Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, has two dreams, we learn in this week’s Torah portion. In the first, Pharaoh sees himself standing over the Nile River,

And, behold, there came up out of the River seven cows, handsome and fat of flesh, and they fed in the reed grass. And, behold, seven other cows came up after them out of the River, ugly and lean of flesh, and stood by the other cows upon the bank of the River. And the ugly and lean cows ate up the seven handsome and fat cows. (Genesis 41:1–4)

In the second dream, Pharaoh sees seven thin, shriveled ears of grain swallow seven fat ears of grain.

None of the wise men of Egypt can offer Pharaoh a satisfactory interpretation of his dreams. Then, the “young Hebrew slave,” Joseph, is summoned from the dungeon to the palace. Joseph interprets the dreams to mean that seven years of plenty, symbolized by the fat cows and fat grain, will be followed by seven years of hunger, reflected by the lean cows and the shriveled ears. The seven years of famine will be so powerful that they will “swallow up” and obliterate any trace of the years of plenty.

Joseph then advises Pharaoh how to deal with the situation: “Now Pharaoh must seek out a man with insight and wisdom and place him in charge of Egypt.” A rationing system will have to be set up over Egypt during the seven years of surplus, Joseph explains, in which grain will be stored for the upcoming years of famine.

Pharaoh is blown away by Joseph’s vision. “Can there be another person who has G‑d’s spirit in him as this man does?” Pharaoh asks his advisors. “There is none as understanding and wise as you,” he says to Joseph. “You shall be over my house, and according to your word shall all my people be ruled; only by the throne will I outrank you.”

Joseph is thus appointed viceroy of Egypt. The rest is history.1

Three Questions

The Biblical commentators2 struggle with three major questions concerning this remarkable story.

  1. It is difficult to understand how, following his interpretation of the dreams, Joseph proceeded to give Pharaoh advice on how to deal with the impending famine. How is a newly liberated slave not afraid to offer the king of Egypt, the monarch who ruled a superpower, unsolicited advice? Pharaoh summoned Joseph from the dungeon to interpret his dreams, not to become an advisor to the king!
  2. It is obvious from the narrative that Pharaoh was actually awestruck by Joseph’s solution to the problem. But one need not be a rocket scientist to suggest that if you have seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, you should store food during the time of plenty for the time of hunger. What’s the genius in Joseph’s advice?
  3. Pharaoh also was amazed by Joseph’s interpretation of the dreams themselves, which none of his own wise men could conceive. But Joseph’s interpretation seems simple and obvious. When are cows fat? When there is lots of food. When are they lean? When there’s no food. When is grain fat? When there is a plentiful harvest. When is grain lean? During a time of famine. So why was Pharaoh astonished by Joseph’s rendition of his dreams? And why could no one else conceive of the same interpretation?

Uniting the Cows

During a Shabbat address in 1973, the Lubavitcher Rebbe presented the following explanation:3

The dream experts of Egypt did indeed conceive of Joseph’s interpretation to Pharaoh’s dreams—namely, that seven years of hunger would follow seven years of plenty. Yet they dismissed this interpretation from their minds, because it did not account for one important detail of the dream.

In Pharaoh’s first dream, he saw how the seven ugly and lean cows that came up after the seven handsome cows “stood near the other [fat] cows upon the bank of the River.” In other words, there was a moment during which both sets of cows coexisted simultaneously, and only afterward did the lean cows proceed to swallow the fat cows.

It was this detail of the dream that caused the wise men of Egypt to reject the interpretation that Joseph would later offer to Pharaoh, and compelled them to present all types of farfetched explanations.4

For how is it possible that plenty and famine should coexist? Either you have fat cows alone or you have lean cows alone, but you can’t have them both together! The seven years of famine cannot be present during the seven years of surplus.

This is where Joseph’s brilliance was dazzlingly displayed. When Joseph proceeded to tell Pharaoh how to prepare for the coming famine, he was not offering him unwelcome advice on how to run his country; rather, the advice was part of the dream’s interpretation.

Joseph understood that the coexistence of the two sets of cows contained the solution to the approaching famine: During the years of plenty, Egypt must “live” with the years of famine as well, as though they were already present. Even while enjoying the abundance of the years of plenty, Egypt must experience in its imagination the reality of the upcoming famine, and each and every day store away food for it. The seven lean cows ought to be very much present and alive in people’s minds and in their behavior during the era of the seven fat cows.

Conversely, if this system was implemented in Egypt, then even during the years of famine, the nation would continue enjoying the abundance of the years of plenty. The seven fat cows would be very much present and alive, even during the era of the seven lean cows.

This is what impressed Pharaoh so deeply about Joseph’s interpretation. To begin with, Pharaoh was struck by Joseph’s ingenious accounting for that one detail of the dream that had evaded all of the wise men of Egypt.

But what thrilled him even more was Joseph’s demonstration of the fact that Pharaoh’s dreams not only contained a prediction of future events, but also offered instructions on how to deal with those events. The dreams did not only portend problems, but also proffered solutions.

Do You Need G‑d? Do You Have a Real Friend?

The wisdom of Joseph’s presentation to Pharaoh becomes strikingly clear when we reflect upon the spiritual message behind the story. For, as we have noted a number of times, the stories of the Torah describe not only physical events that took place at a certain point in history, but also detail metaphysical and timeless tales occurring continuously within the human heart.

All of us experience cycles of plenty and cycles of famine in our lives. There are times when things are going very well: we are healthy, successful and comfortable. Often, during such times, we fail to invest time and energy to cultivate genuine emotional intimacy with our spouses, to develop real relationships with friends, and to create a sincere bond with G‑d. We feel self-sufficient, and don’t need anybody in our lives.

Yet when a time of famine arrives, when a serious crisis erupts (heaven forbid) in our lives, we suddenly feel the need to reach out beyond ourselves and connect with our loved ones and with G‑d.

But we don’t know how. Because when we do not nurture our relationships and our spirituality during our years of plenty, then when the years of famine confront us, we lack the tools we so desperately need to survive the crisis.

This is the essence of Joseph’s wisdom: You must never detach the years of plenty from the years of famine. When you experience plenty, do not let it blind your vision and desensitize you from what is truly important in life.

The priorities you cultivate during your “good times” should be of the kind that will sustain you during your “bad times” as well.