Parashat Miketz

Yosef’s Wisdom   By  Rabbi Yosef Y. Jacobson

Never detach the years of plenty from the years of famine

Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, has two dreams 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. 

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,” Yosef, is summoned from the dungeon to the palace. Yosef 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.

Yosef 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, Yosef explains, in which grain will be stored for the upcoming years of famine.

Pharaoh is blown away by Yosef’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 Yosef. “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.”

Yosef is thus appointed viceroy of Egypt. The rest is history.

Three Questions

The Torah commentators struggle with three major questions concerning this remarkable story.

A.  It is difficult to understand how, following his interpretation of the dreams, Yosef 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 Yosef from the dungeon to interpret his dreams, not to become an advisor to the king!

B.  It is obvious from the narrative that Pharaoh was actually awestruck by Yosef’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 Yosef’s advice?

C.  Pharaoh also was amazed by Yosef’s interpretation of the dreams themselves, which none of his own wise men could conceive. But Yosef’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 Yosef’s rendition of his dreams? And why could no one else conceive of the same interpretation?

Uniting the Cows

the Lubavitcher Rebbe presented the following explanation:

The dream experts of Egypt did indeed conceive of Yosef’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 Yosef would later offer to Pharaoh, and compelled them to present all types of farfetched explanations.

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 Yosef’s brilliance was dazzlingly displayed. When Yosef 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.

Yosef 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 Yosef’s interpretation. To begin with, Pharaoh was struck by Yosef’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 Yosef’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 Yosef’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 Yosef’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.

facts of life: take this serious

Caught in the Web!

Then they said to one another, “Indeed we are guilty concerning our brother, inasmuch as we saw his heartfelt anguish when he pleaded with us and we paid no heed.” 

When the Egyptian viceroy demanded the presentation of Binyamin, the brothers began to feel guilty about their treatment of Yosef. They said to one another, “Indeed we are guilty… we saw his heartfelt anguish when he pleaded with us and we paid no heed.” Why did the brothers not say this after they sold Yosef?

R’ Shlomo Freifeld explains that  In the heat of sin, man is so captivated by evil that he does not hear any legitimate counter argument. It was only when they began to free themselves from the hold of the evil inclination that the brothers realized that Yosef had begged for mercy during their sale of him. At the time they had been so spiritually deaf that they heard nothing.

Once man allows any evil to penetrate his defenses, he is no longer able to see the truth or accept rebuke. He becomes spiritually deaf and blind. Like a guard, the evil inclination patrols the entrance to his heart, preventing any change or growth. A person must set up boundaries to ensure that he doesn’t get caught up in the web of the evil inclination. For once he falls into the trap, it is nearly impossible to escape.

First Aliyah: Pharaoh had a dream: seven fat cows arose from the Nile, followed by seven thin cows. The thin cows then consumed the healthy ones. He then had a second dream, wherein seven healthy ears of grain were eaten by seven thin and parched ears. In the morning, none of Pharaoh’s wise men were capable of interpreting the dreams to Pharaoh’s satisfaction. Pharaoh’s butler approached and related his past jailhouse experience, when a Hebrew boy, Yosef, successfully interpreted dreams. Pharaoh ordered Yosef’s release, and he appeared before the king.

Second Aliyah: Pharaoh recounted his dreams to Yosef. Yosef told Pharaoh that both dreams contained a singular message: seven years of plenty were destined to come upon Egypt, followed by seven years of severe famine. Yosef proposed a plan to store the excess grain of the years of plenty, to serve as a reserve for the famine years to follow. Pharaoh was greatly impressed by Yosef’s wisdom.

Third Aliyah: Pharaoh appointed Yosef as viceroy of Egypt, and placed him in charge of the impending food collection operation. Thirty-year-old Yosef was placed second-in command of the Egyptian empire, accountable to no one but Pharaoh himself. Indeed, the seven years of plenty arrived as foretold by Yosef, and Yosef skillfully oversaw the collection of the surplus grain. Yosef married Osnat, the daughter of Poti-phera, and she bore him two sons: Manasseh and Ephraim.

Fourth Aliyah: Then the famine predicted by Yosef commenced a grave famine that affected Egypt and the entire Mediterranean region. Exactly as planned, Yosef had sufficient stores of food, which he personally sold to all who needed. Meanwhile, in nearby Canaan, Yosef’s father, Yaakov, dispatched his eldest ten sons – all of them excepting Benyamin – to Egypt to purchase food provisions. The brothers arrived and stood before Yosef, but did not recognize him, as his boyish appearance had changed in the interim years. When the brothers mentioned their request to purchase food, Yosef dealt with them harshly, accused them of spying, and imprisoned them all for three days.

