By Bettijane Eisenpreis
“After two years’ time, Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing by the Nile, when out of the Nile came seven cows, handsome and sturdy, and they grazed in the reed grass. But presently, seven other cows came up from the Nile close behind them, ugly and gaunt…. And the ugly cows ate up the handsome sturdy cows.”
In Pharaoh’s dream, not only do the skinny cows eat up the fat cows but the wasted corn consumes the healthy corn. Pharaoh can’t figure out what it means, nor can his soothsayers. So they drag Joseph out of the dungeon where he has been confined; they dress him up respectably and get him to interpret the dream.
He tells Pharaoh that Egypt will have seven years of prosperity, followed by seven years of famine. And being a nice Jewish boy with what my grandmother would have called a “Yiddische kopf”, a Jewish head on his shoulders, he suggests a system of storing grain for the future. Pharaoh rewards him with wealth and power and everyone lives happily ever after. At least for now. What happens with Joseph’s brothers and father comes a little later.
An important element in this story is the number seven (shiva in Hebrew). The sages tell us that nothing in the Torah is there by accident. Some say it was all written by Moses, taking dictation directly from God. Others, including most Reform Jews, believe it was written by divinely inspired people. In any case, its words are important. So why the number seven?
Numbers have special significance in Jewish lore. The letters of the Hebrew alphabet are also the numbers – alef is one, bet two and so on. While the study of kabbalah, that mystical discipline that puts great value in gematria, the study of the numerical value of words, was traditionally restricted to a select group of scholars and seen as somewhat dangerous for the average person, all Jews value certain numbers or combinations of numbers. The letters chet and vav, which spell “chai” for “life,” make up the number 18. My non-Jewish neighbors are always grateful when I volunteer to collect money for some worthy cause. They are somewhat puzzled, however, when I turn in the proceeds, including donations of $18, $36 or $72 – chai or its multiples. But I get money, so they don’t complain.
Let’s look for a moment at the number seven, or shiva. The Bible tells us that God created the heaven and the earth in six days and rested on the seventh. Therefore, the Fourth Commandment tells us to “Remember the Sabbath (Seventh) Day and keep it holy.” The Sabbath is considered our holiest day, more important than the so-called High Holy Days. Even those who may not worship in the traditional sense find it helpful to take a break once a week. So, no matter who you are, the number seven should mean rest, refreshment and a sense of peace.
On the other hand, seven (shiva) is the number of days traditional Jews sit in the house of mourning. So maybe seven isn’t a lucky number? I’m not so sure. While I don’t define it as “lucky,” I have always seen great wisdom in the way our tradition treats death. The traditional Jew acknowledges that death is an inevitable part of life. For seven days, he or she mourns the passing of the loved one, surrounded by friends and neighbors who tend to every need. After seven days, however, the mourner is obliged to leave the house, whether or not he or she wishes to, and walk outside. Sad though it might have been, that seven-day period has given her or him time to remember the loved one and at the same time gather strength to go on with life.
Is seven a lucky number for Joseph, or does he make his own luck? I think the answer is both. Joseph is certainly divinely inspired. He changes from a callous boy in the early part of the story to a mature, thoughtful man who humbly acknowledges the influence of God in his dreams. Still, he is no mere pawn. He is lucky, and he takes advantage of that luck. Certainly, the number seven plays a role in this story; how much of a role is hard to tell.
And on that note, I say, “Good Shabbos.”