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Joseph’s Multiple Intelligences (Mikketz)

If we cannot possibly disprove something then we cannot possibly rely upon it either. This was the counterintuitive claim of Karl Popper, a twentieth century Austrian epistemologist who used the falsifiability principle to distinguish “scientific” ideas from “unscientific” ones. For instance, Newton’s theory of gravity predicts that when you shake a tree, its apples will fall downwards. To refute this theory, all we’d need to do is find an apple which falls upwards. As such, Newton’s theory is testable, and,as far as Popper is concerned, it is true — so long as it passes the test.

Unlike Newton’s theory, however, some hypotheses leave no room for challenges. Such was the case with the predictions of John Dee, an English astrologist who was hired to “read the stars” of Queen Elizabeth I. Dee phrased his fortunes in terms which were so vague that they inevitably described some upcoming event, even if Dee could not tell you, before-the-fact, which event that would be. There was, in other words, no way to prove Dee wrong – and, for Popper, there would thus be no reason to believe that Dee was right.  

With this background in mind, let’s ask a very simple question. In this week’s Torah portion, Pharaoh consults dozens of magicians, hoping to find somebody who can interpret his cryptic dreams. Only Joseph, the text tells us, provides a satisfactory interpretation, associating the scrawny cows in Pharaoh’s reveries with seven years of famine, and the robust cows with seven years of abundance. This explanation seems plausible enough, and because Pharaoh buys it, we as readers take it for granted that this is indeed the correct explanation. But if we think critically about the logistics of this story, we’ve got to wonder: How on earth could Pharaoh have known which of his advisors’ interpretations was accurate? He couldn’t have, since no prediction for the future can be tested in the present. There’s no “falsifiability” here.

Why, then, did Joseph’s interpretation stand out? It must have been for another reason entirely.

When we read closely, we notice a subtle distinction between Joseph’s approach and the approach of his fellow diviners. No less than seven times in a span of fifteen verses, the Torah describes the art of reading dreams using the verb פ.ת.ר – i.e. “interpreting.” But this isn’t the verb which Pharaoh uses when complaining about his predicament to Joseph. Instead, Pharaoh reveals to Joseph the true source of his vexation: “I recounted my dreams to my advisers, but they haven’t told me anything” (ואין מגיד לי).

What Pharaoh’s really looking for, it turns out, isn’t somebody who can interpret his dreams (פותר אותם) , but somebody who can instruct him (מגיד לי) regarding what to do about them. Joseph, listening closely, realizes this. Like all his colleagues, he, too, explains Pharaoh’s dreams, forecasting, for his part, seven successful harvests followed by seven unsuccessful ones. But if Joseph would stop here, then all he would have done is rid Pharaoh of his problem by replacing it with a new one. Instead, Joseph supplements his prediction with a plan of action — one which he’d never been requested to produce:

So now, let Pharaoh seek out an understanding and wise man and appoint him over the land of Egypt.  Let Pharaoh do [this] and appoint officials over the land and prepare the land of Egypt during the seven years of plenty. And let them collect all the food of these coming seven good years, and let them gather the grain under Pharaoh’s hand, food in the cities, and keep it. Thus the food will remain as a reserve for the land for the seven years of famine which will be in the land of Egypt, so that the land will not be destroyed by the famine. (Genesis 41:33-36)

While everybody’s busy telling Pharaoh what his dream mean, Joseph helps Pharaoh appreciate what his dreams mean for him. Although the solution which Joseph suggests might seem obvious, we must remember that the obvious solution is not always the politically expedient one. According to Pharaoh, Egypt has never experienced a recession – the country is irrigated by the Nile and is therefore immune to drought. Like their ruler, the Egyptians have spent too much time in dreamland to cope with a financial crisis.

In fact, we can understand this situation well. Just last year, two Prime Ministers lost their jobs trying to sell austerity measures to the citizens of Greece; they couldn’t convince voters that these measures were necessary, even though the entire Eurozone threatened to collapse under the weight of the Greek government’s debt. Pharaoh, for his part, was not going to fare any better trying to hike taxes on the Egyptians — especially since, unlike the Greeks,  the Egyptians had no reason to believe that their prosperous economy would ever fail them.

That’s why Joseph’s solution proves so appealing. By advising Pharaoh to share his authority with others, Joseph demonstrates that he understands the ruler’s predicament, while simultaneously showing him a way out of it. Pharaoh, in turn, jumps on the offer, apparently more eager to abdicate responsibility than to delegate it. First, Pharaoh places Joseph in charge of Egypt’s granaries; then, he launches a quick public relations campaign to introduce the new treasurer to his constituents; and, finally, he formally separates himself from the entire enterprise. This, to be sure, is probably not what Joseph had in mind – but that is beside the point. What’s relevant for us is Joseph’s perceptiveness and Joseph’s initiative. As Da Vinci tells us, it’s one thing to “know,” and it’s another thing to “apply.”

In the Haftarah associated with this week’s Torah portion, we read the famous story known as the “Judgment of Solomon.” Like Joseph, whom Pharaoh praises as a man unrivalled in intelligence and in understanding, Solomon is described by the Bible as wiser than all other men. Nevertheless, Biblical commentators throughout history have struggled to understand why Solomon deserves this accolade. Granted, it may have been clever of the king to suggest “cutting the baby in half” – but was this the wisest decision of all time? R. Hayyim Angel doesn’t think so. Instead, R. Angel suggests that Solomon’s greatness was a moral one. When we consider Solomon’s grandeur, and when we remember that the two women whose case he adjudicated hailed from the lowest circles of society – the text states explicitly that they were harlots – we cannot help but marvel at the King of Israel’s equity, patience, and passion for justice. In R. Angel’s words: “That [even] prostitutes could gain an audience with Solomon, and that he would listen so attentively to their arguments that he could solve their case with no witnesses, demonstrates Solomon’s true wisdom.”

This is a lovely explanation, but let us adapt it a notch. If R. Angel’s theory is correct, then why did the text describe Solomon as the most intelligent man ever? Perforce, the Bible – like developmental psychologist Horward Gardner millennia later – recognizes the notion of multiple intelligences. Neither Solomon nor Joseph is only book-smart. They are also people-smart. Both, in short, possess what social psychologists Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer define as emotional intelligence: the ability to identify needs which are not explicitly stated or formally recognized, and to empathize with those needs all the same.

Colloquially, we often distinguish between analytical intelligence and interpersonal intelligence by speaking of a tension between the “head” and the “heart.” Yet the Tanach knows no such distinction. In Biblical Hebrew (as on Google translate) the word for “mind” is the same as the word for “heart:” לב. In Exodus, the “men of wise heart” are commanded to fashion vessels for the Tabernacle; in Ecclesiastes, Solomon states that a “wise man’s heart” judges each situation appropriately; in I Kings, Solomon’s wisdom itself is attributed to his “broad heart;” in Deuteronomy, as in Jeremiah, the “heart” is identified as the organ which we must use in order to “know” God.

If we want to know something then we must internalize it – and thus, of necessity, we must feel it. In this week’s Torah portion, Joseph and Solomon both display sagacity. More importantly, they both exhibit sensitivity. With each other, as with God, we are fully present only when we invite our whole selves into the relationship: our brains, and also our hearts. To be “wise,” at least in the Bible’s eyes, is to realize this.

Shabbat shalom and happy Hanukkah!


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