Knowledge and Wisdom

The concluding scene in The 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 away, we see first a section of the storage area lined with crates, then multiple sections and finally a storage area the size of several football fields dotted with thousands upon thousands upon thousands of identical 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 can be diminished to insignificance. Though the scene is fictional, the lessons are powerful. The first is how easy it is to lose sight of the value of the singular – whether the singular is a coin, a 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, if there is “always another one” then the value of the one diminishes. Everything is replaceable. If my jacket is damaged, I can get another. If my washer and dryer malfunction, they can be replaced. After all, nothing lasts forever. If my marriage fails, I can always remarry.  Things and people, ideas and relationships – they are seemingly all replaceable. 

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.

Awash in riches, it is possible to lose sight of value which is exactly the condition the Egyptians found themselves in during Yosef’s lifetime, so lost in their ostentatious wealth that they were blind to the value of what they had and to the seven years of famine looming ahead. 

Only Yosef was wise enough to recognize and address the dilemma of the Egyptians. Only Yosef was able to find value in the singular.

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

No number? Everything has a number; everything can be quantified. While it is possible to have more and more and more even so that “more and more” never reaches the point of innumerability. Realistically and practically, at the end it can be counted.  That being the case, why couldn’t all this grain be counted?

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

He’d gotten tired of counting.

Sforno has a different explanation, one that goes to the heart of numbers themselves. He sets the stage by suggesting that numbers allow us to better understand 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 in a group of five than he does in a crowd of five hundred. 

Even more, when a number is part of a larger group, it is understood differently.  Standing alone, $500 is not an insignificant 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 akin to loose change lost in the sofa cushions.

That is, the actual value of the thing the numbers represent vanishes and, with it the utility of numbers themselves.

Sforno explains that this is how it was in Egypt during the seven years of plenty. There was so, so, so much that the amount of stored grain was beyond the human sensibility to count it; assigning numbers to the vast amount of grain 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 with amounts so astronomical counting became irrelevant. What difference to count one more?

Sforno and Maharshal make clear that the Torah is not describing so much the fact of the overwhelming Egyptian harvest so much as they are describing the Egyptians’ sense of overabundance. The people were swept up in the fullness of plenty and, as a result, were blind to the value of their riches. 

It is in this context that we can fully appreciate Yosef’s role in saving Egypt from its looming famine.

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 of abundance, counting and anticipating a time when there is no abundance.

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

Simply because, explained 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 reflexive. But, for one already sated yet standing at a gourmet smorgasbord piled with food rising to the ceiling, saving a “little something” for breakfast the next morning is, at best, a ridiculous trifle. 

Each of us thinks, reacts and responds based on our experience and 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 is awash in his “great abundance” for which there is “no number”.  The mere suggestion that such wealth or surplus could ever end is simply inconceivable. 

Yosef understood that during the seven years of abundance it would be impossible for Egyptians 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?

But now, this is no joke.  Yosef, in his interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream that there would be seven years of famine following the seven years of plenty, strongly suggests to Pharaoh that he appoint a man who is navon and chacham, discerning and wise, to oversee the preparations for the famine years. “Now let Pharaoh seek out a discerning and wise man and set him over the land of Egypt (41:33) 

Throughout Torah, chochmah, wisdom, refers to the possession of a body of knowledge, while binah, discernment and understanding, suggests an ability to use that knowledge to gain a deeper appreciation and grasp. First chochmah, and then binah so that one becomes a navon, one is meivin davar mi’toch davar – understanding further and deeper.

First, chochom then navon

Why then does Yosef reverse the order when explaining to Pharaoh the one needed to oversee this plenty/famine process?  To explain, Rav Dovid Feinstein zt’l taught that before Pharaoh’s dream there had never been a king who had faced his dilemma. This was a new event, all created by God to bring Yosef into sharper focus and power. Never had any nation had the opportunity to prepare for famine, for bad years. Even today, with our vast technology and communication advances, how many governments had a workable plan to address Covid-19?

Sadly, we have proven ourselves no different from the Egyptians. Like them, in our years of plenty, we have gorged ourselves, never really believing that the good times would ever end. Unlike the Egyptians, we certainly have had no Yosef to guide us through our shortsightedness. 

If not for Yosef, the Egyptians would have devoted their years of plenty to eating and eating, only to find themselves wholly unprepared when famine came. And why wouldn’t they? They’d had no precedent to what was coming! They’d had no experience to learn from, no chochma to build on!

Rav Dovid Zt’l explained that Yosef first had to build a body of knowledge, so they could understand and appreciate what was ahead of them. For such a task, he had to be a navon, a person of discernment and understanding who can make sense of it all, who can figure it out.  Only after such knowledge had come into being would it be possible to be a chochom

It would require a “discerning and wise man” to overcome the Egyptians’ human tendency to live in the “here and now” so that they would be prepared for what was to come; it would require a Yosef to raise the people from the wallowing in the comforts of “too much” so that they were ready for their difficult future.

Imagine the human catastrophe that would have ensued if not for Yosef’s intercession!

Yosef’s wisdom benefitted Egypt in days of old. We too could benefit from similar wisdom. Who among us, mired in our environment of plenty could envision that the fun and games might ever end? Who could imagine the day when his parents will no longer fund his comfortable lifestyle? Who could fathom a world when his teachers and rebbeim will no longer mark the way?

Who could have foreseen a pandemic?

As Covid has taught us, our world can turn on a dime. Only wisdom and discernment can protect us from the truth that that “smorgasbord” will not, cannot last forever; only wisdom and discernment can save us from catastrophe.