Judaism: Miketz: Emotional Starvation
The Dream of Panic
Pharaoh dreamed that seven thin, unhealthy cows swallowed seven robust cows, but even after consuming the larger cows whole, the thin cows showed no signs of weight gain. Joseph interpreted the dream as a vision for the future. There would be seven years of plenty, followed by seven years of famine. The famine would be so intense that the years of plenty would be entirely forgotten.
The interpretation works well. The seven robust cows symbolize seven years of plenty and the seven thin cows represent seven years of famine. There is, however, one problem. Why did the thin cows swallow the robust cows and remain thin? If the dream was meant to imply a severe famine that would cause one to forget the years of plenty, the healthy cows could have become or even been replaced by sickly and thin cows, which would have imparted the same message. Why the swallowing?
In his commentary on this verse, Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno offered a deep psychological insight. This detail of the dream informed Pharaoh the famine would sow panic and desperation even among the wealthy who would lay in a plentiful supply of stores.
Our Rabbis taught that you cannot compare one who has bread in his basket to one who does not. They might enjoy identical meals, but the one who has nothing saved for tomorrow will panic with every bite, for each mouthful depletes his stores and carries him closer to the point of starvation. The one who has plenty stored away for the next day will eat with confidence for tomorrow there will be plenty more.
It is often not a matter of what we eat, but how we feel. If we are filled with dread, every mouthful is a form of torture. If we are filled with confidence every mouthful is bliss. The time would come when the entire region would be in famine, but Egypt would have plenty. People would stream from all over the region to purchase food, yet Egyptians would not be content. They would not escape the wrath of the famine for with each bite they would worry that tomorrow they might join the ranks of the hungry.
Knowing where tomorrow’s bread comes from does wonders for our state of mind. Not knowing shatters our equilibrium and gives us no rest.Pharaoh’s dream of unhealthy cows swallowing healthy cows but showing no sign of weight gain informed him that he would gain no satisfaction from his own stores. He would suffer emotional starvation and come to hate mealtime with a passion.
Imagine a dialog between an Egyptian family with plenty and a family from a starving country. The Egyptian family might moan about the desperation they feel with every bite, but the visiting family wouldn’t be able to relate to this problem. If we had that kind of food they would say, we would have no problem, yet you have all this food and complain?
Can you imagine a scenario in which you are surrounded by luxury, but feel desperate and deprived? It is the ultimate irony. You have everything and enjoy nothing. In fact, you might be better off with poverty than a wealth that haunts and taunts you. It is impossible to relate to such difficulty when you are surrounded by real problems. When your children are hungry and you have nothing to feed them, you wish for the kind of problems the Egyptian family experienced. Yet from the Egyptian’s standpoint the problem was real. It couldn’t be dismissed merely because others had more serious problems.
Thankfully we live in a region that sees little in the way of famine. We have developed irrigation, production and preservation systems that allow people to survive droughts and enhance crop survival. We don’t suffer many food famines, but emotional starvation is still common.
The unhealthy cows swallowed the healthy cows but gained nothing from it. How often do you encounter an aggressive personality who loves to dominate? Such a person feels compelled to make every decision and control every exchange. If someone stands up to them they tear into them and figuratively eat them alive. Having swallowed each of their challengers and even many of their supporters such people appear to be invincible, but they often feel weak and beleaguered.
You see, very few people tear into others because they are strong and seek control. They often do these things because they are lacking self esteem and suffer emotional starvation. They might perceive almost any exchange as a slight and convince themselves that others are poised to attack them. They put up a brave front and strong attack precisely because they feel vulnerable. Others want to swallow them alive and they have no choice, but to swallow first.
They swallow their perceived attackers, but show no signs of gain. They seem to have gained an advantage, but in their poor minds there is only bitterness and resentment. They feel perpetually victimized by the people they destroy. They just emasculated an innocent bystander, but in their minds they were abused because they perceived him as a threat and were forced to act in self protection. They prevailed, but gained no emotional satisfaction from it; they remain tortured by the perception that they were attacked. It is the height of irony. They are the strongest in the group, but in their minds, the weakest.
Of course it is all in the mind. Had they realized that there is no threat and that they are not in danger they would be able to relax and enjoy. Alas, unless they seek extensive professional therapy, it is not within our power to change that. What we can change is our reaction.
When we realize where they come from, we are able to respond from a healthy standpoint of strength. Rather than responding in anger and from hurt, we respond with confidence. We stand up to the bullying behavior with vigor and stop the attacks, but with compassion, not anger, and for solution, not revenge. The poor fellow is a walking, talking emotional famine victim suffering from emotional starvation. Standing up to such people with loving strength and positive regard is a healthy response for us and beneficial to them as well.