Being content with one’s lot

Being content with one’s lot

Miketz | Genesis 41:1-44:17

Pharaoh dreams of seven lean cows devouring seven fat cows and seven thin ears of grain consuming seven healthy ears.  He is disturbed by his dreams, but none of his magicians can interpret them.  The chief cupbearer now remembers Joseph and his ability to interpret dreams.  Pharaoh sends for Joseph, who tells him that his dreams are God’s way of informing Pharaoh about seven years of abundance to be followed by seven years of famine.

The parasha begins, “After two years’ time, Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing by the Nile, when out of the Nile there came up seven cows, handsome and sturdy, and they grazed in the reed grass.”  Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040-1105, France) has an interesting take on this description of the cows: “Handsome” — this is a sign of the days of plenty when creatures appear pleasing to each other, for the eye of one creature is not envious of the other.

A similar idea appears in the Tanchuma (an early collection of midrashim):  They grazed in the reed grass [ba-ahu]. What is “ba-ahu”?  “Ba-achava” — in brotherhood, for when the good years come creatures become brothers one to another, and when the bad years come, creatures become strangers to their fellows; then they would look at each other and turn their faces away.  

Really?  Does envy disappear in times of prosperity?  The implication is that enmity, envy, and hatred are caused by poverty.  Is that true?  Do most people who have enough to meet their needs and then some treat others as brothers?

It would be nice to think so, but too often the headlines tell another story.  Someone is assaulted or murdered for his fancy athletic shoes or cell phone.  Well-off professionals and elected officials defraud the government.  People cheat on their taxes, their insurance claims, and the descriptions of the goods and services they provide.  It’s a rare, perhaps nonexistent, week when the news is about brotherhood and goodwill.

The Hafetz Hayim (Rabbi Israel Meir HaKohen, 1835-1933, Poland) draws a lesson from parashat Vayishlach, in which Jacob, upon returning home from 20 years away, sends magnificent gifts to his brother. Esau said, “I have much”…but Jacob said, “I have everything.” (B’reishit 33:9-11) The Hafetz Hayim commented that with these two remarks we see the difference in worldview between Jacob and Esau.  Esau said he had a lot.  Even though he had a large amount, he would still want more, for whoever had a hundred wants two hundred.  Jacob, however, said, “I have everything.”  He was not missing anything at all.  Esau constantly wanted more while Jacob felt great satisfaction in what
he had.

Gordon Gecko in “Wall Street” notwithstanding, greed is not good.  Even if envy of others doesn’t lead one to hatred, crime, and violence, it does lead to bitterness.  And so, the final word belongs to Ben Zoma in Pirkei Avot:  Who is rich?  One who is happy with his portion.

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