Parshas Miketz - The Nile and Dream Interpretation

By Rabbi Yosef Tropper

Posted on 12/14/17

1) Pharaoh on the Nile

We know that Mitzrayim had the Nile river in it, and in Pharaoh's dreams he saw himself standing on top of the Nile, the Ye’or.

The Nile is actually known as a river that goes through Africa, and it is considered the longer river in the entire world. It’s 4258 miles long and passes through Uganda, The Dominican Republic of Congo and all the way through Sudan and Egypt. Historically, it was regarded as a God in Egypt because Egypt is not a very fertile but when the Nile would spill over it would help fortify the entire land. This is why the first of the 10 Plagues actually attacked their water supply against the Nile.

Interestingly, the Nile is about 25 - 35 feet deep in certain parts which explains why the Egyptians were very bad sailors.  They really didn’t venture out too far, and when they did have to go down the Nile, it wasn’t a very complex thing, and so most of their boats were very primitive, and it would kind of give a little bit of a new understanding of how and why the Egyptians, foolishly, of course G-d decided, and pulled them, and their horses pulled them into the Yam Suf as well, but it gives us a new understanding of how bad they were at water, al pi derech hatevah as well.

The Nile Was Their God and Self-aggrandizement

Egypt prided itself on having the Nile. It is very significant that Pharaoh saw himself standing on the river in his dream. Mefarshim explain that the entire Egyptian ideology was using your god as a self-aggrandizement in a way to lift yourself up.  “Li Yeori, va’ani asisi,” the pasuk that describes Pharaoh's statement which is that I created the Yeor, the Nile, and I I created myself which is a direct contrast and attack against the real G-d. That was what Pharaoh was all about.

2) Nile’s Name of Ye’or Because it Irrigates

Rashi explains that the word Yeor is a very unique word, and he says that all the other neharos, rivers, are not called Yeorim except for the Nile.  That’s the only one.  The reason that it has this specific name is because of the way it irrigates. The farmers all try to get their crops watered and irrigated and thus they dig “yeorim, yeorim,” ditches so that when the Nile flows over, it will be able to get into everybody’s field. The word Yeor is describing what people do in order to be able to get its waters.  

Ramban Disagrees with Rashi

Ramban takes issue with this, and he says: what are you talking about?  There’s an explicit pasuk that describes that Chidekel, which is a different body of water, and it calls it a yeor (Daniel). Thus, Yeor is not proprietary to the Nile.

Re’eim and other mefarshim answer for Rashi and explain that the verse in Daniel is a nevuah, and in a nevuah it could be that he was describing the Chidekel, but then in a different moment it turned into the Nile, and there’s specific reasons for that.  So, it might have been actually referring to the Nile itself.  So, therefore there is no disproof.

Ramban: Yeor means Nahar, River rooted in the word “Meoros”

Ramban brings down from Unkelus that the word yeor means nahar, river. Ramban suggests that, perhaps, the reason is because the rain comes based on the meoros, the sun and the moon, and that’s how naharos, rivers are formed, based on precipitation from the clouds and from the weather, and so, therefore, that’s why it’s called off of that.  

A Deeper Look

When you kind of look at this you kind of think to yourself, well what’s going on?  Why does it make a difference?  But, the answer is that we want to understand every word in the Torah. It’s still Torah to talk about this Nile river. I think that perhaps you could suggest that what’s going on over here is that there’s something cultural. Rashi is explaining that people focus on how they could use the river.  How they could use the Nile that they specifically dig yeorim, around ditches, so that it will overflow, and that’s how they worshipped it. Ramban is saying that obviously there’s something deeper that they’re worshipping the sun and the moon and the stars; they’re worshipping the forces of nature. The word “Yeor” means light, and so it’s referring to what the source of where Nile is influenced from, and of course Hashem is the source of all that, but that is why it is important to look at every word in the Torah and try to understand what is it saying, what is it teaching us.

3) The Interpretation of Pharaoh's Dreams

Pharaoh describes his dream, and the fascinating thing to keep in mind is that no one knows how to interpret this dream, and Pharaoh is extremely disturbed to the point that it was only when Yosef finally is brought out of jail, this criminal is brought out of jail, and he is able to interpret the dream, and he, eventually, is even elected as the visceral to Pharaoh.  What is so significant about these dreams?

Connecting the dream to its interpretation

We know that they meant that there was going to be famine, there was going to be plentiful times, etc.  So, if you look at the Ramban, there’s a big kasha that comes out because the Ramban says that Pharaoh has his dream that from the river comes out these cows. Some of them were fat; some of them skinny.

Ramban says: Pharaoh’s dream had the Yeor, the Nile, in it for a very simple reason because the Nile is what produced all the plentiful food in Egypt. So that seems like pretty much a no-brainer when you hear the dream. The Nile determined, obviously from Hashem, whether they were going to have a good season or a bad season.  Whether there was going to be famine or there was going to be food. Pharaoh sees the cows coming out. Cows plow fields, so obviously this has to do with grain and food. The stalks that he sees in the dream, those have to do with food as well.  So, again, we’re starting to scratch our heads a little bit, and try to ask ourselves, why didn’t the other advisors of Pharaoh figure this out? Then the fat cows come out, and then the skinny ones emerge. Fat cows means foot and skinny cows means famine! Vatavonah etzel haparos, the skinny ones stood right next to the fat ones. This showed that the famine would come immediately after the plenty.

