This week’s Parasha, Miketz, begins with the story of Pharaoh’s dreams of cows and grain:
“After two years’ time, Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing by the Nile, when out of the Nile there came up seven cows, handsome and sturdy, and they grazed in the reed grass. But presently, seven other cows came up from the Nile close behind them, ugly and gaunt, and stood beside the cows on the bank of the Nile; and the ugly gaunt cows ate up the seven handsome sturdy cows. And Pharaoh awoke. He fell asleep and dreamed a second time: Seven ears of grain, solid and healthy, grew on a single stalk. But close behind them sprouted seven ears, thin and scorched by the east wind. And the thin ears swallowed up the seven solid and full ears. Then Pharaoh awoke: it was a dream!” (Genesis 41.1–7 JPS)
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Efrayim of Sudylkov, known as the “Degel Mahaneh Ephraim,” taught that this passage can be understood symbolically – the fat cows and the healthy grain represent our intention to do good things; and the gaunt cows and the thin ears of grain represent the all too often times that our yetzer hara, our inclination to be selfish or lazy, overcomes our yetzer hatov, our intention to do good.
How often do we have every intention of exercising, going to minyan, cleaning our desk, or doing some other worthy chore – only to find that the lure of going back to sleep, turning on the television, checking our facebook page or surfing the ‘net eats up our time. As Pharaoh says later on about the cows when recounting his dream to Joseph, “but when they had consumed them, one could not tell that they had consumed them, for they looked just as bad as before.” (Genesis 41.21 JPS) No matter how good our intentions, if we let ourselves become sidetracked into doing other things, the thing that we intended to do vanishes into thin air.
As in meditation, an attempt to banish distracting thoughts from our mind is futile. No matter how hard we try to suppress the thoughts, distractions, and desires produced by our yetzer hara, they will keep coming back, like a child’s Jack-in-the-Box. The solution is to recognize that we are beings made up of the two competing sets of desire. Both parts of ourselves need appropriate attention. We need time to sleep, and let our minds check out and relax. If we set our minds to accomplish a particular task and our yetzer hara attempts to lure is towards down another path, we can acknowledge the value of the distracting thought, honor it as something worthy of our time and energy, but gently steer our mind and intention back to the task that we promised to accomplish first.
This was Joseph’s instruction to Pharoah – “let Pharaoh find a man of discernment and wisdom.” (Genesis 41.33 JPS) Reading symbolically, reach into the part of yourself that is wise and discerning, and decide at this moment which of the two competing desires is most important. Take care of the critical job first, and afterwards there will be time to engage in the less important, but perhaps more pleasant, distraction!