Parashat Mikeitz begins with the famous story of Pharaoh’s unusual dreams and his quest for a satisfying interpretation, which was finally provided by Yosef, who was brought out of prison for the purpose of interpreting the king’s dreams. Yosef prophetically informed Pharaoh that the images he beheld – seven lean cows devouring seven healthy cows, and seven lean sheaves of grain devouring seven large sheaves – foreshadowed a seven-year period of surplus, which would be followed by seven years of harsh drought. Yosef then advised Pharaoh to appoint an official to oversee and enforce the storage of grain during the seven years of surplus, to ensure the country’s survival during the ensuing period of drought (41:33-36). Many commentators raised the question of why Yosef allowed himself the right to advise Pharaoh, after having been brought before the king for the specific purpose of uncovering the message of his strange dreams.
The Ramban (41:4) answers this question by explaining that the storage of grain during the surplus years was not Yosef’s recommendation in light of the dream’s prediction, but rather part of the dream’s message. The large, robust cows and sheaves, of course, represented the seven surplus years, and the lean cows and sheaves represented the famine years. The Ramban thus contends that the images of the lean cows and sheaves consuming the large cows and sheaves indicated to Yosef that the surplus years would sustain the “lean” years of famine, because the stored grain would suffice to sustain the country during the drought. This is in contrast to Rashi’s understanding, that the images of the lean cows and sheaves devouring the large cows and sheaves foretold the severity of the drought, which would have the effect of “devouring” any indication of prior prosperity. The Ramban explains that to the contrary, these images symbolized the sustenance that the country would receive during the seven drought years from the previous seven years of prosperity. Therefore, Yosef’s interpretation of the dream included the storage of grain during the seven years of surplus. The Ramban thus explains that Yosef did not advise Pharaoh to store grain, but rather informed him that this would be done, as indicated by his dreams.
This debate between Rashi and the Ramban relates also to Yosef’s prediction to Pharaoh that with the onset of the drought years, “all the prosperity in the land of Egypt will be forgotten…” (41:30). Rashi explains that the prediction of the people “forgetting” the surplus years is the interpretation of the devouring of the large cows and sheaves by the lean cows and sheaves, which depicted the elimination of any signs of the surplus enjoyed by the country previously. The Ramban, however, disagrees with Rashi’s interpretation, claiming that this “forgetting” was Yosef’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s description of the lean cows appearing just as lean after consuming the large cows as they had originally (41:21). Yosef told Pharaoh that the joy of prosperity will not be experienced during the famine years, because the drought will be so severe that although the country will be able to survive through the stored grain, it will remain “lean,” and no sign of surplus will be seen.
Rashi and the Ramban thus disagree on the question of whether or not the prophecy shown to Pharaoh was ultimately fulfilled. According to the Ramban, Pharaoh was shown precisely what eventually happened – a period of seven surplus years that enabled the country to survive the seven ensuing drought years. According to Rashi, however, Yosef essentially succeeded in overturning the grim prediction that was revealed to Pharaoh. The dream showed Pharaoh that the country would languish from hunger during the seven drought years, and Yosef therefore urged Pharaoh to act to prevent this catastrophe. Pharaoh heeded Yosef’s advice, such that, in the end, the calamity foretold by the dreams was averted, and the country survived.