click here to jump to start of article
Join Our Newsletter

Get latest articles and videos with Jewish inspiration and insights​

Mikeitz(Genesis 41:1-44:17)

Serving Man or God

The Torah portion begins with Joseph's interpretation of Pharaoh's dreams and his subsequent rise to power in Egypt. On close analysis of the dialogue between Pharaoh and Joseph we can discern fundamental differences in their outlooks.

Pharaoh was an idol worshipper and he, like all Egyptians, worshipped the River Nile, their most vital source of sustenance. In describing his dream, Pharaoh says that he was "standing over the river." (1) According to the simple understanding of this verse, it is conveying Pharaoh's physical location with regard to the Nile. But it also teaches us about his attitude to his god - the verse stresses that he was standing over the Nile in a position of superiority.

This does not seem to be a respectful way to relate to one's god. It symbolizes that Pharaoh's worship of the Nile was not for the benefit of the Nile, it was for his own gain. He needed the Nile so he appeased it with worship, but ultimately the Nile was serving him, not the other way around. The Egyptians' attitude towards their god is even more starkly demonstrated by the behavior of the Pharaoh that lived in the time of Moses. He used to go out to the river in the early morning in order to fulfill his bodily functions in it,(2) hardly a great show of respect for one's god! The Talmud goes even further and tells us that he believed that he actually created the Nile.(3) These sources indicate that the Egyptians' 'service' of their gods stemmed from a desire to get what they needed from them - the Nile was ultimately there to serve them.

Pharaoh's attitude stands in stark contrast to Joseph. He demonstrates tremendous subservience to God in his response to Pharaoh's request to interpret the dreams. His first words to Pharaoh are, "This is beyond me, it is God who will respond to Pharaoh's welfare." (4) Joseph's words are rather incredible. He has been imprisoned in a hellhole for 12 years and is finally given a golden opportunity to attain freedom. If only he can appease Pharaoh he can have a new start in life. He knew that Pharaoh did not believe in the Jewish God, he believed that he himself was a god and that his arrogance was unmatched. What would a person say in such circumstances?

Joseph would have been justified in thinking that now was not the right time to attribute everything to God. Now would be the time to sell himself and his talents as much as possible. Yet Joseph did not hesitate to attribute all of his talents to God. This is a remarkable display of subservience, which stands in stark contrast to the arrogance of Pharaoh with regard to his god.

Joseph's trait of subservience to God was inherited from Jacob. In Parshas Vayetzei when Jacob has his famous dream, the Torah tells us that, "God was standing over him." (5) The emphasis here is that Jacob was under God, not standing over Him. This symbolizes that Jacob's service of God was not defined by him, rather it was defined by God. He nullified his own desires and only wanted to fulfill God's will.

This dichotomy of outlooks is also a strong feature of the clash between the worldviews of the Jewish people and the Greek Empire. The Greeks worshipped many gods but idol-worship was not the central focus of Greek ideology. They most emphasized the concept of the perfection of mankind - they believed in a man-centered universe in which the purpose of the gods was to serve the desires of man. Many Greeks, including Aristotle, propounded the belief that the Earth was the center of the universe, a reflection of the superiority of mankind. They emphasized the beauty of the human body and the domination of human reason over any other form of wisdom.

This philosophy stood at clear loggerheads with Torah - they saw Judaism as the antithesis of their cherished beliefs, because it above all stressed man's subservience to God and his imperfection. This understanding helps us appreciate why they forbade the Jewish people from observing circumcision and learning Torah. Circumcision is a reflection of the belief that man's physicality is not perfect and needs to be harnessed. The Greeks believed that man was created whole and cannot be improved - to cut away part of his body was in their eyes a highly destructive act. Learning Torah involves man trying to train his mind to understand how God looks at the world and to learn to look at the world in the same way. The Greeks in contrast believed that man's reason alone was the ultimate source of wisdom and that he should not subjugate it to anything else.

The battle of Chanukah was the clash between two ideologies - one placed God in the center and the other put man there. May we all merit to follow the examples of Jacob and Joseph in placing God in the center.



1. Mikeitz, 41:1.

2. Va'eira, 7:15, with Rashi.

3. Moed Katan, 18a, with Rashi.

4. Mikeitz, 41:16.

5. Vayetzei, 28:13.

November 28, 2010

Give Tzedakah! Help create inspiring
articles, videos and blogs featuring timeless Jewish wisdom.

Visitor Comments: 4

(4) Yehonasan Gefen, December 18, 2011 1:49 PM

Reply to Jay and Tehilla

Thank you for the comments – although I strongly disagree with your arguments and accusations of arrogance, and there was no arrogance intended in what I wrote. I did not make up this criticism of Pharaoh, the Rabbis made it in the Midrash (which is the Rabbis’ tradition that was received by Moses on Sinai and passed down through the generations – the Midrash elaborates on the stories in the Torah) in Bereishit Rabbah, Chapter 89, number 4) explicitly makes this point, It states: “Evil people stand over their gods, [as it says] Pharaoh stood over the river, whilst for the righteous their God stands over them.” Yes, Pharaoh did a lot for Joseph and the Jews (although there is an opinion that this same Pharaoh was the one who made the Jews slaves in the time of Moses) but this doesn’t take away from the Rabbis’ observations about the Egyptians’ for of idol worship.

(3) Tehillah, December 5, 2010 5:29 PM

Look in the mirror

I too cannot totally agree with your commentary regarding Pharoh. I too am a Jew, and I am NOT blinded by the fact certain Jews (we wont get into whom/which ones) think themselves exactly the way Pharoah thought of himself... so look who is calling the kettle black. If you print this I will be surprised.

(2) Jay, December 3, 2010 11:40 PM

Your a little simplistic

With all respect, it seems that you have taken one "fact" about Pharaoh-that he stood over the Nile- and thus made him and his peoples beliefs trivial...I am Jewish and believe that I am indeed below G-d but if your gonna critique the past in a not to subtle and arrogant manner, then you ought to look in the mirror first. Have you forgotten that Pharaoh was incredibly good to Joseph and later his family...did he do the later because he thought himself a god or because he respected Joseph and his religion?

(1) avraham, November 30, 2010 7:09 PM

very deep comment

a lesson for life thank you

Submit Your Comment:

  • Display my name?

  • Your email address is kept private. Our editor needs it in case we have a question about your comment.

  • * required field 2000
Submit Comment