt to this Hebrew. He encourages Paroh to seek Yosef’s help. Yosef meets with Paroh personally and impresses the ruler. As a result, Yosef becomes the virtual king of Egypt. From this perspective the two-year delay was not a punishment. It was a blessing.[2]

“And Yosef answered Paroh saying, “It is not me. The Lord will answer concerning Paroh’s fortune.” (Beresheit 41:16)

Yosef is called upon to interpret Paroh’s dream. Yosef begins with a disclaimer. He explains that it is not within his power to determine the interpretation of Paroh’s vision. Only the Almighty can provide an explanation of the dream.

Rashi and many other commentaries seem to see in Yosef’s words an expression of humility. Yosef realized that he was not capable of explaining Paroh’s dream through some personal power of insight. He was the vehicle of the Almighty. Any interpretation that would be forthcoming will be a message provided by Hashem. Furthermore, Yosef did not want to glorify himself or mislead Paroh. He wanted Paroh to realize that it was not he, Yosef, providing the explanation. The answer would come from Hashem.[3]

Other commentaries, including Gershonides, interpret Yosef’s disclaimer in a different manner. Yosef had not yet heard Paroh’s dream. He could not know the message he would provide Paroh. Perhaps, the dream would contain the good tidings. It was also possible that the dream would be a message of disaster. Yosef wanted Paroh to know that he was only the messenger of the Almighty. Yosef could not determine the nature of the message. Paroh should not be angry with Yosef, if he was displeased with the interpretation.

It is also possible that Yosef had another concern. The Egyptians were primitive and superstitious. In some primitive cultures it was apparently believed that the interpreter exercised some influence over the message contained in a dream. Yosef knew that if Paroh held this belief, a great danger existed. An interpretation of ill tidings would be blamed upon Yosef. Yosef wanted to address this issue from the onset. He told Paroh that the interpreter did not influence the meaning of the dream. The dream had an objective meaning. The role of the interpreter was merely to unravel the meaning.[4]

“And Paroh gave Yosef the name Tzaphnat Paaneach. And he gave him Asenat, the daughter of Poti-Phera, the priest of Ohn, as a wife. And Yosef went forth to oversee Egypt.” (Beresheit 41:45)

Yosef interprets Paroh’s dreams. The dreams foretell that Egypt will experience seven years of bountiful harvests. These will be followed by seven years of scarcity. The dreams imply a response. Paroh should collect the excess harvest from the first seven years and create a ready store for use during the years of scarcity. Paroh is impressed with Yosef’s interpretation of his dreams. He appoints Yosef as his minister. He places him in charge of the preparations suggested by the dreams. He changes Yosef’s name and he gives Yosef a wife.

Our pasuk describes this wife as Asenat, the daughter of Poti-Phera. Our Sages comment that this Poti-Phera was Potiphar.[5] Potiphar was Yosef’s former master. He purchased Yosef from the traders that had brought him to Egypt.

It seems strange that Paroh would suggest that Yosef marry the daughter of Potiphar. In order to understand the odd nature of this choice, we must review a previous incident. Yosef was Potiphar’s servant. Potiphar placed Yosef in charge of his entire estate. Yosef served Potiphar loyally. Potiphar’s wife was infatuated with Yosef and repeatedly attempted to seduce him. Yosef resisted these advances. Eventually, Potiphar’s wife succeeded entrapping Yosef in a compromising situation. She maneuvered Yosef into a situation in which they were alone. Again, she attempted to seduce Yosef. He rebuffed her advances. However, she grabbed Yosef’s cloak. Yosef freed himself and fled. He left his garment in the hands of Potiphar’s wife. She claimed that Yosef had attempted to seduce her. She offered, as proof of her accusation, Yosef’s garment. Potiphar reacted by removing Yosef from his household and placing him in prison.[6]

It is odd that Paroh would chose, as Yosef’s wife, Potiphar’s daughter. This was the one family in Egypt that most resented Yosef.

