Miketz: Hope in Shattered Vessels

Living in an imperfect world, broken by troubles and characterized by crisis, begs the question: is there hope of repair?  The answer, I suggest, is to be found in ancient Egypt at a time when the world was broken by fierce famine:

Now Jacob saw that there was corn (shever) in Egypt, and Jacob said unto his sons: Why do ye look one upon another? And he said: Behold, I have heard that there is corn (shever) in Egypt; get you down thither, and buy (shivru) for us from thence; that we may live, and not die. (Genesis 42:1-2)

The biblical commentaries discuss what exactly Jacob “saw” given that the text goes on to explain that he “heard” about the shever?  Rabbi David Kimchi (42:1) explains that he “saw” people coming with food and, upon asking them of its origins, “heard” them say: Egypt.  The Midrash, however, discerns something deeper in Jacob’s “seeing” – for indeed, the simple answer does not explain why the text employs the word shever as opposed to the word ochel (food).[1]  As such, the Midrash provides a startling but telling insight: “Read not shever (corn) but sever (hope), for he saw prophetically that his hope – that is, Joseph – was in Egypt” (Gen. Rabba 91:6).

Interestingly, Rashi (42:1) brings this Midrash as the straightforward meaning of the text; though he does note that the intent is not that Jacob actually realized that Joseph was alive but rather that he saw, in some non-specific way, that there was hope in Egypt – hope for even that which one might consciously hold to be impossible.  In fact, a corollary Midrash (91:1), which reads the word shever not as corn but as brokenness, delineates three levels of hope (sever) found in Egypt:

  • There was shever (brokenness) – that is the famine; there was sever (hope) – that is the plenty.
  • There was shever (brokenness) – “Joseph was taken down to Egypt” (39:1); there was sever (hope) – “Joseph became ruler” (42:6).
  • There was shever (brokenness) – “They shall enslave and afflict them” (15:13); there was sever (hope) – “in the end they shall go free with great wealth” (15:14).

“What Jacob sees,” explains Avivah Zornberg, “is a dialectical vision of shever/sever.  When things fall apart, the opportunity for sever [hope] arises.”  And so, while shever is a source of distress at a seemingly unredeemable situation, Jacob sees – paradoxically – that shever is, in a sense, the source of sever.  Jacob sees – prophetically – that hope rises from the very depths of brokenness.

This notion informs not only Jacob’s paradoxical prophecy but the very process and purpose of creation itself.  Creation, explains Rabbi Isaac Luria, came about through a process wherein, conceptually, God’s infinite light coursed into the finite “vessels” that are this world and, due to the disparity of magnitudes, “shattered the vessels” (i.e., shevirat hakeilim).  This was not, however, the result of some grand miscalculation but an expression of the very essence of the divine design.  For God’s goal was not to create a world perfect but, in fact, a world broken – with the hope that man would assemble the shards.  The shattered vessels, it can be said, inhere of the hope for reconstruction.

But if this hope, dormant in the brokenness of creation, is to translate into initiative, man must include God.  The Midrash underscores this point in its proof text for the meaning of the word “hope” (sever): “Happy is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope (sever) is in the Lord his God” (Psalms 146:5).  Jacob’s happiness stems from the fact that he can rely on God’s help, if he but hope in Him.  And so it is that Jacob can hope, where there is no hope, and set out to pick up the pieces in the brokenness that is Egypt.  The “God of Jacob”, then, is that aspect of the divine that moves man, sitting amidst the fragments of a shattered world, with the hope of repair.

The Midrash goes on to provide three shever/sever pairs that, I propose, define the three levels in which man hopes to repair the shattered vessels of this world.

  • At the most rudimentary level, man must address the brokenness that is his physical existence.   Food to satiate famine, denoted first by the Midrash, is symbolic of this fundamental hope that encompasses the hope to satisfy all the basic or “deficiency” needs (i.e., physiological, safety, love, esteem).  In fulfilling these needs, however, man has not distinguished himself from animal; he is, to use a term coined by Rabbi Soloveitchik, “species man” … “a mere random example of the biological species.”
  • As such, once he has satisfied his basic needs, man must strive to address his genuine or “being” needs.  Joseph’s journey from slavery to sovereignty, brought second by the Midrash, conveys this hope.  Man, created in the image of God, is summoned to liberate himself from the slavery of the mundane, to rise above his species-like existence, and master his world.  Rabbi Soloveitchik calls man, in his endeavor to conquer the world: “Adam I”, after Adam in Genesis Chapter I, who is bidden to “be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and conquer it.”
  • But there is yet a higher level in which man is called upon to actualize his spirituality, a level referred to by Rabbi Soloveitchik as “Adam II”, after Adam in Genesis Chapter II, who is created with a soul and commanded to fulfill God’s will.  At this level man “aspires, in addition [to conquering the world], for the religious experience of sanctity, a sense of communion with the transcendent.”  The Midrash refers to this level in terms of the people of Israel going from Egyptian enslavement to national sovereignty.  In leaving Egypt – pinnacle of civilization – the people seek to transcend the “Adam I”-like mastery of the physical and become a nation of God, a light unto the nations.

Man, then, must address the brokenness that is the human condition on three levels: physical needs, self-actualization, and self-transcendence.  Significantly, whereas the first and second levels of the shever/sever dialectic are represented in terms of the individual (be it Jacob hoping for food or Joseph hoping for sovereignty), the third level is described in terms of the nation, for man alone can neither transcend himself nor redeem the world – he must be part of the nation.

And so God entered into the covenant of the pieces to make of Abraham a holy nation: “Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years; and also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge; and afterward shall they come out with great substance” (15:13-14).  And what is this “great substance” with which the people left the land of Egypt? It is the hope.

It is the hope of redemption from the brokenness of Egypt.  It is the hope of redemption through the word of God to be received at Sinai.  It is the hope of redemption through being a light unto the nations in the land of Israel.

It is the hope in the shattered vessels that are this world.


[1] Indeed, shever is the key word here as it appears 21 times in the narrative – out of a total of 22 times in the entire book of Genesis.

About the Author
Rabbi Mois Navon, an engineer and rabbi, has modeled himself on the principle of "Torah U'Madda" based on the philosophy of R. Soloveitchik as articulated by R. Lamm: Torah, faith, religious learning on one side and Madda, science, worldly knowledge on the other, together offer us a more over-arching and truer vision than either one set alone. In this column Navon synthesizes Torah U'Madda to attain profound perspectives in the Parsha. His writings can be accessed at http://www.divreinavon.com
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