The Torah portion of Mikeitz begins by relating Pharaoh’s dream, and the fact that the wise men could not provide a satisfactory interpretation. Yosef was then called for and he interpreted the dreams to Pharaoh’s satisfaction.

The commentators ask a number of questions regarding Yosef’s interpretation. The thought that seven handsome healthy-looking cows and seven fat, good ears of grain were symbolic of seven years of plenty, while seven emaciated, bad cows and seven shriveled ears of grain were symbolic of seven years of famine seems obvious.1

Handsome, healthy-looking cows are a direct result of a plenitude of grass and grain — a clear symbol of a time of plenty. And surely this is so with regard to fat ears of grain. Conversely, emaciated cows denote a lack of food, and shriveled ears of grain indicate a lack of water.

Moreover, Pharaoh saw in his dream that the cows emerged from the Nile, the annual flooding of which provided Egypt with vitally needed water for irrigation and growth. Since the healthy cows and grain appeared first, it is understandable that a period of plenty would precede a time of famine. Furthermore, since the cows and grain were seven in number, it clearly indicated seven seasons of growth.

Why did the wise men of Egypt fail to understand something that was so self-evident? What got Pharaoh so excited about Yosef’s wisdom that he appointed him viceroy?

Yet another question: As soon as Yosef interpreted the dreams, he immediately went on to say:2 “And now, Pharaoh must seek out a man with insight and wisdom and place him in charge of Egypt.” Why did Yosef see fit to go on and give advice? Pharaoh had only asked him to interpret the dreams, not to advise him on affairs of state.3

The difficulty in interpreting the dreams resulted from the fact that the “other seven, ugly lean cows emerged from the Nile, and stood next to the cows already on the river bank. ”4 If the seven emaciated cows symbolized seven years of famine following seven years of plenty, why were both sets of cows standing together on the river bank?

The Egyptian wise men therefore came up with various interpretations implying that feast and famine would take place at the same time.

Yosef’s approach, however, was different. He correctly interpreted the dream to mean that seven good years would be followed by seven years of famine. In answer to the obvious question of why the cows were standing together, Yosef replied that this meant someone should be appointed over Egypt to ensure that the grain from the seven bountiful years would be stored for the coming years of famine, for in this way the cows could stand “together” in the following manner:

When steps are taken at the beginning of the seven years of plenty to insure that there will be food for the seven years of famine, then the two periods — the two sets of cows — come together. Conversely, during the seven years of hunger, the seven years of plenty are profoundly felt, for the food eaten during these latter years comes from the first seven years.

This is why Pharaoh was so taken by Yosef’s reply; it wasn’t so much Yosef’s ability to interpret the dreams as his ability to account for the juxtaposition of the seven fat and emaciated cows.

On a more spiritual level, Pharaoh’s dreams and Yosef’s interpretation thereof served as the precursor to the Jewish people’s descent into exile, for it was Yosef’s leadership (which resulted from his interpretation) that brought about the circumstances which caused Ya’akov and his family to descend to Egypt. Thus, Pharaoh’s dreams and their interpretation also serve as a parable to exile.

During a dream, it is possible for opposites to unite. Exile is therefore likened to a dream, for during the time of exile, “good cows” (the desire to be good and holy) and “emaciated cows” (the desire to act in an untoward manner) can reside in an individual at almost the same time.

By putting aside provisions during the times of spiritual good, spiritual famine is averted, and Jews are constantly blessed with all manner of good.

Based on Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XV, pp. 339-346