We read in Parashat Mikeitz of Pharaoh’s dreams which foretold the onset of a seven-year period of prosperity which would be followed by a seven -year period of shortage. Pharaoh first saw seven emaciated cows devouring seven large cows, and then seven lean sheaves of grain devouring seven large sheaves.
The Torah describes Pharaoh’s second vision as featuring seven large sheaves “rising in a single stalk” (41:5), followed by seven lean sheaves “growing after them” (41:6). Curiously, whereas the first set of sheaves is said to have “arisen,” the seven lean sheaves are described as “growing.”
Rav Shalom of Belz explained that the term “tzomechot” (“growing”) used to depict the second set of sheaves connotes a more evident and readily discernible process than the word “olot” (“rising”) used in reference to the initial set of sheaves. And for this reason, he suggested, the Torah speaks of the seven large sheaves’ emergence with the term “olot” – because the period of surplus set in less conspicuously than the “growth” of the lean years, represented by the lean sheaves. As noted already by the Ramban (41:2), the surplus was limited to Egypt, whereas the famine that followed struck the entire region. Hence, Rav Shalom of Belz explained, the onset of the famine years was far more widespread, and thus far more evident, than the onset of the surplus years, and so the Torah refers to the seven large sheaves with the term “olot,” which connotes a subtle development, and speaks of the seven lean sheaves with the word “tzomechot,” which connotes a very obvious and widely recognized phenomenon.
Symbolically, this explanation perhaps points to the fact that people oftentimes discern misfortune more quickly than they recognize good fortune. The “lean years” of our lives generally catch our attention and trigger anxiety and angst more quickly than the “surplus years” evoke feelings of joy and gratitude. The “lean years” – hardship and adversity – tend to feel like they “sprout” (“tzomechot”) everywhere, whereas our good fortune tends to feel “limited,” less significant, and insufficient, and so it affects us less profoundly than hardship. The subtle distinction between the Torah’s depiction of the large sheaves and the lean sheaves thus perhaps reminds us to feel at least as enthusiastic over our “large sheaves” as we feel despondent over our “lean sheaves,” to celebrate our good fortune with at least as much fervor as that with which we bemoan our troubles – and even much more so.