The Egyptian minister remembers the dream solver wasting away in prison and Pharaoh has Joseph brought to him. His clothing is changed and he gets a haircut so that he will presentable to be brought before the king. Pharaoh tells Joseph of his dreams, and we should probably focus a bit on what they were: In the first dream, he saw seven fat cows and seven skinny cows standing alongside each other. Afterwards, the seven skinny cows swallowed the seven fat ones. In the second dream, he saw seven healthy ears of grain and seven thin ones with the seven thin ones swallowing the seven healthy ones. The magicians, Egypt’s sages, failed in their attempts to explain the dreams, so Pharaoh asked Joseph, the Hebrew slave just now taken out of prison, for an explanation.
Brilliantly, Joseph solves the two dreams, explaining to Pharaoh that they both express the same message, with the second dream actually hinting at a solution to the first dream. The dreams, Joseph said, predict what is going to happen in Egypt in the near future: seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, with the seven years of famine being so severe that the seven years of plenty will be forgotten. Joseph did not suffice with this but added a practical suggestion for dealing with this future:
“So now, let Pharaoh seek out an understanding and wise man… and appoint officials over the land… And let them collect all the food of these coming good years… as a reserve for the land for the seven years of famine.”
(Genesis 41, 33-36)
Pharaoh enthusiastically accepts the explanation and the practical suggestion and calls out to his servants:
“Will we find [anyone] like this, a man in whom there is the spirit of God?”
(Ibid Ibid, 38)
He appoints Joseph as “assistant to the king.” Joseph rises to greatness and stays there until his death in old age, many years later.
What caused Pharaoh’s enthusiasm? And why weren’t the Egyptian magicians able to find the seemingly-simple solution that Joseph found for Pharaoh’s dreams? And, why did Joseph decide to make the suggestion he made for dealing with the implications of the dreams without even being asked to do so?
The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that the Egyptian sages did indeed consider the solution Joseph offered, but one detail in the dream led them to reject it: They didn’t understand why the skinny cows stood with the fat cows before swallowing them. This question led them to seek a different solution that would explain this detail as well. Pharaoh liked Joseph’s explanation precisely because he managed to reveal that the dream also contained a way of coping with its meaning: the cows that symbolized the years of famine stood next to the cows representing the years of plenty to show us that to cope with the famine, the Egyptians must plan ahead during the years of abundance by hoarding food for the future.
We can also learn something from Joseph’s explanation. The cyclical nature of abundance and famine is more than an ancient Egyptian story. It is a known human cycle familiar to each and every one of us in our own lives. Some might call this “days of love and days of hate,” but we do not need special terminology for this phenomenon. What does Joseph teach us? During good periods of time, we must remember that less-successful times might be ahead and we must prepare for them. Meeting challenges can be easier and better if we are prepared, if we nurture healthy and supportive relationships with others, if we strengthen our own spirituality and connection with G-d. That way, if we feel lonely, abandoned or unsuccessful, we will have the tools to cope and overcome.