Pharaoh's dreams revolve around fat, healthy sheaves or cows being swallowed by thin, unhealthy sheaves or cows. Yosef explains that the swallowing means that, "All the plenty will be forgotten in the land, and the famine will consume the land." (41, 20) This makes it seem like the key to unlocking the meaning of the dream is the act of one set of sheaves swallowing the other. While our imaginations can allow for cows swallowing other cows, it's harder to fathom sheaves doing the same; this detail makes it clear that the dream is meant to be understood as a metaphor. If the healthy sheaves symbolize the years of plenty and the thin sheaves drought and famine, then the complete consumption of the healthy sheaves must symbolize the severity of the famine- which will leave no memory of the years of plenty that preceded them.
A slew of consistently good years creates an illusion of prosperity and leads to complacency, which, in turn, breeds wastefulness and arrogance. Even if such a time is not followed by barren, harsh years, it is hard to imagine that such an atmosphere would leave much in the way of storehouses and savings. Yet here the image of the thin sheaves swallowing the fat ones makes it seem as though the lack of any lasting remnants from the years of plenty is not the result of the mindset of the years of plenty, but rather the harsh years that follow. The loss of the agricultural foundation of their society and the continued failure to grow or produce what they need to survive is a disgrace too great to bear, and it causes them to forget the years of plenty that came before. In the midst of this total impoverishment the good years seem more like a distant dream than an attainable reality. No one can remember how it feels to be satiated.
The Kli Yakar further clarifies the harshness of the years of famine. He explains that total consumption means that the years of famine are expected to be terrible regardless of the experience of plenty that preceded them. They are objectively terrible, rather than merely subjectively harsh when compared to the years of plenty that preceded it. The fact that the plenty is forgotten, completely wiped from memory, shows that even though the shadow of prosperity does not further darken the years of famine the experience of the famine on its own is all consuming and total, depressing and endless.
The Maharal, on the other hand, does not think that the swallowing is a statement about the severity of the famine and the forgetting of the good times, but rather the opposite. He explains that the act of swallowing is the solution to the problem, concealed within the dream itself. In order to escape their cruel fate the bad years will have to swallow the good years; they will have to collect and store the sheaves in the years of plenty to ensure that they will survive the years of famine that follow. According to the Maharal this interpretation is a theological necessity, otherwise how could Yosef offer a solution that was not included in the original dream? Such arrogance would be an affront to heaven. Not to mention that he would have no assurance that such a solution could succeed in the face of a Divine decree. Plus, from a political standpoint, Yosef the lowly prisoner was not asked by Pharaoh for any more than an interpretation of the dream. It's unlikely a person it that position would overstep his bounds. (Gur Aryeh, Miketz, 41, 4)
Though these two approaches seem disparate, both the bleak approach of the Kli Yakar and the hopeful approach of the Maharal share one interesting detail. Both of them understand that it is the strangest, most unexpected detail of the dream that reveals its hidden meaning. While the Kli Yakar sees the impossible swallowing as the low point, the Maharal sees it as a ray of hope and light. What people perceive to be unexpected and uncanny is those places where God is revealed between the cracks, situations of extreme goodness or extreme hardship always hint to the presence of God in this world.
The midrash halacha suggests a different approach:
"Behold, from the Nile:" When the years are pleasant the creations become brothers (achin) which each other, "and they fed in the reeds (achu)," [there is] love and fraternity (achva) in the world...
Rabbi Acha said... "And behold seven thin sheaves," during the bad years the bodies of the creations raise boils.
The midrash takes the discussion to a new plane, exploring the human relationships and social climate in years of plenty and years of famine. In years of plenty everyone can graze together; happy, satiated people who want for nothing are kind and hospitable to each other. But the years of famine make people harsh, as belts tighten and waistlines shrink we clench our fists and withdraw our open arms. Hungry people swallow each other whole. Others become transparent, and our aching bellies rumbling for more become the center of our worlds and drown out everything else.
But the midrash is also making another, more important point. In times of economic hardship, when the pie is smaller, the "other" is viewed as a threat. In times like this differences appear to be greater and it seems like there is more that separates us than unites us. The "other" becomes like something out of a fairytale, a thin sheaf that, impossibly, threatens to swallow us whole. The stereotype of the stranger is disproportionately inflated and it threatens to destroy all goodness and compassion; it so completely overshadows our shared humanity that we can no longer see it.
According to this midrash it is people, and not God, that accomplish what is unexpected and even miraculous, through their decisions and choices.
On Chanukah we celebrate the triumph of the few over the many. This victory can lead us to greater understanding. The People of Israel, the thinnest of sheaves, will end up prevailing over the plentiful Egyptians, and the multitudes of those who appear stronger and greater throughout the generations. Depravation and hunger have a certain advantage over satiety; absence, lack, and brokenness engender a different kind of fullness. They fill us with yearning, aspirations for something better, empathy, and openness.