When times are dark, why does it feel like no light ever existed? Depression seems to blot out all glimmers of happiness and makes you feel like that is all that ever was or will be.
In our Torah portion Pharoh tells Joseph of his ominous dream:
Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “In my dream, I was standing on the bank of the Nile, out of the Nile came up seven sturdy and well-formed cows and grazed in the reed grass. Presently there followed them seven other cows, scrawny, ill-formed, and emaciated—never had I seen their likes for ugliness in all the land of Egypt! And the seven lean and ugly cows ate up the first seven cows, the sturdy ones; but when they had consumed them, one could not tell that they had consumed them, for they looked just as bad as before. And I awoke.Gen 41:17-21
Why were the skinny cows just as skinny after they had eaten the healthy cows? Shouldn’t they have gained at least some weight, to reflect the healthy cows that were in their past?
Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair says that this dream is an allusion to depression. When Pharoh foresaw bad times, he perceived that they totally engulfed any good and left no hope at all. This is why his dream terrified him so. He understood even before Joseph explained his dream, that this vision was indicating horrendous disaster on the horizon.
One of the things that impressed Pharoh about Joseph’s interpretation of the dream though, was that Joseph explained things based on Pharoh’s actual dream, which was slightly different from what Pharoh said over to Joseph. In the beginning of our Torah portion, the Torah relates Pharoh’s actual dream, and there, there is no mention of the skinny cows looking exactly the same after eating the healthy cows.
Why is that detail important? Because Joseph’s solution is to leverage the healthy cows (the 7 years of prosperity) to help fix the skinny cows (the 7 years of famine). Egypt could take the good times to fill granaries and prepare for the dark days, so that when they did arrive, it would not be as if they had stumbled into them with no recourse.
Pharoh looked at good times as things that should just be consumed in full, without thought of the future. A sort of reckless hedonism. That’s why his perception of the bad times is that there would be nothing that could save him. Joseph merely shifted that frame of mind to one of preparation. To enjoy the good times, but also find a way to set some of that good aside for a rainy day.
This was also key to the miracle of Chanukah. A previous Cohen Gadol had set aside a jug of pure oil and sealed it with his mark. When the dark days came when nearly the entire Temple was despoiled, that one jug of oil was used to create much more light than it should have been able to.
Everyone has dark days, but also days of light. Don’t forget to use the times of light to build lasting things, like friendships and community, so when the dark times come, they are there to support you. Your preparation can help you, like it helped Joseph to overcome a famine. Like it helped the Macabees bring back light to God’s Holy Place.
Rabbi A and the JET Team