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By Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein | Series: | Level:

Now let Paroh seek out a discerning and wise man and place him over the land of Egypt.

Meshech Chochmah: The two dreams do not strike us as equally compelling. If we had to choose one of the two to convey the essential message, we would pick the one featuring sheaves of grain. After all, grain was what this was all about – its abundance, followed by its scarcity. Why, then, is the dream of the grain preceded by one about cows, which seems only marginally related to the message that Paroh was meant to receive?

Ramban’s[2] approach to the dreams offers one solution. He sees the two dreams as a matched set. The cows arose from the Nile, because it was recognized as the source of water – and hence sustenance – to the land. The cows themselves were used as draft animals; they pulled the plows that readied the land for sowing. The sheaves represent reaping – the other end of the growing cycle. The cows and the sheaves, therefore, bookend that cycle. Both contribute equally to the idea of the availability of food.

A Yerushalmi[3] relates a fascinating story that suggests a different solution to our original question. Alexander the Great visited a far-off kingdom, not in search of riches, but to learn how others dispensed justice. He observed a court case presided over by the local king. One party sold a garbage dump to another. The buyer discovered treasure that had been hidden away in that dump. The buyer and seller disputed whether the sale included the hidden treasure, and turned to their monarch for a just resolution. He learned that the two litigants had unmarried children, and suggested that they marry each other, and in that way, both sides would enjoy the treasure.

Alexander laughed, prompting his royal colleague to challenge him and ask how he would have ruled in his own kingdom. Alexander said that he would have had both litigants killed, and kept the spoils for himself. The king asked whether the sun shone and the rain fell on Alexander’s kingdom. Alexander responded affirmatively. “Do you have small cattle?” asked the king. “You had better own cattle. You survive in the merit of your cattle, as is written,[4] ‘You save man and animal!’”

The king upbraided Alexander concerning his ease with gross corruption of justice. Such a society, he argued, would surely not be sustained by G-d. It survived, he reasoned, because Hashem’s compassion reached the animals. He sustained them – and the humans among them came along for the ride.

We know that Paroh established himself as a deity. He fully played the role, staying aloof from the petty affairs of man. He did not involve himself with the problems of ordinary mortals, not oversaw the running of his kingdom. The hands-on leadership of Egypt he left to layer upon layer of government bureaucracy. (As the saying goes, woe unto the land whose government officials are many!) Such governments are notoriously inefficient and given to corruption. They almost beg for miscarriages of justice, especially by the powerful who can act as they please without fear of consequences. Thus, it was acceptable for defenseless foreigner like Yosef to be thrown into prison indefinitely and without recourse to justice, all because of what was essentially a private matter that affected a person in a position of power. Each official could do what he wished, without fear of reprisal.

Hashem’s message to Paroh with the dream of the cows was the same as the king to Alexander: Justice has been so corrupted in your realm, that the primary focus of the good years will be the animals. They are the ones worthwhile saving. Furthermore, if you expect real relief from the upcoming famine, you must first address the endemic corruption in your realm. The cow-dream came first to instruct Paroh that his first order of business was to make his subjects – not just their animals – worthy of Divine compassion in their own right.

Yosef jumps in with advice. ”Let Paroh seek out a discerning and wise man.” Having a deity sit on the throne and absent himself from the pedestrian affairs of real people virtually ensured corruption. Egypt needs an ordinary human being to judge and to guide it citizens, not a god-man whose sanctity prevents him from attending to the affairs of his realm, leaving it lawless and corrupt. This man’s capability should be in his grasp of accepted practice, and of efficiency.

Yosef continues: “Place him over the land of Egypt.” This, too, is a reaction to the frequent miscarriage of justice in Egypt. With an uncaring monarch on the throne, many a nobleman could trample upon the law and expect to get away without penalty. Yosef tells Paroh that the antidote to this is someone of authority over the entire land of Egypt, who will serve in an oversight position, and will be the ultimate recourse for those who feel they were mistreated. He will be motivated to act responsibly, because he will also be given ultimate responsibility in the event of any wrongdoing.

Yosef’s position dictated the charges he leveled against his brothers. He accused them of being spies – a crime against the State, and therefore governed by extrajudicial policies. He did not have to subscribe to any rules or protocols in dealing with a crime against the State. Sitting at the top of the pyramid of power, he did not have to submit to any oversight in this matter.

Paroh fully buys into the arrangement. “I am Paroh. Without you no man may lift up his hand or foot in all the land of Egypt.”[5] He meant that he would continue in his guise as the river-god, and hold himself aloof from the everyday affairs of the realm. All those goings-on would be subject to the approval and oversight of his appointee, Yosef.

[1] Based on Meshech Chochmah, Bereishis 41:33

[2] Bereishis 41:2

[3] Bava Metzia 2:5

[4] Tehillim 36:7

[5] Bereishis 41:44