When we take a step back and we zoom out, we say: Well, these dreams were pretty easy to interpret. Rashi brings down that the wise men of Egypt struggled and made up all types of suggestions. Pharaoh was going to have seven daughters and they were going to die, and then he was going to conquer seven lands and then he was going to lose them.  These dreams are pretty straight forward? Obviously, Yosef was a navi and he understood dreams and he understood how he was supposed to interpret them, but what’s going on?

Hashgachas Hashem

I heard from my rebbi, Rav Asher Rubinstein zt”l from his rebbe Rav Chatzkel Levenstein who explains such a pashut idea in a classic Rav Chatzkel: There is no chiddush here. The dreams were extremely simple; they were easily interpretable.  Anybody understands that fat cows equals plenty and food and skinny cows equals famine, but the answer is that that’s how the Rebono Shel Olam brought it about.  Hashem caused that no one was going to be able to interpret it in order to bring Yosef out of jail and into power. It was done in this most simplistic way because Hashem decided: This is what I’m going to do in order to show that I’m the one that runs the world, and I decided that this is the time that no one is going to understand what the dream means, and now Yosef is going to come and he’s going to understand it.

4) The qualities of “Chacham V’navon”

Yosef interprets the dream and Pharaoh is astounded by the brilliance of the interpretation. Yosef then advises Pharaoh to appoint a man who is a navone and a chacham (Bereishis 41:43). Ramban explains why do you need both ingredients: someone who is understanding and wise? You need to have two qualities.  One of them is that you need to be a chacham that you know how to preserve the grain so that it does not rot and so you’ll be able to put it away and sell it.  The other one is a navon, you need to be able to manage the people of Mitzrayim in order to make sure that everybody stays alive and in order to store it away.

Two Items

In life we see that you need two things. You need to be a navon and a chacham.  You need to be a chacham to know how to preserve things and how to take care of things. I call that having life skills. Secondly, you need to be a navon to know how to manage that which you have. Just an interesting thought.

5) Meaning of the name “Tzufnas Paneach”

Yosef gets this title as Tzufnas Paneach (Bereishis 41:45). The mefarshim don’t know what it means. Ibn Ezra says that it’s just some Egyptian word.  We have no idea what it means.  However, the Ramban says very simply:  When Yosef was forthcoming that he was Jew and he’s a person who fears G-d, they accepted and respected this. They asked him explicitly: In your language how would you be honored, and so he told them “tzufnas paneach”.  I am the one who is “paneach”, I open up, “tzufnas”, things that are hidden.  And, that’s exactly the title that Yosef got.  

Other Names and Moshe

Ramban states that many times the king would give a name of title to the people that he wanted to honor based on their own native language. We also find the same thing by Basya, Bas Pharaoh.  When she pulled out this Jewish baby, and she knew it was a Jewish baby, she named him Moshe “ki min hamayim mishisihu”.  The mefarshim struggle: what is the word Moshe mean?  Perhaps, there’s some Egyptian word for it, etc.  Maybe Mashuy means water.  And, there are people that suggest many other things.  However, the Ramban says very simple.  They knew he was Jewish, and so they named him Moshe based on “ki min hamayim mishisihu”.  Exactly like Basya said because he was Jewish, and so they honored him with his Jewish name.  So, these are just some interesting thoughts about how someone is named.

Why Yosef Choose This Name?

But why would Yosef want to be named “Tzufnas Paneach”?  So, if you think about it, one of the biggest things Yosef was struggling with in his life was to reach an understanding of what life was all about.  Here his mother died very tragically when he was young.  He was a young boy when his mother died, and he gets sold down to Egypt for a sin that he didn’t commit, and his brothers hated him, he was thrown into jail for 12 years for another sin that he did not commit and so Yosef was looking for Hashem who was the ultimate “Tzufnas Paneach”.  Hashem is the one that has the ultimate answers in life.  

Yosef was saying that I will be as reflective of Hashem as possible, and I will try to see the yad Hashem.  It’s interesting because we find that Binyamin did a similar thing. Binyamin named his 10 sons names that reflected his missing Yosef, his brother. Chuppim, Muppim, that he named all of his ten children after tragic events in his life based on his missing Yosef (Sotah). Binyamin was trying to make sense out of it.  I think it’s a trait that they learned from their mother Rochel who was always willing to accept Hashem’s decree just like she gave up the simanim and said that I understand that if Hashem has created the situation, then I know that my sister Leah should not be embarrassed and I’m going to do what’s right, and always looking to reveal Hashem’s presence in the world, and that is a middah that they learned from their mother very, very well.  

