Parashat Miketz: Dependence vs obligation

Judaism obviously does not disagree with the concept of God being the source of abundance and of our dependence on Him. But beyond that, God is also a source of obligation

 EGYPTIAN GOD: The banks of the River Nile, host to the Pyramids of Giza, 1900.  (photo credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
EGYPTIAN GOD: The banks of the River Nile, host to the Pyramids of Giza, 1900.
(photo credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

This week’s Torah portion of Miketz begins with the pharaoh’s dream. 

The Egyptian king dreamed he was standing near the Nile, the life source of ancient Egypt, and that he saw seven fat cows and seven skinny cows emerging. Surprisingly, the seven skinny cows ate the seven fat ones, but it didn’t show and they remained thin. 

When the pharaoh awoke, he sought an interpretation for his dream. In Egyptian culture at that time, dream interpretation was a field for learned people, usually priests in the idol temples – the sorcerers. But the pharaoh didn’t like their interpretations and kept searching. The story ends with Joseph’s release from the Egyptian prison after he interpreted the dream. He then rose to greatness as the viceroy responsible for the Egyptian economy.

To properly understand the dream, we have to understand that the Nile was not just the source of water in Egypt. The Egyptians attributed to it an idolatrous significance. They performed ritual worship for it; prayed to it; and saw it as a god. Therefore, the pharaoh didn’t just see cows coming up out of the water. He saw the cows emerging from a powerful god, Egypt’s life source. 

The sages of the midrash were aware of this and discerned an interesting detail in the story’s description – a small detail with a profound message.

Parshat Miketz 370 (credit: Painting by Yoram Raanan; www.yoramraanan.com)Parshat Miketz 370 (credit: Painting by Yoram Raanan; www.yoramraanan.com)

A profound message in pharaoh's dreams

“Rabbi Yohanan said: ‘The wicked, their existence depends on their gods.’ As it says ‘And Pharaoh dreamt; and he was standing upon the river.’ But the righteous, their God’s existence depends on them. As it says [in the story of Jacob our patriarch, Genesis 28:13], ‘Behold God stood upon him and said ‘I am Hashem the God of Abraham.’”

Rabbi Yohanan, the greatest of Torah sages in the Land of Israel in the 3rd century, pointed to a delicate distinction in religious affinity and in the relationship of man to his god. Many people believe in God, but the emotional relationship with Him differs from person to person. Some see God as the source of all abundance, with the understanding that they are dependent on Him. This dependence can lead to anxiety, since you don’t need to be a great intellectual to see that reality is far from golden for quite a few people. This dependence led ancient idol worshipers to search for ways of appeasing the gods. Placating the gods’ anger was a repetitive theme of myths and fables in ancient times. 

Judaism obviously does not disagree with the concept of God being the source of abundance and of our dependence on Him. But beyond that, God is also a source of obligation. While idolatry led people to ritual acts whose purpose was appeasing the gods’ anger, Judaism positions people in a different sort of relationship with God. Man does not need to placate Him. Man must see God as the source of abundance, a role model to be imitated. This is a brazen concept. Is it even conceivable that man can imitate God? The Torah answers this unequivocally. Yes. Man can, and is even obligated to, follow in the path of God.

The correct understanding that God is the source of all existing abundance can lead a person to act in different ways. It can lead to anxiety, which causes a person to search for different ritual mechanisms that serve one goal – to influence the god and cause him to give you good things. Judaism releases man from this existential angst by obligating him to act like God and to be a source of abundance himself for his environment and the entire world. 

Rabbi Yohanan teaches us that for “the wicked, their existence depends on their gods.” They acknowledge the fact that they are dependent on them and therefore they attempt to shape them to their needs. 

Meanwhile, for the “righteous, their God’s existence depends on them.” They acknowledge the obligation God has given them, and they stand before Him with humility as a student before a teacher, learning to adopt the teacher’s traits and walk in his path. ■

The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.