Fifth Aliyah: On the third day, Yosef released them all, aside for Shimon, whom he held hostage. He bid the rest of the brothers to return to Canaan and return with their youngest brother, Benyamin, and thus establish their innocence. The brothers recognized that this was punishment for the sale of Yosef, and expressed regret for their deed. Yosef instructed his servants to place the monies the brothers had paid for the food in the sacks of grain they were given. The brothers arrived back in Canaan and recounted the entire episode to Yaakov. Yaakov was highly disturbed by the happenings, and initially refused to send Benyamin, unwilling to consider the possibility of losing Rachel’s only remaining son. Eventually, though, after the food provisions ran low, and Yeudah personally guaranteed Benyamin’s safe return, Yaakov acceded to send him. He sent them to Egypt with a prayer on his lips, and armed with a gift for the Egyptian ruler.

Sixth Aliyah: The brothers arrived in Egypt. Yosef instructed his palace supervisor to invite the brothers to join him for the afternoon repast. The brothers arrived at Yosef’s residence where they were reunited with Shimon. Yosef arrived, and the brothers presented him with the gift they had prepared, and they exchanged small talk.

Seventh Aliyah: Upon seeing his brother Benyamin, Yosef was overcome with emotion, which he concealed. The brothers sat down and enjoyed a feast, and Yosef presented them all with gifts—Benyamin’s gift greater than all the others’. In the morning the brothers departed, but not before Yosef had his royal goblet planted in Benyamin’s sack of food. Yosef then dispatched a posse to confront the brothers and “uncover” the planted goblet. The brothers were all brought back to Yosef, who demanded that the “thief,” Benyamin alone, remain behind as his slave.

something to think about

The War Of The Candles

The Bait Yosef famously asks why if there was enough oil for one day do we celebrate the Miracle of the Chanuka for eight days since only seven days were a miracle. One of the answers given is that the eighth day is in celebration for the victory in war. But this begs the question why do we celebrate the victory with a an extra light? Another issue that is unclear is what is the essence of the Chanukah Miracle, is it the war or the oil? In Al HaNissim we focus on the war but the Mitzva of Chanukah is all about the oil, so which is it?

The Netivot Shalom of Slonim explains that the defilement of the oil by the Yavanim(Greeks) was not incidental to the war, it was the main objective and at the heart of the war on Judaism. Before creation, only the light of Hashem existed. Creation meant Hashem creating a imitation-darkness, the appearance of space devoid of Hashem’s presence. Humanity is tasked with seeing the light of Hashem through the darkness, and Klal Yisroel is meant to lead the way. Since creation Bnei Yisroel’s mission has been to inject the light of Hashem into the world. “Yehi Ohr” ( Let There be Light) refers to the light of Hashem.

The Medrash says that the pasuk referring to the earliest stage of the world’s existence, “V’Choshech Al Pnei Sihom”, darkness upon the deep, refers to Yavan. Yavan is the opponent of Bnei Yisroel. Yavan’s philosophy has been to keep the light out. Greek culture worships nature and humanity believing that the created world is the end to itself and all that exists. It believes that we are all G-d and no power above and apart from us rules us. Yavan celebrates to power of man’s ability. Life is everything and death is the end. Greek culture is the ultimate darkness.

The Menora is the symbol of the light of Hashem in creation. It is the light that gives life to the Jewish nation. It is light, as Rabbis say, that enable us to see from one end of the world to the other, through all the darkness and beyond the distractions. It is this light that the Yevanim so desperately want to extinguish for it reveals the triviality, shallowness, and emptiness of their entire world. To play on a phrase of Rabbis we jump and they jump, we jump and soar past the Heavens while they jump and land flat on their face. We earn medals and they earn medals. Our medals gives us a piece of eternity far beyond the boundaries of this passing world while their medals hang on the wall and don’t follow them to their grave.

This Chanukah like we did over two thousand years we light our candles in the darkness under the threat of the Yevanim. May we all lighten up our own lives and stand tall and proud, appreciating the beauty of our ways and our tradition, filling up our days and lives with true substance. And just like the Chashmonaim who prevailed despite being outnumbered and overpowered by the forces of evil who stood shoulder to shoulder with the majority of Jews who joined their side, we too will succeed. A little light will cast away the darkest shadow and truth will reign supreme.

simcha corner

An elderly couple were killed in an accident and found themselves being given a tour of heaven by Angel. “Here is your Oceanside condo, over there are the tennis courts, swimming pool, and two golf courses. If you need any refreshments, just stop by any of the many bars located throughout the area.”

“Heck, Gloria,” the old man hissed when Angel walked off, “we could have been here ten years ago if you hadn’t heard about all that stupid oat bran, wheat germ, and low-fat diets!”