Wisdom and Knowledge – Mikketz 5784

D'var Torah | Genesis

Pharaoh was confounded ­– even disturbed. His dreams were recurrent and thus important. But he was unable to decode them. Fortunately, the cup-bearer remembered how successful Joseph was in interpreting his dream and quickly made the recommendation to bring Joseph from prison to the royal court. After interpreting the two dreams to Pharaoh’s satisfaction, Joseph suggests that Pharaoh find a “wise and understanding man” to act on his recommendations (Genesis 41:33). That Joseph did not volunteer is a tribute to his humility. Looking beyond the obvious, two important perspectives emerge.

First, the text distinguished between wisdom and knowledge. While they are similar, the two are not identical. Knowledge is fact-based. That tomatoes are fruits is a fact. But choosing not to serve tomatoes as dessert is wisdom. (Whether or not ketchup is a smoothie is a question best left to philosophers.) Knowledge is essential. In 1597 the English philosopher Francis Bacon wrote: “Knowledge itself is power.” But knowledge is insufficient. Wisdom relates to the application of knowledge. The future of Egypt required more than just knowing that famine is approaching. It required the wisdom to prepare for the inevitable.

Given the difference between knowledge and wisdom, Pharaoh was left to ponder whether such an individual exists. Thus, he asks (Genesis 41:36), “could we find someone like this?” Pharaoh doubted that a person with both knowledge and wisdom might be available. The second perspective that emerges from the text is that individuals gifted with both knowledge and wisdom are rare indeed. Ironically, Joseph who shied from recommending himself becomes the obvious choice.

The popular assignation of Joseph is that he is an interpreter of dreams. In reality, he is much more. He embodies the dual qualities of wisdom and knowledge which are rare in and of themselves and even scarcer in the same individual.


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Rabbi Allen on Twitter