Stored, not wasted

Bamboo can barely be seen while it’s growing underground. It can take five years for it to build up its extensive root system. Then, in mere weeks, it explodes ninety feet into the air.

It’s normal to feel down after failed attempts to manage COVID loss and isolation, or after  unsuccessful efforts to improve a public policy, or after disappointing tries to repair an estranged relationship. It’s natural to feel like your fruitless efforts have been wasted. Into your head may creep the distressing metaphor of the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

But the opposite can also be true. One additional try can reveal that all of the prior tries weren’t wasted; they were instead stored. Rather than collapsing under a tonnage of defeats, it’s possible to discover that, instead, they were accumulating to await one more try that could arouse a breakthrough.

James Clear, in his remarkably helpful bestseller Atomic Habits, reminds us how stored progress can work. Imagine an ice cube sitting on a table in a frigid room that is 25 degrees. The room slowly begins to heat up. It’s 26 degrees, then 27, then 29. Now it’s up to 31 degrees. Still nothing has changed. As soon as the temperature hits 32 degrees, the ice begins to melt. Until that breakthrough instant, the slowly elevating heat didn’t reveal any results.

A century ago, social reformer Jacob Riis wrote, “When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without so much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not the last blow that did it – but all that had gone before.”

In this week’s portion of Torah it’s no accident that the context for such a breakthrough is stored-up Egyptian granaries. Joseph has prudently stored food for the famine. Still, his challenge is more personal. How long will his frigid falling-out with his brothers last?

Having witnessed their contrition, Joseph summons that breakthrough-moment. He greets his estranged brothers for a second time upon their anxiety-filled return to Egypt.  He asks them, “Are you well?” (va-yishal lahem l’shalom)(Gen. 43:27). Recall that estrangement is described years earlier as an inability for them to say shalom to each other (lo yachlu dabro l’shalom) (Gen. 37:4). Reconciliation, 32 degrees, that breakthrough-instant has been signaled and will eventually be restorative.

Turning abysmal failures at reconciliation into stepping stones for breakthroughs is often not possible. Sometimes it’s even ill-advised. When or whether that breakthrough may occur, we will never really know. Lessons from bamboo shoots and stored grain, however, remind us that there is a way to find out.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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