In the Torah portion Miketz, Pharaoh sees two dreams. He wakes up agitated and calls on all wise men of Egypt to interpret his dreams. Nobody is able to come up with an acceptable interpretation, so they fetch Joseph from a prison and he successfully interprets dreams of Pharaoh—there will be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. Joseph proceeds to instruct Pharaoh on how to prepare for the seven years of famine.
In the previous posts, Interpreting Dreams and Joseph—the Master of Time—we already explained how Joseph was able to interpret dreams in terms of units of time and why Pharaoh appointed Joseph as the Viceroy of Egypt. This story, however, is still puzzling. Perhaps it can teach us more lessons…
In Talmudic and Kabbalah literature, Joseph is called Yosef HaTzadik—Joseph the Tzadik (a righteous and holy man). He certainly had a prophetic vision. When a prophet or a tzadik foresees an impending calamity, his job is to save his generation through prayer, fasting and call for repentance. As we read in the Book of Jonah, after Jonah prophesized the impending catastrophe to people of Nineveh, they repented and the decree was annulled. When Mordechai HaTzadik learned from Esther about the evil decree against Jews of Persia, he ordered a three-day fast; he down sackcloth, and called on Jewish people to repent. As we know from the Book of Esther, this repentance averted the evil decree and led to a great victory, which we celebrate on Purim till this day. Such stories are abundant in Jewish history. Yet, in this instance, Joseph does offer his blessing to Pharaoh; he does not turn to God in prayer; he does not proclaim a fast; nor does he call on Egyptians to repent their evil ways. Instead, he takes a very pragmatic approach and advises Pharaoh to start collecting food surplus—hardly an approach characteristic of a prophet or holy man.
A careful examination of the Pharaoh’s dreams reveals a curious detail: there were to be seven years of plenty and seven years of famine. There is no apparent reason why the famine should have lasted exactly the same number of years as the time of plenty. This symmetry—seven years of plenty vs. seven years of famine—can be expressed as +7 and -7 — seven good years and seven bad years. This simple mathematical symmetry provided a hint that led Joseph to take his programmatic approach.
If physicists have one favorite word, this word is “symmetry.” The whole history of the development of theoretical physics in the 20th century was an ever-growing appreciation for the importance of symmetry. It all started from one of the most beautiful and most important theorems in the whole of theoretical physics—Noether’s Theorem. Emmy Noether, a Jewish-German mathematician proved in 1915 that connected symmetry with conservation laws. For example, translational symmetry leads to energy conservation, while rotational symmetry leads to the conservation of the angular momentum, etc. In the second part of the 20th-century group theory (a mathematical theory of symmetry) was used to develop the Standard Model—the theory the predicted all known subatomic particles. While symmetry predicts most particles, a few particles were predicted by the so-called spontaneous symmetry breaking. We wrote about spontaneous symmetry breaking in the earlier posts “The Entangled Twins” and “Entangles Sisters.” The “God particle”—Higgs Boson—and Z bosons were predicted based on the spontaneous symmetry breaking.
An equation can have two symmetrical solutions. Say, a simple equation x2=1 has two symmetrical solutions: +1 and -1. The Dirac equation of quantum electrodynamics had two symmetrical solutions that predicted two symmetrical particles: one having electric charge +1 (positron) and another identical particle having electrical charge -1 (electron). The electron was well known, but positron was not. It was discovered much later. Sometimes, only one solution is realized in nature—this is called spontaneous symmetry breaking.
The stories of Jacob and Esau, and Rachel and Leah were stories of spontaneous symmetry breaking. Both twins were symmetrical, as it were, but God chose Jacob over Esau and Jacob loved Rachel over Leah. Perhaps, Joseph was well aware of that.
The dreams of Pharaoh contained two symmetrical scenarios: seven good years and seven bad years, or simply +7 and -7. Had there been the slightest possibility that only one of these solutions would be realized, of course, Joseph would have offered blessings to Pharaoh, prayed to the Almighty and called upon Egyptians to repent. The fact that there were two dreams, however, told Joseph, that there would be no spontaneous symmetry breaking here—both scenarios would be realized. Prayers would not help, seven years of famine were coming. What needed was swift and decisive action—collecting food supply. There is time to pray and time to act. The genius of Joseph was that he knew the difference.
This is why Joseph tells Pharaoh: “And for that the dream was doubled unto Pharaoh twice, it is because the thing is established by God…” (Gen. 41:32)
In other words, Joseph tells Pharaoh that both symmetrical scenarios are destined to come to pass. As Eugene Wigner use to say, “It’s all about symmetry!”