Pharaoh dreams of seven fat healthy cows feeding by the river, which are devoured by seven sickly cows; then of seven full and healthy ears of corn devoured by seven thin ears of corn, in each case the devourers looked no fuller or healthier for what they had consumed. Joseph, the interpreter of dreams, is summoned from prison in order to explain the Pharaoh’s dreams.
They are, he announces, dreams of warning of what God is about to bring to Egypt; seven years of plenty will be followed by seven years of famine. There are two dreams because of the speed in which events will begin.
Joseph then goes further than his brief. He is brought to interpret the dreams, but having done so he adds to the narrative- a chutzpah that could have had terrible consequence
“Now therefore let Pharaoh look out a man discerning and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt. Let Pharaoh do this, and let him appoint overseers over the land, and take up the fifth part of the land of Egypt in the seven years of plenty. And let them gather all the food of these good years that come, and lay up corn under the hand of Pharaoh for food in the cities, and let them keep it. And the food shall be for a store to the land against the seven years of famine, which shall be in the land of Egypt; that the land perish not through the famine.”
But luckily Pharaoh is impressed. Having asked (rhetorically) if such a man can be found to fulfil this plan, he turns to Joseph and says: As God has shown you all this, there is none so discerning and wise as you. You shall be over my house, and according to your word shall all my people be ruled; only in the throne will I be greater than you.’ And Pharaoh said to Joseph: ‘See, I have set you over all the land of Egypt.’
The three qualities –da’at (knowledge), binah (discernment) and chochmah (wisdom) come together in this verse indicating that Joseph doesn’t just know what the dream is saying, but that he can imagine the devastation indicated and can formulate and carry out a plan to mitigate it.
The dreams tell the very worst scenario – not only will extended famine come after the good years, but it will consume every aspect of those good years, they will not be remembered or even be able to be imagined – so say the classical commentators noting that when the sickly cows/corn absorb the healthy ones, there is no increase in well-being, no noticeable change at all. The desolation will be so complete it will be as if there was never anything else.
But the intervention of Joseph, with his combined knowledge, discernment and wisdom, was enough to keep Egypt, and even the surrounding areas, fed in the years of famine. The all-consuming famine was survived by the people – albeit they lost control of their land to Pharaoh as the price they paid for their food.
The Maharal of Prague teaches that the solution to the problem of famine in the dream was itself provided in the dream. The fact that the sickly cows and corn absorbed their healthy counterparts was a key to resolving the oncoming disaster – because it taught that there must be work done in the first seven years that would enable the next seven to be survivable. For him preparation in the face of oncoming devastation would enable the people to survive. His teaching primarily addresses the lacunae in the text – why would Joseph overstep his position and offer a solution? How does Pharaoh know that his interpretation was correct, and recognise both the importance of his plan and the scale of his abilities? But the teaching gives us hope. We can prepare, we can begin to imagine and to mitigate the oncoming changes in our world. We can ensure that people have the resources to survive and sustain ourselves come what may.
In today’s world we once again face droughts and famines, as the global climate changes and watercourses dry up or rain washes away fertile soil. This is something we know, and we are beginning to understand the longer term consequences of much of our activity of the last century. We have both da’at and binah – knowledge and understanding. But is seems to me we have not yet taken on board the need for wisdom. Joseph had a plan that did not stop the famine, but did mean that no one went hungry – he was proactive rather than reactive. He could imagine the worst case and worked to avert it. It is a lesson – an a quality – we need to acquire quickly if we are not to be overwhelmed by our own environment.