Who will interpret our nightmares? Magicians or sages?

Who will interpret our nightmares? Magicians or sages?

Rabbi James Gibson
Rabbi James Gibson

Parshat Miketz, Genesis 41:1-44:17

In this week’s Torah portion, Joseph has fallen from fatherly favor to the depths of Pharaoh’s dungeons. The dreams of his youth seem to mock him. He is cast away, a nobody, a prisoner without name or number.

Even his companions have left him. Pharaoh’s baker has been executed and his cupbearer returned to favor. Joseph is literally alone, left in the pit of despair.

After two years, Pharaoh is disturbed by dreams of his own. Skinny cows swallowing healthy ones, blasted ears of grain devouring healthy stalks. His world is turned on its head. What could it mean? Pharaoh startles awake, heart pounding.

Listen to the Torah: “When it was morning, Pharaoh’s spirit was upended. He called for Egypt’s magicians and sages; Pharaoh related his dream to them but there was no interpreter for them.”

Magicians and sages. In Hebrew, chartumim and chachamim. We know what a chacham is — a wise one, a sage. It is an appellation of honor. It is fascinating to know that Pharaoh had sages in his court.

But what are chartumim? This strange word describes magical counselors to Pharaoh. Although they fail to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams in this portion, later chartumim will imitate God’s signs and plagues. Imitation, however, seems to be their only power. They are copycats, nothing more. They are not capable of anything original at all.

These days, we are like Pharaoh. We face both dreams and realities that upend our spirits. But ours involve neither cows nor ears of grain.

These days our spirits are upended by vision of men of color dying at the hands of the authorities under terrifying circumstances. The video of Eric Garner, seen by millions, will not let us go. We cannot get it out of our heads.

We look for guidance. We search for a meaning in all of this. If the magicians of our day are like those back in Egypt, they will tell us what we want to hear. They will tell us soothing words that everything will be all right.

No, we need sages. The sage tells us what we don’t want to hear. We need a sage like Joseph in the Torah, who will warn us about dangers to come as well as offer a plan of action. Joseph’s hard truths ultimately save the people. Hard truths are needed to save ours, too.

Where is our interpreter? Where is our sage? Where is our Joseph we need so much today?

Rabbi James A. Gibson is the senior rabbi at Temple Sinai. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.