THE “F” WORD – Parshat Miketz
By Sarah Sokolic
Verse Per Verse
By Sarah Sokolic
Verse Per Verse
As you sit down to read this post, I invite you to grab a latke or two, dollop heavily with your favorite topping (I’m in the minority sour cream camp) and shamelessly indulge…
As I sat down to read this parsha in preparation for writing this blog, I did the same, though admittedly more meagerly. I grabbed a few carrot sticks – no dips or toppings – while shamefully longing for the chocolate bars I had purchased in support of my little brother’s basketball team which were calling out to me from the depths of the kitchen pantry cabinet. Expecting a long evening of skimming the pshat in search of the focus of this week’s Storah, and only halfway into crunching my first baby carrot, something immediately popped out to me, much to my simultaneous delight and dismay.
Genesis Chapter 41 introduces us to the first of the dreams that plague Pharaoh throughout this portion and, which we later learn, symbolize seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine in Egypt. Each of these seven years is represented by two types of cows. The text reads that the seven years of abundance are depicted by cows that are
“yafot mar-eh u’vriot basar”
Even though I had barely made it halfway through the second verse, I had to stop there and delve further. I picked out a remnant of carrot from between my top left molar and incisor, grabbed a few different translations and compared. Going back to my early Orthodox roots, I began with the Art-Scroll, one of my early favorite publishers of Judaic text and liturgy. Here, this phrase is translated as:
“of beautiful appearance and robust flesh”
That made sense to me as it seemed relatively straight forward, but I had issue with the word “robust” – too much ambiguity. I needed to look further. I reached for “old faithful” – the JPS translation of my mostly Conservative upbringing. Theirs:
“handsome and sturdy”
Two things really got me here. First was the use of typically masculine adjectives to describe a feminine animal. Second was that the word “sturdy” was similar to Art Scroll’s “robust” – both still seemingly a bit too vague. With my taste buds growing bored and my jaw beginning to ache, I set aside the bowl of what was left of the carrots and opened Richard Friedman’s translation hoping for something more definitive. It read:
“beautiful-looking and fat-fleshed”
And there it was. The “F” word. Right out there in the open, plain and clear. Thank you, Dick, for calling ‘em as you see ‘em. These cows were fat. There I said it. FAT, FAT, FAT….FAT. Oh yeah, and look, they were beautiful too. “Fat” and “beautiful” all in the same sentence. What a concept!
As the chocolate bars continued to beckon, I became more and more disturbed (mostly by these varying translations). Why was it that only one out of three translators used the word “fat”? One thought I had was that God or Moses or whoever wrote the Torah did not actually use the modern Hebrew word for fat which is shamen (interestingly, also the word for “oil”, shemen, and one of the connections to why on Chanukah we light eight – shemona – candles) But then, why would Richard Friedman go to that translation?
Perhaps it is that this, the most modern translation of the three, puts the “fat” right out there and challenges us to think about the screwed up norms of today’s society. It is not often we see “fat” and “beautiful” used in the same sentence unless it’s part of a self-affirming Oprah segment or alluded to in a Dove shampoo commercial. Friedman’s translation reminds us that it wasn’t that long ago – even as late as the early/mid 20th century – that “fat” symbolized beauty, abundance and strength. What got lost in translation over the decades? As times of social, political and environmental awareness seem to be evolving, our perspectives on body issues have gone in the opposite direction.
As I unwrapped the first of what became the unconscious devouring of two milk chocolate wafer crisp bars, I metaphorically pat myself on the back for being the left-leaning, non-judgmental and socially sensitive person I think I am. I don’t think that way, I thought. But I quickly realized that I, too, have fallen victim to the US-Weekly and TMZ-ing of our society, unconsciously adopting the “thin is in and fat is wack” mentality.
It was time to call for help. Commentators of this portion are quick to point out that the text specifically indicates that in Pharaoh’s dream the seven lean cows stood side by side with the seven fat cows on the bank of the river. In other words, all fourteen cows existed simultaneously, unlike what later played out in reality, which was that the seven years of famine came after the seven years of plenty were over. Joseph – the master dream interpreter – proved his genius to Pharaoh when he explained that Pharaoh’s dreams not only foretold events to come, but also instructed how to deal with them - that they were telling Pharaoh to make the seven years of plenty coexist with the seven years of famine by storing the surplus from the plentiful years to last through the years of famine.
Much like the dreams of fat and thin plagued Pharaoh thousands of years ago, issues of body image plague millions of people today. So maybe it’s kinder to call someone “big-boned” or even “sturdy” or “robust”, but wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t even have to do that – that, in truth, a person could be like those cows back in Genesis – all at the same time healthy and beautiful, and, yes…fat.