In order to understand Paroh’s decision, we must answer another question. Yosef was accused of attempting to seduce or rape Potiphar’s wife. It is odd that Potiphar placed Yosef in prison. Yosef was a servant. His master had treated him benevolently. An attempt by Yosef to seduce or rape Potiphar’s wife represented an unimaginable sin against his master. We would expect Potiphar to demand Yosef’s execution. Why did he merely remand Yosef to prison?

Sforno explains that Potiphar trusted Yosef. He did not believe that Yosef would attempt to seduce or rape his wife. Instead, Potiphar suspected his wife of fabricating Yosef’s crime. However, he was confronted with a dilemma. He could not disregard his wife’s public accusations. This would discredit her and shame her and his family. He could not execute Yosef. This would be an inexcusable injustice. Therefore, he spared Yosef’s life and instead, placed him in prison.[7]

Now, we can understand Paroh’s decision. Paroh wished to appoint Yosef as his minister. However, he faced a problem. How could he appoint a convicted criminal to a high ministerial position? He needed to clear Yosef’s name. Paroh knew that Potiphar, himself, doubted Yosef’s guilt. This provided Paroh with the opportunity to clear Yosef’s name. He gave Potiphar’s daughter to Yosef as a wife. This marriage communicated a message. Even Potiphar acknowledged Yosef’s innocence. The proof was his willingness to allow his daughter to marry Yosef. With this marriage, Yosef was vindicated and fit to serve as Paroh’s minister.

“Yosef saw his brothers and he recognized them. He disguised himself and spoke to them harshly, and he said to them, “From where have you come?” And they said, “From the land of Canaan, to purchase food.” Yosef recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him.” (Beresheit 42:7-8)

Yosef was personally responsible for the distribution of all provisions in Egypt when his brothers came to Egypt to purchase food. Yosef immediately recognized them and disguised his behavior so that they would not realize that he was their brother. His subterfuge was successful and he was not found out.

Rashi explains that Yosef was much younger than his brothers. When they had parted he did not yet have a full beard, whereas his brothers were mature adults. When the brothers arrived in Egypt, they were confronted with a bearded minister. They did not recognize their younger brother.[8]

Radak provides an alternative explanation for the brothers’ failure to recognize Yosef. Strong psychological forces prevented the brothers from realizing that they stood before Yosef. The brothers had sold Yosef, and assumed that he was either dead or a lowly slave. They never doubted the effectiveness of their plan. Although they repented for the evil of their actions, they assumed that their destruction of Yosef had been complete. Radak explains that at this initial meeting the brothers observed a resemblance between the minister and their lost brother. However, they immediately rejected the implications of this observation. They just could not envision Yosef in a position of power and rulership. This prejudice provided Yosef with the opportunity to effectively disguise himself.[9]

On a deeper level, it should be noted that the original reason for the brothers’ resentment of Yosef was because they perceived within him a boastful attitude. They could not accept that Yosef could be superior, or had a right to exercise control over them. Dominated by these feelings, they were now unable to recognize Yosef in the very relationship that they dreaded.

The Radak further explains that Yosef went to great lengths to assure that he would be reunited with his brothers. As senior minister in Egypt he was not obligated to personally distribute provisions. He assumed this responsibility because he wanted to personally meet every individual requesting food. He knew that as the famine continued, his brothers would eventually be forced to travel to Egypt to seek provisions. Through personally distributing these supplies, he would be assured of meeting his family.[10]

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[1] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 40:23.

[2] Rabbaynu Avraham ben HaRambam, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 40:15.

[3] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 41:17.

[4] Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1994), p 229.

[5] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 41:45.

[6] Sefer Beresheit 39:1-20.

[7] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 39:19.

[8] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 42:8.

[9] Rabbaynu David Kimchi (Radak), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 42:7.

[10] Rabbaynu David Kimchi (Radak), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 42:6.