“And Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘In my dream, I am standing on the bank of the River. And, behold, there come out of the River seven cows…'”—Genesis 41:17-18.
This week’s portion opens with the story of Pharaoh’s two dreams: first, seven fat cows swallowed by seven skinny ones, and then, seven healthy stalks consumed by seven withered ones. Joseph, who is released from prison in order to interpret these dreams for Pharaoh, himself dreamed two dreams described in the beginning of last week’s portion. In Joseph’s first dream, he and his brothers are working in the field bundling sheaves and in the second one, Joseph sees the sun, moon and stars bowing to him. A comparison between Joseph’s dreams and those of Pharaoh brings to light the essential difference between holiness and negativity as represented by Joseph and Pharaoh, respectively.
A comparison between Joseph’s dreams and those of Pharaoh brings to light the essential difference between holiness and negativityJoseph’s dreams begin with toil and labor: “We were bundling sheaves in the field.” (Genesis 37:7) Pharaoh’s dreams, on the other hand, have no mention of work at all. In his dreams, the cows and the stalks, both representing bounty and sustenance, simply rise by themselves out of the Nile. The underlying difference is that any gain stemming from the realm of holiness must begin with work, whereas all sustenance provided by the side of negativity comes without toil. The true good that G‑d wishes to give us must be earned, for it is a complete and perfect good. Thus, were G‑d to grant us ‘bread of shame’ (the kabbalistic term for unearned largess), the goodness He wishes to give us would be lacking in that we would be robbed of our dignity.
The realm of unholiness, however, is not concerned with our well-being and, thus, freely dispenses all kinds of quick and easy pleasures. This degradation is then later compounded by bitter disappointment as well, for all that the realm of unholiness bequeaths is hollow and fleeting.
There’s an old saying, “How do you know the difference between a weed and a flower? If you tear it out and it grows back by itself, it’s a weed. If not, it’s a flower.” That which comes without work rapidly develops beyond control, choking the life out of the very one who allowed it to grow. The fruits of real labor, however, are enduring and cherished.
Of course, we alcoholics and addicts know all too well how fast and easy payoffs come back to haunt us. But this pertains not only to our drinking days but to our recovery as well. Being a gift from G‑d, sobriety is true good and thus requires real work. There is no “easier softer way” to come by a gift as precious and holy as spiritual, mental and emotional healing.
There’s an old Hasidic parable about a man who brings his young son to the river in the middle of the winter to engage in the mystical practice of purifying immersion in water. The man cracks the ice with an axe then lowers the boy into the freezing water. The boy shrieks, “Eek!” The father pulls the boy up, wraps him in a blanket and the boy sighs, “Ah.”
“Anything in life that starts with an ‘ah,’ will certainly end with an ‘eek'”“Let this be a lesson to you, my son,” says the father, “immersing in the water is a holy ritual and so it starts with an ‘eek’ but ends with an ‘ah.’ Anything in life that starts with an ‘ah,’ is certainly not holy and will just as certainly end with an ‘eek.'”
This same idea is also expressed by the trajectory of the dreams of Joseph and Pharaoh. Joseph’s dreams begin in the field and end in the heavens with the sun and the moon and stars. There is a progression from the earthly to the celestial, an ascent. Pharaoh’s dreams begin with cows – from the animal kingdom – and then a lower form of life, stalks of grain – from the vegetable kingdom. Furthermore, in both of his dreams, Pharaoh first saw the healthy cows or stalks and then the poor ones with the good ultimately being swallowed by the bad. There is a terrible descent in both vitality and health. Negativity has no real staying power. It is always in a course of decay. Any appearance of it having substance is but a show, set up to lure man into taking its bait. The realm of holiness, however, is eternal. Any changes within it are only in a manner of increase and ascent from level to level.
Our relationship with alcohol begins with it giving us much for very little but regresses exponentially until giving us less and less for a more and more of a price. Recovery, in contrast, makes hefty demands from the outset but grows increasingly precious as the days go on.