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I've often reflected on the lack of tact that some people demonstrate when visiting a house of mourning. Of course, nobody means to be insensitive. No one consciously sets out to further hurt the feelings of the newly bereaved, and I'm positive that if people just thought a bit deeper about what they were going to say, they'd never make such obvious errors of tact.
Some things are obvious: Don't stride in and announce to all present the latest mazal tov in your family. Don't sit on the side, ignoring the mourner while chatting and giggling with a friend. Don't spend your visit minimizing the mourner’s loss by comparing this family tragedy with the losses you've personally suffered in the past.
The Seven Fat Cows
And, behold, from the River there come up seven cows, beautiful and healthy; and they grazed in the marshland (Genesis 41:2).
Fat Cow #1: the economy.
Fat Cow #2: freedom and democracy.
Fat Cow #3: modern technology (the automobile, electric can openers, the Internet).
Fat Cow #4: modern medicine (brain surgery, Prozac, tinted contact lenses).
Fat Cow #5: American Jewry (Albert Einstein, Steven Spielberg, Joe Lieberman).
Fat Cow #6: the political state of the nation (Jews living in the Jewish homeland under Jewish rule, etc.)
Fat Cow #7: the spiritual state of the nation (an abundance of Yeshivahs, synagogues, community centers, Parshah classes, Talmud classes, Kabbalah classes, rabbis, rebbes and gurus as never before).
And, behold, seven other cows come up after them out of the River, ugly and lean of flesh; and they stood by the other cows upon the bank of the River (Genesis 41:3).
Lean Cow #1: the economy.
Lean Cow #2: freedom and democracy.
Lean Cow #3: modern technology.
Lean Cow #4: healthcare in this 21st century.
Lean Cow #5: American Jewry.
Lean Cow #6: the political state of the nation.
Lean Cow #7: the spiritual state of the nation.
An important but much-overlooked detail of Pharaoh’s famous dream is the fact that the seven lean cows stood side-by-side with the seven fat cows on the bank of the river. In other words, all fourteen cows existed simultaneously in Pharaoh’s dream -- unlike in reality, in which the seven years of famine came after the seven years of plenty were over.
This is why Pharaoh’s wise men, who thought up all kinds of exotic interpretations to his dream (e.g., “seven daughters will be born to you, and seven daughters will die”), did not accept the solution staring them in the face. When are cows fat? When there’s been a plentiful harvest! And when are they lean? When there’s famine. Ditto with the fat and lean ears of corn. What could be more obvious?
But Pharaoh saw the fat and lean cows grazing together. You don’t have years of plenty and years of famine at the same time, said the wise men. The dreams must mean something else -- something less obvious, more metaphorical.
Joseph’s genius was that he understood that Pharaoh’s dreams not only foretold events to come, but also instructed how to deal with them: they were telling Pharaoh to make the seven years of plenty coexist with the seven years of famine. When Joseph proceeded to tell Pharaoh how to prepare for the coming famine, he wasn’t offering unasked-for advice; that advice was part of the dreams’ interpretation. If you store the surplus grain from the plentiful years, Joseph was saying, then the seven fat cows will still be around when the seven lean cows emerge from the river -- and the lean cows will have what to eat.
The Chassidic masters note that the first galut (“exile”) of the Jewish people came about in a haze of dreams. Joseph’s dreams, the baker and the butler’s dreams and Pharaoh’s dreams brought Joseph, and then his entire family, to Egypt, where they were to suffer exile, enslavement and persecution until their liberation by Moses more than two centuries later. Jacob’s own earlier exile to Charan likewise began and ended with dreams.
For galut is a dream: a state of existence rife with muddled metaphors, horrific exaggerations and logical impossibilities. A state in which fat and lean cows exist simultaneously -- in which a cow can even be simultaneously fat and lean.
Galut is a place where a thriving economy is both a blessing and a curse, where the rising tide of freedom unleashes the best and the worst in man, where a globe-girdling Web conveys wisdom and filth, where we’re saturated in spirituality and spiritually impoverished at the same time.
But there’s a way to deal with this cosmic mess. Listen to Joseph speak (even Pharaoh recognizes good advice when he sees it). Don’t run away from the dream, says Joseph; don’t look for some other meaning. Use it. If galut presents you with the paradox of the fat cow and the lean cow grazing together on the bank of the river, use the fat cow to nourish the lean cow. Make the dream the solution.
Up The Mountain
In the Parshah of Vayeishev we read how Tamar, Judah's daughter-in-law, was informed that Judah was about to come to the town of Timna to shear his sheep. In the words of the Torah: "And it was related to Tamar saying: 'Behold, your father-in-law is coming up to Timna to shear his flocks.'"
The Torah does not detail the nature of a person's going and coming if not absolutely germane to the content of the narrative. For example, though Abraham was taking his son Isaac up a mountain (in the story of the Akeda) the verse simply says "And he went to the place etc." and again "And he came to the place." Why then, does the verse specify the ascent, " ... is coming up to Timna ..." in the story of Tamar?