Posted on December 5, 2010 by Tamara Frankel
Happy Channukah! I’m very excited to be celebrating in the illuminated (and unseasonably warm) city of Jerusalem this year. The ‘holiday season’ here is NOTHING like what it is in Toronto. I mean, the local bus has a sign that says “Channukah Sameach” (“Happy Channukah”) on it. Enough said.
Before I share what struck me in this past week’s parsha, let me briefly contextualize the narrative. Last week, we read about Joseph’s first dreams which he shared with his brothers and which eventually led to his sale and exile in Egypt. Joseph’s luck doesn’t seem to turn around as he becomes entangled in a scandal with an Egyptian dignitary’s wife and is subsequently thrown in jail. In jail, he meets two of Pharaoh’s servants and explains their seemingly cryptic dreams. The start of our parsha introduces Pharaoh’s bizarre dreams and eventually Joseph’s unpacking of their significance and newly dignified status as viceroy in Egypt.
As I began reading through the parsha last week, with the seasonal motifs of light and darkness in the back of my mind, I was taken by the parsha’s opening:
א וַיְהִי, מִקֵּץ שְׁנָתַיִם יָמִים; וּפַרְעֹה חֹלֵם, וְהִנֵּה עֹמֵד עַל-הַיְאֹר.
1 And it came to pass at the end of two full years, that Pharaoh dreamed: and, behold, he stood by (literally on) the river.
ב וְהִנֵּה מִן-הַיְאֹר, עֹלֹת שֶׁבַע פָּרוֹת, יְפוֹת מַרְאֶה, וּבְרִיאֹת בָּשָׂר; וַתִּרְעֶינָה, בָּאָחוּ.
2 And, behold, there came up out of the river seven kine, well-favoured and fat-fleshed; and they fed in the reed-grass.
The Torah contextualizes Pharaoh’s dreams in a peculiar fashion, noting that Pharaoh dreamt “by (literally on) the river”.
But, why do we need to know where or how he dreamt? Just tell us the content of the dreams!
I think the Torah’s subtle contextualizing of Pharaoh’s dreams highlights his worldview, or at least his relationship to the divine. The word הַיְאֹר contains two compounded Hebrew words: יה (one of God’s names) and אור (light). It would seem that the word for “the river”, namely the Nile River, can be translated as “God of Light” or “light of God” — יה of אור. Consequently, the Nile River represents the divine expression of light in the world.
Pharaoh relates to this ‘light’ in a very particular way; he sees himself as above it as he stands on the river. Pharaoh invests in himself the power to cover and expose light. Or, more boldly, Pharaoh imagines himself to be greater and more powerful than this ‘divine’ light; he himself has divine might and is the source of illumination in the world. In many ways, much of pagan ideology is based around this concept of humanity being able to manipulate and control, and sometimes even surpass, the natural world through their pleasing or disobeying of the gods and ultimately enter the heavenly spheres.
And yet, the continuation of the description of Pharaoh’s dreams allude, quite ironically, to an alternative Jewish — or at the very least, a biblical — approach to Pharaoh’s worldview. In contrast to Pharoah, the parsha hints that we, the readers, must offer ourselves as servants of God, like the sacrifices of elevations (עולות). We must arise “from the river” and look up to God. [Here, my drash (hermeneutic explanation) is playing off of the word מראה which means “appearance” and is possibly related to יראה (reverence) since the root of the words is similar.]
Moreover, I think this verse encourages the reader to reject Pharaoh’s perception of himself as all-powerful, as the description of the cows in the dream use language of בְרִיאֹת בָּשָׂר. Only from a godly source of light (מִן-הַיְאֹר) can flesh be created (ברא).
Based on this highly literary and ideational reading of Pharaoh’s dreams, I would like to suggest that the parsha underscores a mission that is fundamental to Jewish traditional sources — or at the very least, the Bible: Whereas Pharaoh attempts to stifle or see himself as the source of light — of goodness, power, bounty — in the world, humanity, and especially the covenantal members of the Jewish People, are obligated to bring out the light of God into the world. Avraham chooses to do so under the banner of “righteousness and justice” and strives to be a loyal and reverent servant of God. The Jewish People, according to Isaiah, are commanded to serve as a “light unto the nations”.
May we be blessed to surface the light in ourselves and in the world and bring more illumination into the world!
Shavua tov and Happy Channukah!!