When two full years had passed, Pharaoh had a dream: He was standing by the Nile, when out of the river there came up seven cows, sleek and fat, and they grazed among the reeds. — Genesis 41:1–2
The Torah portion for this week is Mikeitz, which means “at the end,” from Genesis 41:1–44:17, and the Haftorah is from 1 Kings 3:15–4:1.
In Israel, we have a lot of respect for water. Our small country is located in what is mostly a desert climate, and water conservation is a must. We have learned how to “make the desert bloom” by pioneering the slow-drip irrigation system, which uses tiny amounts of water delivered to plants consistently in order to help vegetation flourish. Indeed, water is our lifeline, and we have learned how to use it well.
In Egypt, back in Pharaoh’s time, they also had a lot of respect for water. Like Israel, Egypt is dry and arid. The ancient Egyptians relied on the Nile River to supply them with drinking water, bathing water, and transportation. Once a year, the Nile would overflow and soak the soil which would ensure food for the year to follow. This is why even when there was a famine in Israel, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the 12 tribes could always find some sustenance in Egypt. Understandably, the Egyptians cherished the Nile. But they took it a little too far. They worshiped it – literally. In Egypt, the Nile was god.
With that backdrop, let’s revisit the opening sentence of Mikeitz. The verse tells us that Pharaoh had a dream about cows as “He was standing by the Nile.” The Jewish sages notice that if rendered literally, the verse would read “He was standing over the Nile,” and that prompts them to explain the verse in the following manner.
While Jacob and his sons served God, Pharaoh believed that his god served him. The sages contrast Pharaoh’s dream with another famous dream in the Bible – Jacob’s. When Jacob had his dream about a ladder reaching to heaven, Scripture tells us, “There above it stood the Lord” (Genesis 28:13). In Jacob’s dream, the Lord was above him. But in Pharaoh’s dream, Pharaoh was above his god.
We can have two very different relationships with God — either we can serve Him or we can expect Him to serve us. We all ask God for our needs, but the question is what do we want those things for? Do we desire health, abundance, and peace so that we can best serve God? Or are the things we ask for completely self-serving? We can be like Pharaoh and use this world and all of God’s gifts in order to give ourselves pleasure and honor. Or, we can be like Jacob and use it all to bring pleasure and honor to Him.
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President