by R. Gidon Rothstein
For all the detail in Yosef’s interpretation of Par’oh’s dream, Ramban lays out correspondences between the dream and the meaning that are not made explicit in the Torah. On 41;2, Par’oh sees the fat cows coming out of the Nile, which Ramban says was because that was the source of Egypt’s water and plenty. The cows symbolize plowing (since they were used as plow animals, at that time as much as or more than oxen) and the heads of grain symbolized the harvest, which is why Yosef tells Par’oh specifically (45;6) that there will be neither plowing nor harvesting in the famine years.
The dream also signaled that the years of plenty would be limited to Egypt, as Yosef says in verse 29. That’s why the surrounding nations could not prepare for the famine, even though they clearly heard about it because Egypt’s preparations would have been very famous (while I don’t disagree—it makes sense that other nations would notice when Egypt started putting away a fifth of its GDP for a coming famine—I am always interested in what great scholars take for granted, since other scholars of equal stature don’t always agree, so that one side thinks this is obvious, and the other side thinks it isn’t even true).
Advice or Interpretation for the Surprising Famine?
Ramban thinks Yosef’s plan wasn’t his own, it was his understanding of the dream itself. 41;4 tells us the thin cows ate the fat ones, which Ramban thinks told Yosef that the years of famine would eat the plenty of the years before. That’s only possible if they save some plenty for later.
More, he cannot imagine Yosef had the temerity to offer an idea of his own, since what right does he have to offer the king advice? He was called there as a dream interpreter, that’s all he had the right to do [it’s an interesting claim, since we will later see that Ramban approves of Yosef’s decision to act with his brothers in such a way as to make his original dreams come true. He does not explain why there it was ok, but not here.]
On verse 27, he does think Yosef shaped his message for Par’oh’s purposes. 41;26 says the various cows symbolize years, and the dreams showed the fat cows first, yet Yosef puts the meaning of the thin cows and bad ears first. That’s because Egypt was generally a land of plenty, so there would be little surprising if he said coming years would be extra plentiful.
The news was that years of famine were coming; this dream was Hashem’s grace, letting Par’oh prepare ahead of time for a black swan event, a famine out of all expectations in Egypt.
Par’oh’s Limitations as Ruler
In verse 38, Par’oh turns to his advisers and says “is there anyone like this, with the spirit of Gd in him?” Ramban says that was a way to lead in to his nomination of Yosef to become the second in command in Egypt. Since Yosef was a Hebrew, whom Egyptians hated (as we will see when the brothers, Yosef, and Egyptians all sit separately when they eat a meal), he could only install him in office with their consent.
This is a topic I took up at greater length in As If We Were There (where I show ways in which we don’t always remember the Exodus story fully, and just how central that story is meant to be in our Jewish religious lives), but I think it bears repeating here. Ramban repeatedly sees Par’oh as more limited in power than we sometimes think of when we speak of monarchies, and he lived under a monarchy.
It reminds us that just because we come to understand a concept one way does not mean that’s the only way, or the way it was usually understood or experienced.
Yosef’s Encounter with the Brothers
When the famine hits and Ya’akov sends his sons to Egypt for food, the verse pauses to explain why they came before Yosef; 42;6 says that he was the mashbir, the one who sold grain to all who came. Ramban cannot imagine that the second to Par’oh doled out grain to each purchaser. Nor could Bereshit Rabbah 91;6, so it explains that he only did it at that time (because he foresaw or sensed that his brothers were coming).
On a simpler level, Ramban suggests that Yosef would interview the first people from each city to determine their situation, and would then instruct his underlings as to how much grain to sell to people from that city. The brothers were the first arrivals from Canaan (a whole land, not just a city, but Ramban does not remark on that), so they came before him.
[Ramban inserts an element of apparent chance into the story; in his explanation, had other Canaanites come earlier, the brothers might never have met up with Yosef. I don’t think he thinks that, but that’s the way his idea would read. He also assumes Yosef categorized needs by city, which seems rather broad-brush to me.]
Yosef Works to Bring the Dreams to Fruition
When Yosef sees his brothers, 42;9 tells us he remembered the dreams. Ramban says that he saw them bowing and realized that that still did not mean the first dream had come true, since all eleven brothers appeared in that dream. Were he to reveal himself then, Ya’akov would certainly come to Egypt, and the first dream would never have a chance to be fulfilled.
Only the need to have the dreams come true justifies the pain this delay caused Ya’akov; if not for that, Yosef would have committed a great sin. Ramban is sure Yosef acted correctly, yafeh be-ito, well at its proper time, because he knew Hashem meant for the dreams to be brought to fruition. That also explains why Yosef had not contacted his family until then; he sensed it was his obligation to do his part regarding the dreams.
[Many years ago, R. Yoel bin Nun wrote a brilliant article where he disagreed, and offered an alternate idea for why Yosef did not contact Ya’akov, and why he revealed himself when he did. It was a lightning bolt when I first read it, although in the intervening years I have become less convinced. In any case, this is Ramban’s slot, not R. Yoel bin Nun’s, but his idea was so creative and so exciting that I cannot not reference it].
Ramban does not explain why Yosef should have worked to make the dreams come true. If dreams are a prediction from Hashem, why not leave it up to Hashem to bring them about? Nor do all prophecies necessarily come true, especially when they have negative impact on some people—why couldn’t Yosef decide that, thank Gd, Hashem’s intent was being achieved without causing his father extra pain?
Again, Ramban does not say. One possibility is that Yosef’s life revolved around dreams more than most other people’s. Perhaps Ramban thought Yosef understood that for him dreams were necessary signposts, to be worked with and made reality.
But that’s my speculation. That aside, Ramban has taken us from dream to dream, from Yosef merely interpreting to Yosef engineering a dream’s coming true.