A story is told about Elijah:
Once a rich man fell upon hard times and lost all his wealth. In order to support his family, he took a job as a manual laborer. One day Elijah appeared to him disguised as an Arab and said to him, "You are destined to enjoy seven good years of prosperity. Do you want them now or at the end of your life?" "You are a devil!" cried the man, and chased Elijah away.
Again Elijah appeared and repeated his offer. "You are a wizard!" cried the man, and chased him away. A third time he appeared, and this time the man said, "I shall ask my wife for advice."
She told him, "Ask for the good years now. For if we ask for them at the end of our lives, we will know our days are numbered as soon as good fortune comes to us." So he went back and told Elijah what his wife had said.
When he returned home that day, his children greeted him trembling with excitement and said, "Father, see what we found while we were digging under the large stone in our yard! A treasure!"
His wife said to him, "Let us use this gift wisely. If we share what we have with those less fortunate, perhaps God may grant us more good years."
And so for the next seven years, they opened their hands generously to the poor and performed many acts of charity. At the end of seven years, Elijah once again appeared to the man. "I have come to take back my pledge," he said.
"I asked my wife's advice the first time you appeared," the man told him. "Let me consult with her again." So he ran home and told his wife that the messenger had come to reclaim their fortune.
"Tell him," said his wife, "that if he can find two people who have used such a pledge more wisely than we, he can have it back."
Elijah searched the world over, but nowhere did he find two people with more generous hearts. So he never returned to reclaim his pledge. And they enjoyed prosperity and good health until a ripe old age.
(Midrash Zuta Ruth 4:11; Yalkut Shimoni II #607; English language sources: Bin Gurion III 1220-1223, retold in The Classic Tales: 4,000 Years of Jewish Lore, ed. Ellen Frankel [Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, Inc., 1989], pp. 585-586).
Seven is an important Jewish number. All of our important cycles come in sevens. Creation of course took seven days. Our agricultural cycles go in sevens—every seven years we are commanded to let the land rest, (the sh'mitah year, described in Leviticus 25:4). There were seven commandments given to Noah after the flood; these Noachide laws we believe were commanded to all people, Jew and non-Jew alike. And of course we have the tradition of shivah, "seven," that is, the seven days that include and follow a funeral as part of the mourning process (see Mark Washofsky, Jewish Living: A Guide to Contemporary Reform Practice, Revised Edition [New York:URJ Press, 2010], p. 194).
So it is not at all surprising that Joseph was able to interpret Pharaoh's dreams of sevens correctly. A nice Jewish boy like him would notice immediately that a dream of sevens is important. Seven is a complete cycle, from chaos to Shabbat, from growth to rest, from lawlessness to structure, and from the shock of death to the ability to get up from a low place and return to life.
Pharaoh's dreams involve cows and corn. First, he dreams of seven healthy cows being eaten by seven sickly cows. Then after waking, he dreams again, this time of stalks of corn; seven scorched and thin stalks of corn swallow seven healthy stalks of corn (Genesis 41:1-7). Upon waking, he asks his Egyptian wise men and magicians to interpret the dream, but none of them is able to, and so he is told of Joseph and his interpretation abilities.
Immediately, Joseph understands that the two dreams are the same; that is, they are sending the same message using different symbols. This might seem obvious to us, but then we know this story so well. One can imagine all different interpretations of cows and corn if we didn't already know the answer. Joseph understands is that this is not a personal dream; it is a dream that only a leader responsible for the welfare of his people could have. He also understands that God has set this series of events in motion, and there is nothing that can be done to change their course. All that can be done is to prepare for their inevitability (Genesis 41:25-32).
This story is so powerful and captures our imaginations I think because we all wish we could posses this kind of knowledge. To know ahead of time that abundance is coming and for exactly how long, would be very useful. It could make all the difference for retirement planning or paying for a college education. What would our lives be like if we regularly received this kind of foreknowledge of important changes that would come? What is also impressive about this story is that the information is used appropriately, perhaps even righteously. A different Pharaoh might have sold off the extra food in order to increase his personal wealth and done nothing to prepare for the famine that his people would face. But this Pharaoh prepares to care for his people. Perhaps we might even conclude that this information was granted to this Pharaoh, because he was the type of leader who would use it properly.
The family in the story is promised seven years of abundance as well. They use their abundance not just to plan for what will follow after the seven years, but to help the needy that surround them during the years of their wealth. They are rewarded for their righteous behavior with ongoing wealth.
Using the treasure for the benefit of others is a message that I think comes through loud and clear here. If we horde our riches and keep them close, they will come to an end. But if we use what we have been blessed with to help those around us in need, our blessings may just continue. May it be so for all of us!
Rabbi Elizabeth Dunsker serves as the rabbi for Congregation Kol Ami in Vancouver, Washington.