Parashat Mikeitz begins with the story of Pharaoh’s peculiar dream which Yosef correctly interpreted as foreseeing the onset of seven years of surplus which would be followed by seven years of harsh drought. Pharaoh first dreamt of seven large cows swallowing seven emaciated cows, and then of seven large sheaves of grain devouring seven lean sheaves. Yosef informed Pharaoh that both visions foresaw the same sequence of events – a seven-year period of prosperity that would be “devoured” by a seven-year period of shortage.
In describing Pharaoh’s first vision, of the cows, the Torah tells that after the seven large cows emerged from the river, “va-tir’ena ba-achu” (41:2) – they grazed “in the meadow.” What is the significance of this detail – that the large cows grazed in the meadow – to the dream and its prophetic message?
The Midrash (Tachuma Yashan) answers this question by reinterpreting the word “ba-achu” to mean “in harmony,” associating the word “achu” with the word “ach” (“brother”). (See Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch’s commentary, where he suggests connecting the conventional translation of “achu” – “meadow” – with the word “ach” by noting that “grass is a ‘social plant’ which as a rule never grows singly.”) According to the Midrash, the vision of seven large, well-fed cows grazing in a harmonious, “brotherly” fashion represents the peace and harmony that generally prevails during times of financial prosperity, as people are content and have no need to compete with one another for limited resources.
The classic commentators, however, offer explanations for the significance of this detail even according to the plain meaning of “ba-achu,” as referring to a meadow. The Radak writes that this was mentioned to emphasize that the cows found large quantities of pasture in which to graze. According to the Radak, this detail foreshadows the abundance of food that would characterize the seven surplus years. The Ramban explains differently, noting that the Torah makes a point of mentioning the whereabouts of the large cows after their emergence from the river, but not the whereabouts of the lean cows that followed them and then devoured them. This distinction, the Ramban proposes, perhaps indicated that the surplus would be experienced only in Egypt, whereas the drought struck the neighboring countries, as well. As the Ramban cites, the Torah later seems to stress that the prosperity of the seven surplus years was enjoyed specifically in Egypt (41:29,48). It is clear, however, that the famine struck the entire region, for the Torah states explicitly that people from other countries – including Yosef’s brothers from Canaan – came to Egypt to purchase grain (41:57). Therefore, the Ramban suggests, Pharaoh saw the seven large cows grazing together in one location, indicating that the surplus would be experienced only in one location – Egypt – whereas the lean cows scattered about, foreshadowing the lean years which would be felt throughout the entire region.
A different approach is taken by Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, who explains that Pharaoh saw the seven lean cows consuming all the pasture in the meadow, leaving nothing for the lean cows that followed. Cows, Rav Hirsch observes, are not cannibals, but the lean cows were forced to eat the other cows because there was no pasture left for them. And thus the dream presented not only a prediction of what would happen, but a sober warning to Pharaoh not to allow all the “pasture” to be depleted by the seven “large cows” – the years of surplus – and to instead store grain during the period of surplus in preparation for the “lean years” that would follow. This explanation of the dream answers the question asked by many as to why Yosef felt it appropriate to conclude his interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream by urging Pharaoh to appoint an official to store grain during the years of surplus. According to Rav Hirsch, this piece of advice actually constituted part of the interpretation of the dream, which specifically warned of the grave consequences of consuming all the “pasture” without putting some away for the years of shortage.