Friday, December 23, 2011

Fat Cows, Skinny Cows and the Struggle to Remember Miracles

When was the happiest day of your life? And then when did you forget it? No matter how great the day we have had, no matter how hard we try to hold on to the memories of abundance and joy, most of us forget our greatest days. Even if we remember a great day, it usually loses its luster after time, and we only retain ever fading images of those experiences.

In this week’s portion, Miketz, the Torah alludes to this phenomenon. Most of us know the story of Joseph interpreting the dreams of Pharaoh. Pharaoh dreams of seven healthy cows followed by seven lean cows. Joseph interprets this dream: There will be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of scarcity, and as such, the Egyptians need to store grain in order to make it through the lean years.

However, there is a part of that dream that I never really noticed: Not only do the ugly, thin cows follow the healthy ones, they also devour the the healthy ones. Barring some unfortunate trends in modern agriculture, cows usually don’t eat meat, and certainly don’t eat other cows. However, Rashi interprets this verse in an interesting way:

4. And the cows of ugly appearance and lean of flesh devoured the seven cows that were of handsome appearance and healthy; then Pharaoh awoke.
ד. וַתֹּאכַלְנָה הַפָּרוֹת רָעוֹת הַמַּרְאֶה וְדַקֹּת הַבָּשָׂר אֵת שֶׁבַע הַפָּרוֹת יְפֹת הַמַּרְאֶה וְהַבְּרִיאֹת וַיִּיקַץ פַּרְעֹה:

devoured: A sign that all the joy of the plenty will be forgotten during the days of the famine. ותאכלנה
סימן שתהא כל שמחת השובע נשכחת בימי הרעב:

Once the years of scarcity arise, the years of plenty are quickly forgotten. It is as if they never happened. There is something deep within our psyche that communicates the words of Janet Jackson: “What have you done for me lately?” Unfortunately, this propensity for focusing only on present problems and not on past blessings is the source of most of our misery.

We can all think of individuals in our lives, and certainly ourselves, who are incapable of appreciating what they have or have had. Constantly focusing on the negative, their positive memories are devoured by sadness, depression, and loneliness. Even as a country, we are living through and facing many lean years and we are realizing that we squandered our abundance, either literally through not saving money, or figuratively by not adequately savoring the goodness that we enjoyed.

This portion is particularly appropriate for Hanukkah, when we are commanded to persum et hanisa - to publicize the miracle of the oil lasting 8 nights. That is why if it is possible and safe, we are supposed to put our hanukkiot by our windows for everyone to see and remember. The second blessing that we recite over the candles forces us to remember that God did not only deliver miracles in those days, but bazman hazeh, in this time as well God bestows miracles Our lives, if we are living, are miracles in it of themselves. Most of us, enjoy copious blessings even beyond our physical survival.

There are times in our lives when years of scarcity force us to take stock of all the goodness in our lives and reevaluate all of the petty things that we have obsessed upon. There are other times when sadness consumes all of our good memories and feelings and obliterates them in our minds, hearts, and souls. This Hanukkah, and this week of parashat Miketz, let us focus on not letting our ugly cows consume our beautiful ones. Often we do not have a choice about whether or not we will have a plentiful year, but we always have a choice about how we react. Even when we are scared and afraid, we can still allow the memories of past goodness to survive and allow our gratitude to sustain us during times of despair.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Urim Sameach.