6) Twice Recognized

The brothers come down to Egypt and they don’t recognize Yosef.  They have no idea who he is.  The pasuk says twice that Yosef recognized them. Ramban says that at first Yosef saw them and he was suspicious.  It seemed very likely that it was them, but then once they started talking about that they were from Eretz Canaan, and he started seeing them and understanding who they were, then he fully understood who they were and it was confirmed. This explains the double expression of recognition, as it took two steps. So too in life we have a gut reaction to something, and then we confirm it later.  It’s always good to make sure that we confirm things which is why it says twice that he recognized them.

Bias Blinds

Why didn’t the brothers recognize Yosef?  They sold him down to Yishmael.  To the Arabs. They didn’t necessarily know where he was going but how could they not realize this person was really Yosef.  Ramban a yesod gadol in life.  They were blind to it because in their mind Yosef was a sinner and he did something wrong, and therefore it was impossible that Yosef could ever be successful and ever be this one in Mitzrayim that we’re bowing to because it was just an impossibility.  

We have to know that sometimes our own stubbornness, our own confirmation biases stop us from seeing reality which is why it’s always so important to make sure that we are accountable to others and that we are getting objective opinions from others to help us out make sure that we’re not being blinded.  “Ein adam roeh nigei atzmo”.  How much a person could blind himself.

Continued Blindness

I was at a shul in Baltimore one time and heard this thought shared by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Kaganoff who was a rav in Baltimore. One of the most memorable speeches that he ever gave was in parshas Vayigash when Yosef reveals himself, and he spoke about this exact yesod. It was the shortest speech he ever gave, but probably the most powerful, in my opinion.  He stood up for one minute, and he said: Why didn’t the brothers ever figure out who this viceroy was?  Here Yosef was giving them hints and telling Binyamin sit next to me because you don’t have a mother and I don’t have a mother, and knowing their birth order, and knowing everything about them, but yet never once did it ever dawn upon them that: hey, maybe this is Yosef.  The lesson is that when you’re biased and you have blocked something out of your mind, the truth could be staring you right in the face, but if you’re not willing to see it, you just won’t see it.  He sat down and that was his thought. What an impact this made on me twenty-five years later.  Such a true point in life.

7) Why Didn’t Yosef Write to His Father?

Yosef’s brothers had no idea who he was. Ramban asks a famous kasha of the Rishonim: Why didn’t Yosef write a letter to his family, to Yaakov to let them know where he was.  He didn’t want his father to suffer.  We see that he immediately called his father back to Egypt as soon as he did reveal himself.

Ramban says that Yosef understood that the dreams were going to be miskayeim in this way.  Therefore, he needed to make sure they would be miskayeim outside of Eretz Yisrael where the brothers would bow to him, and, ultimately, Yaakov would bow to him as well just like in his dreams, and so therefore he needed to make sure that that would happen.

8) Yaakov’s Prayer For Mercy

This last thought, is very dear one to me.  When Yaakov finally sends Binyamin to Egypt he says (Bereishis 43:13), “V’Keil Shakai yitein lachem rachamim.”  May Hashem have mercy. Ramban says a simple understanding, but a big yesod in life.  Keil Shakai, Hashem who acts with middas hadin, and appears to be offering din right now, yitein lachem rachamim, may He turn that din into rachamim, into mercy.  So many times in life it feels like Hashem has din against us, and we daven to Hashem to turn it into rachamim.

Request Rachamim; Accept Din

When we stand in front of Shemoneh Esrei by mincha and by Mussaf we say not only the pasuk of “Hashem sifasai tiftach”, but we also say, “Ki Sheim Hashem ekra havu godel l’lokeinu.”  That pasuk is at the end of Devarim. What’s p’shat in that pasuk? Why do we say that before we daven, and some people say the Arizal added it or other people in his time based on Midrashim and other Chazals.  We don’t just add things to davening. What is its lesson?

The Seforno explains beautifully: Ki sheim Hashem ekra – I always call to Hashem for rachamim.  That’s yud-kay-vav-kay. But: Havu godel leilokeinu – I give honor to Elokeinu, I give honor to middas hadin, even if I call to Hashem beging for rachamim, and I hope that He changes it, I still give honor to the middas hadin because I know that whatever Hashem does is always for the best even if it’s something that I don’t like and I don’t want, I still acknowledge that Hashem knows best.

Our Prayer

There’s a pasuk in Tehillim: Ekra l’Elokim, v’Hashem a’aneh – I call to Elokim, the middas hadin, but I hope that Hashem, middas harachamim will answer. We always want to try to be mehapeich middas hadin to middas harachamim.  That’s why just like the shofar we blow, “min hameitzar karasi Kah”.  We blow on the middas hadin side, which is the small side, the small hole, but then it comes out on the end, on the big side, which is middas hachesed, just like the right side, the right hand is usually stronger, most people in the world are usually righties, the right hand is always stronger.

Rabbeinu Bechaya explains that the right, middas hachesed, is more prevalent in this world.  Middas harachamim is what keeps the world around, but the left, that’s the weaker hand.  There is sometimes din, and we have to know that Hashem has a calculation for all of us.  Of course we daven and we ask Hashem to give us only rachamim, but we also recognize that there is middas hadin, and we accept Hashem wholeheartedly.


Rabbi Yosef Tropper is a rav and psychotherapist. Learn more and subscribe at ParshaThemes.com