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B'resheet/Genesis 41:4 ... and the cows that were ugly in appearance ... ate the seven cows that were beautiful in appearance ...
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Rashi and Ramban differ over their interpretation of this verse. The text comes from the "narrator text" at the beginning of this story segment that tells us that Pharaoh had two consecutive dreams and what those dreams were. Pharaoh relates the dreams to the court magicians without it appearing in the text but then later (verses 17-24) relates them again to Yosef in full, with some subtle changes and additions. Rashi simply comments: "This is a sign that all the joy of abundance would be forgotten in the days of the famine", which appears to be relating more to the emotional impact of the famine than to the physical impact. Ramban, on the other hand, seeming to be more concerned with the physical process and explicitly disagreeing with Rashi's comment which he obviously has before him, opines that "this is a sign that the years of famine shall consume the years of plenty ... they served them for subsistence only, for had they not eaten them they would have died in their lean state." By the time Pharaoh tells Yosef about the dreams, he adds the phrase "when they had consumed them, one could not tell that they had consumed them, for they looked just as bad as before" (v. 21, JPS) which supports both proposals.
TheSforno, commenting on the previous verse, points out that both sets of cows stood next to each other for a period before the thin cows ate the fat cows, "symbolising that for a period of time there would be both famine and plenty, as we find, 'the seven years of famine set in, just as Yosef had foretold. There was famine in all lands, but throughout the land of Egypt there was bread' (v. 54, JPS)." All the other nations felt the effect of the famine immediately, but the Egyptians had the stored up food to fall back on so that the phrase "when the famine became severe in the land of Egypt, Joseph laid open all that was within, and rationed out grain to the Egyptians" (v.56, JPS) only comes some way into the seven years of famine. The Egyptians were shielded from the effects of the famine altogether for some time and only then had to resort to the stored food rations.
G-d often blesses us with times of plenty and provision, when food, money, resources and even leisure seem to be in abundance. This can be followed by times of want and shortage, when those same qualities seem to be in very short supply. When the harder times come, it can be easy to blame G-d for depriving us of the standard of living we have come to expect, even to become bitter and think that G-d has forgotten us. Rav Sha'ul knew the secret of these alternate challenges: "as far as I am concerned, I have learned to be content regardless of circumstances. I know what it is to be in want, and I know what it is to have more than enough - in everything and in every way I have learned the secret of being full and being hungry, of having abundance and being in need" (Philippians 4:11-12, CJB); contentment, knowing that everything is in the hand of G-d and that He "causes everything to work together for the good of those who love G-d and are called in accordance with his purpose" (Romans 8:28, CJB).
The writer of the book of Lamentations, weeping after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Babylonians, says, "I am the man who has seen affliction under the rod of His wrath; He has driven and brought me into darkness without any light; surely against me He turns His hand again and again the whole day long. He has made my flesh and my skin waste away; He has broken my bones; He has besieged and enveloped me with bitterness and tribulation; He has made me dwell in darkness like the dead of long ago" (Lamentations 3:1-6, ESV). The Midrash turns this apparent cry of despair into an affirmation of the sovereignty and goodness of G-d: "Rabbi Joshua of Siknin said in the name of Rabbi Levi: I AM THE MAN: [The Community of Israel said:] I am indeed experienced in sufferings; what pleases You is beneficial to me!" (Lamentations Rabbah 3:1) In spite of the destruction, G-d's hand was still upon Israel and the very act of the destruction is taken as a sign both of the continued existence of G-d and of His involvement with His people. The writer to the Hebrews makes the same point: "It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?" (Hebrew 12:7, ESV) No discipline, no relationship; no famine, no opportunity to experience G-d's provision.
How we respond to the challenges that G-d sets before us is key. Rav Sha'ul spoke about his sufferings for the sake of the gospel: "In my many travels I have been exposed to danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the desert, danger at sea, danger from false brothers. I have toiled and endured hardship, often not had enough sleep, been hungry and thirsty, frequently gone without food, been cold and naked" (2 Corinthians 11:26-27, CJB), yet is content to rest in G-d; he sees all these trials as opportunities for G-d to excel; he even boasts of his weaknesses so that G-d may be glorified. Sha'ul's attitude is positive and he is determined to see G-d build upon and use the circumstances to advance the gospel.
The writer to the Hebrews, however, warns us about the opposite position: "See to it that no one misses out on God's grace, that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble and thus contaminates many" (Hebrews 12:15, CJB). If we allow we allow bitterness to creep in, accusing G-d of not treating us fairly, it will destroy our faith and relationship with Him. More than that, it will affect those around us who will sense our bitterness and become disillusioned because of our witness. Make no mistake, no matter how much G-d has blessed us in the past, no matter how good our testimony to His goodness has been, that can be completely eaten up and destroyed by the bitterness of the present so that nothing remains.
Whether in a time of feast or famine, we must remember that G-d is committed to providing for our needs; not all our wants, mind, but our needs, as Yeshua said: "Therefore do not be anxious, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you" (Matthew 6:31-33, CJB). We have to focus our attention clearly upon G-d's promises, upon Yeshua our Messiah and remember Rav Sha'uls's advice, "if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content" (1 Timothy 6:8, CJB). Today's surplus will cover tomorrow's shortfall, yesterday's left-overs make today's lunch, while we bless G-d for His provision, content and secure in His love.
Further Study: Psalm 37:16; Luke 3:10-14; 2 Corinthians 12:10
Application: Are you feeling anxious about a change in your circumstances, or have recently been laid off or made redundant in this difficult financial climate? One way or another, G-d will get you through, with an even greater testimony for Him, if you'll let Him. Trust Him and move forward today!
© Jonathan Allen, 2010
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