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And the cows of the poor appearance and thin flesh ate the seven healthy cows of beautiful appearance and Paroah awoke. (Bereishis 41:4)

 

And the seven thin ears swallowed up the seven healthy and full ears and Paroah awoke and behold it was a dream. (Bereishis 41:7)

 

Many commentators ask: Yosef was instructed to interpret Paroah's dreams, yet, Yosef, in addition to providing his interpretation also offered advice on how to deal with the oncoming famine. How could Yosef, who was just a prisoner, authorize himself to give advice, something usually reserved only for the elite members of the cabinet. Perhaps the answer is that the advice was also part of the interpretation.

 

Let us explain.

 

When analyzing Paroah's dreams it emerges that there are four key parts. 1) The seven robust cows; 2) the seven poor cows; 3) the seven full ears of grain; and 4) the seven poor ears of grain. A simple reading of the posukim indicates that Yosef told Paroah that both the seven good cows and seven good ears of grain represent the same seven years of plenty. Likewise, the seven poor cows and seven poor ears of grain represent the seven years of famine that would consume all the good of the seven years of plenty. If we take a closer look however, it is not so simple. With regard to the seven poor cows the posuk states that they "ate" the seven good cows. With regard to the seven lean stalks the posuk states that they "swallowed" the seven full stalks. Why the difference?

 

First, we must explain the difference between eating and consuming. Eating connotes gradual consumption whereas swallowing connotes a sudden devouring. When dealing with oncoming problems, it is a great advantage if the problem arrives gradually. The affected person can see the problem in stages and is given a chance to deal with it little by little. Even if the problem is to eventually overcome the individual he at least has time to adjust. However, if the problem would overtake him suddenly, the impact would be overwhelming and the suddenness might be too difficult to bear.

 

With regard the seven good cows and the seven good ears of grain Yosef explicitly stated that they represent the same seven good years. The posuk reads "the dream of Paroah, it is one." But with regard to the seven poor cows and the seven poor ears of grain, Yosef does not state that they are the same. Yosef says that the seven poor cows represent "seven years" whereas the seven poor ears of grain represent "seven years of famine." From where did Yosef derive this distinction? The answer lies in the difference between eating and swallowing. When the years will be similar to the poor cows eating the good cows it will be considered just seven years. True, the years will be poor and emaciated like the cows, but the word "famine" is omitted. Since the famine will come like "eating" i.e., gradually, the population will be able to deal with it in stages and have time to adjust. However, in contrast, when the posuk says that the seven poor stalks will consume the seven good ears, there it refers to them as "seven years of famine." Since it will come like "swallowing," i.e., suddenly, the problem will be too difficult to deal with and the effects will be severe. This genre of years will indeed be "seven years of famine."

 

It emerges that Paroah dreamed two conflicting dreams with regard to the famine: the sudden famine, and the gradual famine. But, which one is the correct version? Yosef concluded that by default the sudden famine would come however Hashem is informing Paroah now in order to give him an opportunity to prepare and thus reduce the effect from sudden to gradual.

 

This answers our original question of why Yosef advised Paroah what to do. The advice was not his own, but part of the interpretation of the dream.

 

This interpretation comports well with the Torah's report of what actually happened. When the famine arrived, the posuk differentiates between the land in general which included other lands outside mitzrayim and mitzrayim itself. The posuk states "The seven years of famine began approaching just as Yosef had said; and there was famine in all the lands, but in the land of mitzrayim there was bread." Only later did the famine begin to affect Egypt as it says in the next posuk "all the land of mitzrayim hungered, and the people cried to Paroah for bread." Mitzrayim prepared all the good years by storing grain. When the famine begun, the citizens knew that food was available, the question was only what they would have to do to get it. Mitzrayim had plans on how to deal with the famine and thus the crisis was under control to some extent. However, the other lands were not prepared at all and for them the effect of the famine was devastating. Therefore the posuk distinguishes between mitzrayim and all the other lands.

 

We see here an example of Hashem preparing the medicine before inflicting the wound. Although Hashem informed Paroah that there would be a devastating famine, He also informed him that he now has a chance to prepare and thus reduce its effects. A second message we derive is that even with real problems, if we are able to deal with them, they are not called problems. Here we have two dreams referring to the same difficult seven years. Only when the crisis is sudden and we are likely to be prevented from having the ability to cope with it is it called "seven years of famine." But when they are gradual and we are able to adjust and deal with it they are called only "seven years."