In the Midst of Plenty it is Possible to Starve

Man is a child of his environment - Shinichi Suzuki

Sometimes, you really can’t see the forest for the trees…

Awash in riches, it is not only possible but probable that one loses sight of value.  During Yosef’s lifetime, the Egyptians were so lost in their wealth and plenty that they were blind to the seven years of famine ahead.  Like the Egyptians, we are blinded by our own culture of “too much.”  We are a culture defined by our addictions – to our material wealth, to our smartphones, to our lascivious ways, to our alcohol, our drugs, our desire for status and recognition.

* * *

The concluding scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark depicts the Ark of the Covenant – the Ark of the Covenant – crated and being put into storage.  As the camera pans out, we see first a section of the storage area lined with the same crates, then multiple sections and finally a storage area the size of several football fields dotted with thousands upon thousands of crates until that one crate holding the Ark of the Covenant is rendered so small, so infinitesimally small, as to seem inconsequential.

Amidst so much of so much even the Ark of the Covenant is rendered small.  Though the scene is fictional, its lessons are powerful.  The first is how easy it is to lose sight of the value of the singular – whether the singular is a silver coin, a cotton shirt, a wedding band, or a human being – when we are awash in plenty.  When there is much, it is nearly impossible to value the “one.”  After all, there is “always another one” if something happens.  If I lose my iPhone, I can always get another.  If my marriage fails, I can always remarry.  Hah!  My next iPhone will be better, with more features!  So too my next marriage!

In the land of many, a single one loses meaning.  In the land of many, we just keep accumulating more and more until, “there was no number.”

The second lesson is that when one lives in an environment defined by “too much of too much” it is nearly impossible to have empathy with those who do not have enough.

This is, of course, our dilemma.  It is also the one faced by the Egyptians that only Yosef was wise enough to recognize and address.  Only Yosef was able to liberate himself from an environment that would not, could not let go.  Only Yosef was able to find the singular and the value that was seemingly lost.

* * *

What does it mean to be caught in the vortex of an environment that won’t “let go”?   To be a prisoner of an environment in which there are no “numbers”, no individuals; where morals and human decency and value are lost?  Certainly, an environment awash in virtual reality and gadgets defines such a place. The tyranny of the Internet, of social media and of our “smart” phones is unrelenting.  Do we control our environment, or does it control us?

Experts suggest that our addiction to our phones is making us “dumber,” making us “sadder and more alienated from one another.”  Our addiction to our phones is costing us sleep – and inviting all the negatives lack of sleep brings with it.  Young children using phones and devices show a delayed speech development.

Our phones increase our anxiety and depression.

And still we click away!

* * *

“Joseph amassed grain like the sand of the sea in great abundance until he ceased counting for there was no number.” (Bereishit 41:49)

The Torah teaches that the land of Egypt was overfilled with endless food during the seven years of abundance, just as Yosef’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream made clear. There was just so much.  Yosef’s wisdom was to gather grain during the times of plenty and store it, anticipating everyone’s need when famine gripped the land.

The Torah describes the grain amassed as being, “…like the sand of the sea in great abundance until he ceased counting for there was no number... “No number? Everything has a number.  You can have more and more and more, but at the end it can be counted. Why couldn’t all of this grain be counted?

Rashi suggests that, of course, the grain could be counted but that the person counting simply stopped counting because l’fi sh’ein mispar – there were no more numbers.  He’d run out of numbers!

Sforno has a different explanation, one that goes to the heart of numbers themselves.  He suggests that numbers allow us to better understand and grasp a group of diverse units, so that we may grasp their essence, and thereby deal or respond in an appropriate way.   After all, a person behaves differently with five people than he does with five hundred.  He feels differently with $1,000 in his pocket versus $10.

Even more, when a number is part of a larger group, it is understood and grasped differently. $500 is certainly a significant amount of money.  However, when it is part of $10,000,000 it no longer seems so important.  The difference between $10,000,000 and $10,000,500 is like coins lost in the sofa cushions.

So, says Sforno, was it in Egypt during the seven years of plenty.  There was so, so, so much that the amount of stored grain was beyond comprehension; assigning numbers became meaningless.  With so much grain, there was no point in counting, “for there was no number.”

The Maharshal cited by the Sifsei Chachamim adds that there was little point in continuing to count.  The numbers were so astronomical that the numbers became irrelevant.  What difference to count one more?

Sforno and Maharshal make clear that the Torah is not describing so much the overwhelming Egyptian harvest as their sense of abundance, as their being awash in the fullness of plenty.  It is only in this context that we can fully appreciate Yosef’s role in saving Egypt from its looming famine.

If we return in our parasha to when Yosef suggests, immediately after interpreting Pharaoh’s dream, that Pharaoh, “seek out a discerning and wise man and set him over the land of Egypt... and let him gather all the food of those approaching good years... The food will be a reserve for the land against the seven years of famine.. so that the land will not perish in the famine” (41:33-36) we find ourselves grappling with the crux of the issue.

Rav Yisrael Yaakov Lubchansky, the mashgiach in pre-World War II Yeshiva of Baranovitch, raises an interesting question (in Artscroll’s Limud Yomi, Vol. 3) about this episode.  When he considers Yosef’s suggestion to store grain against the coming famine, he asks, “Wouldn’t anyone with a bit of common sense suggest the same thing?”  Wouldn’t anyone, aware of the implications of Pharaoh’s dream, do the same thing?  Why then does Pharaoh need an ish navon v’chacham, a discerning and wise man?

Because, explains this venerated mashgiach, Yosef understood human nature and behavior.

For one who knows hunger and need, saving a little something for the next day when food might be even more scarce, is a reflex.  But for one already sated yet standing at a gourmet smorgasbord piled with more food than he could possibly even if he were to eat all night, saving a “little something” for breakfast the next morning is not even a passing thought.

Each of us thinks, reacts and responds based on the reality of our environment.  If one is wealthy, having more than he could ever need, then it is nearly impossible to imagine a time when he might be hungry.  Such a person cannot see or think or feel beyond his “great abundance” for which there is “no number”.  Suggest that such wealth or surplus will not last and you will be met with confusion and disbelief.

Yosef understood that during the seven years of abundance, it would be impossible to find Egyptians willing to consider anything beyond their “lavish smorgasbord.”   Indeed, it would be impossible to find an Egyptian willing to even hear that the feast might one day be over.  Put some away?  What?  Is that a joke?

To engage such a task and project required one willing and able to go against human nature, a “discerning and wise man.”  Such a man would have to overcome man’s tendency to be bound to the here and now; to be able to disconnect from the comforts of “too much” and be intelligent enough to listen to objective truth and respond accordingly; someone capable of seeing that the bubble is about to burst.

Imagine the catastrophe that would have befallen Egypt and the Egyptians were it not for the wisdom and discernment of Yosef, able to distant himself from the pleasures and comforts of the here and now and prepare for the challenges of the future.

Yosef’s wisdom was applicable not only for the Egypt of old, but for everyone living in the here and now.  How many are mired in their environment, thinking that the wealth will never run out, that the fun and games will never end?  How many cannot even imagine the day when their parents will no longer fund their lives and lifestyles?  How many cannot envision a world when teachers and rebbeim no longer mark the way forward?

It is time for wisdom and discernment.  The smorgasbord will not last forever.