Parashat Miketz: Teaching by Example
Parashat Miketz begins by relating the peculiar dreams dreamt by Pharaoh, for which he sought an interpreter. His search for an interpreter led to Yosef’s release from prison, and ultimately to his rise to the position of vizier in Egypt.
The Torah tells that in Pharaoh’s dreams, he saw himself standing “on the river,” referring to the Nile River. The Sages teach that the Egyptians at the time worshipped the Nile River, as the nation’s agriculture depended upon its waters. Each year, the river would overflow and irrigate the country’s agricultural lands; if it didn’t overflow, Egypt’s crops wouldn’t grow and a food shortage would ensue. The people therefore came to look to the river as a sort of divine being, to which they prayed as a god.
That Pharaoh dreamt of himself standing over the Nile River likely points to the fact that in his unbridled arrogance, he professed a “divine” stature beyond that of the river. He claimed to be a god that exerted control even over the body of water which the Egyptian population worshipped. This is in contrast to Yaakob’s dream, in which “God was standing over him” (28:13). Yaakob lived with a keen sense of God’s control and authority over him. Thus, while Pharaoh dreamt of standing over the Nile, Yaakob dreamt of God standing over him.
Interestingly enough, when Pharaoh relates his dream to Yosef, he describes the vision a bit differently, telling Yosef that he stood “along the banks of the river” (“Al Sefat Ha’ye’or” – 41:17). According to this version, Pharaoh stood not on the river, but rather next to the river. Some commentators explain that Pharaoh wanted to test Yosef, to see if he would take note of his modifications. However, in light of what we have seen, we might suggest a different explanation – that after meeting Yosef, Pharaoh felt ashamed of the arrogance reflected in his vision.
When Yosef first approached Pharoah, the king told him, “I heard about you that you can hear a dream and interpret it” (41:15). A person in Yosef’s position – a prisoner suddenly given a chance to meet the king – would normally seize the opportunity to impress. We might thus have expected Yosef to say something to the effect of, “Indeed, I am a talented interpreter of dreams.” Instead, Yosef said the precise opposite: “It is not me; God shall answer to Pharaoh’s satisfaction” (41:16). In characteristic humility, Yosef refused to take credit for his prophetic abilities, and instead attributed all his talents to the Almighty.
It seems that Yosef’s remarkable display of humility left a profound impression on Pharaoh. He immediately recognized the vast difference between Yosef – who downplayed his own exceptional gifts – and himself, who was so arrogant that he dreamt of exerting power over the gods. Thus, as he related the dreams to Yosef, he was too ashamed to say that he saw himself standing over the Nile River. Instead, he described himself as standing alongside the river.
The most effective way of influencing another person is through personal example. Preaching and criticism very seldom achieve the desired effect of changing somebody. But when we live by the ideals we seek to instill in others, when we serve as a living example of those values, we leave an impression. Yosef inspired even the stubborn, arrogant Pharaoh – not by offering direct criticism, but simply by conducting himself with humility.
This is a most crucial lesson for parents. Teaching by example is the most effective means of educating our children. When they see our priorities and observe how we speak and conduct ourselves, they take note and learn to do the same. If Yosef was able to influence Pharaoh through personal example, then we are certainly capable of inspiring our children by setting an example of Torah values.