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Emotional Starvation

Emotional Starvation


The Dream of Panic

Pharaoh had a strange dream. Seven thin and unhealthy cows swallowed seven robust cows, but the thin cows showed no signs of weight gain. Joseph interpreted the dream, predicting that Egypt would experience seven years of plentiful crops, followed by seven years of drought. The ensuing famine would be so severe that the years of plenty would be entirely forgotten.1

The commentaries pose an interesting question. Why did the thin cows swallow the robust cows? If the purpose of the dream was to imply a severe famine that would erase the effects of the years of plenty, the healthy cows could have become—or even been replaced by—sickly and thin cows, and the message would have been the same. Why the swallowing?

The years of plenty would be entirely forgotten

Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno offers a deep psychological insight. This detail of the dream informed Pharaoh that the famine would sow panic and desperation even among the wealthy, for they knew that their limited supplies would eventually run out.

Our rabbis taught that you cannot compare one who has bread in his basket to one who does not. The two might enjoy identical meals, but the one who has nothing saved for tomorrow will panic with every bite, for each mouthful carries him closer to starvation. The one who has plenty stored away for the next day will eat with confidence. If we are filled with dread, every mouthful is a form of torture. If we are filled with confidence, every mouthful is bliss.

The time would come when the entire region would suffer from famine, and people would stream to Egypt to purchase food. But even the well-stocked Egyptians would not escape the wrath of famine, for with each bite they would worry that tomorrow they might join the ranks of the hungry.

Pharaoh’s dream informed him that he would gain no satisfaction from his rich meals. He would suffer emotional starvation, and come to hate mealtime with a passion.

The Scarcity Mentality

Imagine an encounter between an Egyptian family with plenty and a family from a starving country. The Egyptian family might moan about the desperation they feel with every bite. The visiting family wouldn’t be able to relate to this problem. “If we had that kind of food,” they would say, “we would have no problem. Yet you have all this food, and complain?”

Can you imagine a scenario in which you are surrounded by luxury, but feel desperate and deprived? It is the ultimate irony. You have everything, and enjoy nothing. In fact, you might be better off with poverty You might be better off with poverty than with a wealth that haunts and taunts you.

It is impossible to relate to such difficulty when you are surrounded by real problems. When your children are hungry and you have nothing to feed them, you wish for the kind of problems the Egyptian family experienced. Yet from the Egyptians’ standpoint, the problem was real. It couldn’t be dismissed merely because others had more serious problems.

Today we have irrigation, production and preservation systems that enhance crop survival and mitigate the effects of droughts. For the most part, people in the developed world are able to meet their basic needs and then some. But feelings of desperation and deprivation are still common. Only the believer can live in the moment. The believer knows that everything is in good hands, G‑d’s hands. As much as we strive to work hard and provide for our families, ultimately our sustenance comes from G‑d.

The Weak Bully

There is another lesson from this enigmatic dream. How often do you encounter aggressive personalities who love to dominate? These people feel compelled to make every decision and control every exchange. If someone stands up to them, they tear into him and figuratively eat him alive. Having swallowed each of their challengers, and even many of their supporters, such people appear to be invincible, but they often feel weak and beleaguered.

You see, very few people tear into others because they are strong. They often do these things because they lack self-esteem and suffer emotional starvation. They might perceive almost any exchange as a slight, and convince themselves that others are poised to attack them. They put up a brave front and are on the offensive precisely because they feel vulnerable. In their minds, others want to swallow them alive, and they have no choice but to swallow first.

They are like the skinny cows, swallowing their perceived attackers but showing no signs of gain. They “won” the battle, but gained no They have no choice but to swallow firstemotional satisfaction from it. It is the height of irony. They are the strongest in the group, but in their minds, the weakest.

When we understand that bullying behavior is often rooted in emotional starvation, we can respond with compassion and loving strength.

Pharaoh’s dream highlights a psychological phenomenon to which we are still subject today. Emotional starvation can manifest in many ways, but with faith in G‑d, we can perceive the abundance in our lives.

Rabbi Lazer Gurkow is spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, and a frequent contributor to The Judaism Website— He has lectured extensively on a variety of Jewish topics, and his articles have appeared in many print and online publications. For more on Rabbi Gurkow and his writings, visit
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brett summerland bc December 11, 2017

the weak bully Excellent thoughts. I appreciate how you see the weak bully. It is helpful to understand this when we encounter weak bullies in today's conflicted culture. Reply

Simone Rousseau Sydney, Australia via December 1, 2013

Nature vs Nurture I believe we are born with different natures. Good and Bad/Selfish/Selfless Greedy/Generous. If we have our full faculties about us so to speak, then we have a choice to go against our grain and be good if we are evil or the other way around. Hashem brings to the world people with different attributes, capabilities and challenges! I believe it is up to those of us that can deal with the challenges to assist the ones that cant. We cannot presume that the wealthy will be generous and the poor not! Sometimes its the other way around! Reply

David K. Utah December 1, 2013

The skinny cows symbolized Joseph? I think that the skinny cows symbolized Joseph and they were in the same condition as he was after years of imprisonment and the act of devouring the fat cows was is exactly what Joseph did to Egypt and Egyptians. In the end he, along with the Pharaoh devoured all the wealth in Egypt and made surfs out of once proud and prosperous people, i.e. fat cows. Reply

Hilary England November 29, 2013

Conserve grain but not menorah oil. Hmm interesting... Very interesting that we read this portion during Chunukah. Where the wisdom given to Joseph is to advise on conserving resources for the future, when it came to that one day's supply of menorah oil the wisdom was don't try and stretch it, just use it up! I wonder if there is something to learn from this timely juxtaposition of these two approaches? Reply

Elissa Grunwald Ny November 25, 2013

Fantastic analogy with the human personality The aggressive domination of the emotionally starved person only distances themselves further with the control they fuel on their victims. Shame, insecurity and lack of self esteem and the ability to truly express or feel their feeling results in the all consuming fire that can destroy the ones they love and those around them. The moods that come with wealth and poverty are shown in the affect of the human. May the insecure find security and the insight to recognize how the behaviors are metaphorically related to the wisdom in the Torah! Reply

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