And Pharaoh dreamed “he stood by the river. And, behold, there came up out of the river seven kine, well-favored and fat-fleshed; and they grazed in the reed-grass.” But the seven thin cows that came after them ate them up, and the seven fat blades of wheat in the next dream are eaten by seven thin blades.
I’m tempted to say that we now understand the first dream to be a dream of the Atkins diet, in which the “fat-fleshed” cows represent sources of fats permitted to people dreaming of becoming thin and remaining thin even if they eat steak. And the second dream is a dream of the anti-Atkins diet in which wheat and other carbohydrates are permitted. But under these interpretations the two dreams are incompatible.
We need some assistance to arrive at a new interpretation, and Freud is of no use since these are not our dreams, and Joseph didn’t ask Pharaoh to free associate.
The wonderful and lengthy discussion of dream interpretation in the Talmud (Berakot 55a-57b) starts with the notion that dreams come from God and then moves on to the great injunction of Rabbi Hisda: “A dream un-interpreted is a letter unread.”
First talmudic principle (Berakot 55a): “R. Johanan started by quoting Jeremiah 23:28: ‘What hath the straw to do with the wheat, saith the Lord.’ [The question was raised:] What has straw and wheat to do with dreams? The truth is, said R. Johanan in the name of R. Simeon b. Yohai, that just as you can’t have wheat without straw, so there can’t be a dream without some nonsense.”
This is the method Joseph used to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. The fact that in the dream Pharaoh stood on a bank of the Nile is straw; it plays no role in Joseph’s interpretation. The fact that the cattle came up out of a river is straw. The fact that they fed on the reeds at the edge of the river is straw. And there’s even more straw since the two dreams are one, and so the difference between cattle and wheat is irrelevant.
So, what isn’t straw? Whatever Joseph used: the number seven, and two groups succeeding each other, the first group being fat and the next thin, and the second group eating up the first but remaining famished. This method of interpretation focuses on the overall logic of a dream and doesn’t get distracted by the reeds on the bank of the river. This is very different to Freud’s notion that there is no such thing as a trivial detail in a dream; for Freud, all images are determined, and usually over-determined.
Another talmudic principle of dream interpretation (Berakot 55b): “R. Huna b Ammi said in the name of R. Pedath, who had it from R. Johanan: If someone has a dream which makes him sad he should… have a good twist put on it in the presence of three other people.”
This is exactly what Joseph did, as reported in Genesis 41:16: “And Pharaoh said unto Joseph, ‘I have dreamed a dream….’ And Joseph answered Pharaoh, saying: ‘It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh an answer of peace.’”
Joseph had just been taken out of his dungeon and given a quick haircut and generally cleaned up and then brought into the presence of The Ruler of All Egypt. He didn’t need to hear Pharaoh’s dreams to be sure of one thing about his interpretation: It was going to be positive. He said, without waiting to hear the content of the dreams: ‘It is a dream of peace, my Pharaoh.’
Another talmudic principle of dream interpretation (Berakot 55b): “R. Bizda b Zabda said in the name of R. Akiba… There were twenty-four interpreters of dreams in Jerusalem. Once I dreamed a dream and I went round to all of them and they all gave different interpretations….”
The same dream can be given quite different interpretations. The interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams in the story was the interpretation meant for Pharaoh, but for us the dreams are Torah, and so we must derive meanings for ourselves from them.
For me, Pharaoh’s dreams have to do with midrash. The river out of which the cattle and wheat came is the Torah. The fat cattle and wheat coming out of the river represent midrashic interpretations of the text, which are plump with pleasure and meaning because they are fed from the abundance of the imagination. The thin cattle and wheat represent unimaginative literal-minded commentaries, which can only derive from the Torah the skin and bones of prosaic meaning. Their displacement of midrash causes a famine among those who are hungry for religious significance.
The Torah is the dream of the Children of Israel, and a dream uninterpreted is a letter unread.
David Curzon is a contributing editor of the Forward and the author of “The View From Jacob’s Ladder: 100 Midrashim,” among others.