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Parashat Mikeitz

December 23, 2014

Seven Years of Famine
by Hazzan Marcia Lane

And Joseph said to Pharaoh, “Pharaoh’s dreams are one and the same: God has told Pharaoh what He is about to do. The seven healthy cows are seven years, and the seven healthy ears are seven years it is the same dream. The seven lean and ugly cows that followed are seven years, as are also the seven empty ears scorched by the cast wind; they are seven years of famine. It is just as I have told Pharaoh: God has revealed to Pharaoh what He is about to do. Immediately ahead are seven years of great abundance in all the land of Egypt. After them will come seven years of famine, and all the abundance in the land of Egypt will be forgotten. As the land is ravaged by famine, no trace of the abundance will be left in the land because of the famine thereafter, for it will be very severe.
(Genesis 41:25 – 31)

As Joseph so correctly explains, the coming years of famine, just like the years of plenty that precede them, are from God. The ancient Egyptians prayed to their gods to let the Nile overflow in its predictable yearly fashion, and they propitiated the gods to insure a good harvest. So when the young Israelite slave interprets Pharaoh’s dream to foretell what God has planned for Egypt, his words are received as an acceptable, a logical interpretation. Bounty comes from God and so, clearly, must hunger.

Famine, the lack of sufficient food to feed a population, is a horrible thing to contemplate. I remember, when I was a kid, if I ever said, “I’m starving!” I would be corrected. “You’re hungry. You’re very hungry,” my mother would say. “You’ve never been starving.” In recorded history there have been hundreds of instances of famine in countries all over the globe. The usual natural causes, floods or drought, are obvious factors. But the real “villains” of ‘food insecurity’ (as severe hunger is so delicately called) are human; wars, blockades, failed experiments in agricultural policies — these have killed far more people than any “Act of God.”

The most stunning example of famine came about, not as a consequence of drought or of animal-borne plague, but rather as a result of politics. And it didn’t happen in the Middle Ages or during the Potato Famine in 19th century Ireland, but in the 20th century, in Communist China, between 1958 and 1962.

Chinese journalist Yang Jisheng concluded there were 36 million deaths due to starvation, while another 40 million others failed to be born, so that “China’s total population loss during the Great Famine then comes to 76 million.” The phrase “Three Bitter Years” is often used by Chinese peasants to refer to this period. The great Chinese famine was caused by social pressure, economic mismanagement, and radical changes in agriculture… Yang Jisheng would summarize the effect of the focus on production targets in 2008: In Xinyang, people starved at the doors of the grain warehouses. As they died, they shouted, “Communist Party, Chairman Mao, save us.” If the granaries of Henan and Hebei had been opened, no one need have died. As people were dying in large numbers around them, officials did not think to save them. Their only concern was how to fulfill the delivery of grain. (Wikipedia entry, “Great Chinese Famine”)

In contrast, the Torah recounts how Pharaoh and Joseph responded:

The seven years of abundance that the land of Egypt enjoyed came to an end, and the seven years of famine set in, just as Joseph had foretold. There was famine in all lands, but throughout the land of Egypt there was bread. And when all the land of Egypt felt the hunger, the people cried out to Pharaoh for bread; and Pharaoh said to all the Egyptians, “Go to Joseph; whatever he tells you, you shall do.” –Accordingly, when the famine became severe in the land of Egypt, Joseph laid open all that was within, and rationed out grain to the Egyptians.
(Genesis 41: 53-56)

There will always be cycles of flood and drought, and even more so now that we are entering what might be decades or even a century of climate change and severe weather disturbance. However, even in cases of terrible ‘natural’ disasters, there is great capacity of a good leader or a good government to mitigate the loss of life. In Communist China, the point of collecting grain is to possess it. But in the biblical account, Joseph gathers the grain during the years of plenty, not simply to have it, but to distribute it. He sees the stored grain as part of God’s plan; the famine will come, but we can mitigate its effects.

There is a suggestion of this shared responsibility in the traditional blessing over bread: “Blessed are You Adonai our God, who brings forth bread from the earth.” Of course, God does not provide us with bread. God provides us with the grain, which is the means to make bread. We, then, partner with God, taking that grain — the gift of the soil — and transforming it into bread.

The earth belongs to God, and we human beings are responsible to be stewards of the land and of its bounty.


Cantor Marcia Lane is the Director of Education and Engagement at the United Jewish Federation of Greater Stamford, Darien, and New Canaan.