“Seven years of great abundance are coming throughout the land of Egypt, but seven years of famine will follow them. Then all the abundance in Egypt will be forgotten, and the famine will ravage the land.” — Genesis 41:29–30
The Torah portion for this week is Mikeitz, which means “at the end,” from Genesis 41:1–44:17, and the Haftorah is from 1 Kings 3:15–4:1.
Joseph got it exactly right when he interpreted Pharaoh’s two dreams. In the first dream, seven fat and beautiful cows were swallowed up by seven ugly and thin ones. In the second dream, seven full and healthy grains were consumed by seven withered ones. Joseph explained that both dreams had the same meaning: Egypt was to experience seven years of abundance and surplus, followed by seven years of famine.
Joseph added the following: “Then all the abundance in Egypt will be forgotten.” Like the thin cows that swallowed the fat ones and the withered grains that consumed the full ones, the years of famine would totally erase all the prosperity that had been before — to the point where no one would even remember it!
How is that possible? We all fall on hard times, but does that mean we forget the good parts of our lives? Hardly! But the Jewish sages explain that there is a difference between physical goodness and non-physical pleasures. The non-physical peaks in our lives stay with us forever, but material satisfaction is easily forgotten. No matter how amazing our material situation may be, it can be gone in one moment, both in reality and in memory.
Several years ago, when Superstorm Sandy was about to hit the Northeast, there were lots of dire predictions and solemn warnings. But one warning in particular sent shivers down my spine. It was from Ray Leonard, someone who had ridden out a similar storm on a fishing boat a decade earlier. His story was later made into a movie called “The Perfect Storm.” Having lived through a violent and relentless storm like the one the New York metropolitan area was expecting, reporters sought his advice.
This is what he said: “If this does hit, you’re going to lose all those little things you’ve spent the last 20 years feeling good about.” And indeed, many people did. People who had been materially successful for decades found themselves with only the clothing on their back, losing their homes, cars, and “all those little things.”
Sandy left behind a lot of damage, but also a few gifts. One of those gifts is the same message that Joseph gave to Egypt when he interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams. Materialism is so temporary, so fleeting, so breakable. On the other hand, non-material items like love, kindness, and faith – those prove invincible, stormproof, and life-giving.
So when given the choice, what is the better investment of our time and energy? Do we focus on material possessions, or those intangible gifts whose value will never depreciate or disappear?