Parshat Miketz, like its predecessor, puts dreams in the forefront of the action. Par’oh’s dream brings him Yosef, who gave the interpretation no one else could. In verses 41:32-36, Yosef seems to offer advice of his own, a plan to prepare for (and thus circumvent) the coming famine.
Ramban cannot believe a prisoner just pulled from jail would be so impudent as to go beyond his assigned task, dream interpretation. He therefore notes elements of the dream itself which signaled the plan. 41:4 tells us the thin cows ate the fat ones, as did the dry stalks of grain three verses later. For years of famine to “eat” years of plenty, the Egyptians will have to save and store some of the bounty of the good years. All just good dream interpretation. [Ramban does not address the idea of setting aside twenty percent for the lean years, a number which seems to be Yosef’s rather than the dream’s.]
Interpreters Can Lobby for the Success of Their Interpretation
At the same time, Ramban sees Yosef as choosing how to present the interpretation for maximum impact. While Yosef spoke of the fat cows as years, he only explained what those years symbolized after he said the thin cows and grain would be years of famine. This was a conscious choice, Ramban says, to make sure Par’oh and his advisers paid attention.
Egypt had many years of plenty; were Yosef to lead with a coming time of plenty, they would have tuned out, seeing his message as humdrum. Putting the famine up front, emphasizing Hashem’s kindness in informing the Egyptians, made sure the man with the power to accomplish what was needed had the information he needed, packaged for maximum effect.
Yosef Works to Bring the Dreams to Fruition
Yosef also works to produce a specific future when the brothers first stand before him, looking for grain. 42;9 tells us Yosef remembered the dreams, and Ramban says he remembered there were eleven brothers in the first dream. Were he to reveal himself his father would surely come to Egypt, and the first dream (in which Ya’akov did not appear) would never be fulfilled.
Ramban stresses Yosef was only allowed to delay letting Ya’akov know- engendering his father’s continued pain over the loss of his son—because he correctly knew he was supposed to bring the dreams to fruition. He did act correctly, yafeh be-‘ito, well at its proper time, because he knew Hashem meant the dreams to come true. For Ramban, this also explains why he had not contacted his family before. He had to wait for the dreams’ fulfillment.
[R. Yoel bin Nun wrote a brilliant article in which he disagreed with the premise, saw no reason Yosef bore an obligation to the dreams. He offered an astoundingly original alternate idea for why Yosef did not contact Ya’akov, and why he revealed himself when he did. It’s worth reading and pondering, but here I am here interested in Ramban’s idea].
Our Responsibility to History
Ramban does not explain what R. bin Nun challenged, why Yosef was obligated to bring about the events in the dreams, or how Yosef knew his responsibility. Why couldn’t Yosef leave it to Hashem to engineer the future? (The question applies also to Chazal’s assumption Yosef was wrong for asking Par’oh’s butler to help him out of jail, but that’s last week’s portion.)
The question as phrased ties into the upcoming Chanukkah holiday as well, which started with Matityahu deciding it was time to rebel against the Syrian-Greek oppression: how do we know when we are supposed to attempt to direct history, and when to float along in its stream?
I don’t believe there’s one answer. Yosef’s experiences with dreams may have told him they were, for him, how Hashem sent messages as to where he should strive. Matityahu and his sons had no dreams to guide them; they saw an historical setting which had become intolerable, and chose to act against all odds.
Neither Yosef nor the Chashmonaim had reasonable chances of success, nor did the founders of the State of Israel, who declared the State in spite of warnings of certain doom. They and others in our history (think of Avraham smashing the idols, for one more quick example) have identified moments when seemingly futile course of action was the start of historic success.
Sometimes Hashem makes the future, sometimes we do, and it’s vital to know when it’s our turn to step up, so we can merit all the Yosef stories and all the Chanukkah stories we can manage, and never miss an opportunity to add another one to our national history.