Torah Reading for Week of December 21-December 27, 2008
“Faith that Emerges from Crisis”
By Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, PhD
“And Jacob saw that there was ‘shever’ in Egypt.”(Ber. 42:1). In the context of this verse, the word ‘shever’ means ‘food.’ However, it is a homonym, for ‘shever’ also means ‘destruction’ or ‘ruin.’ And in the Midrash, our Rabbis point out that by changing the position of the dot on the letter “shin,” you have the word ‘sever,’ which means “hope.” Perhaps Jacob saw ruination facing his descendants in Egypt – but he also saw the resulting redemption. He sensed the tragedy of famine, but he knew that the years of plenty preceding them would help his children survive, and that every famine is followed by prosperity. He saw in Egypt the episode of Joseph – starting with the ‘shever’ of miserable captivity and ending with the ‘sever’ of eminence. It is an intensely Jewish quality which our Rabbis read into Jacob’s vision: the ability to see beyond the crisis and the destruction to the hope and the promise. It is more than seeing the silver lining; it is a matter of seeing through the very cloud to the bright sun shining above whose warm rays will soon evaporate all clouds. The ability to survive adversity instead of being crushed by it lies in the G-dly gift of transforming a “shin” to “sin,” “shever” to “sever,” ruin to hope.
Furthermore, this capacity for converting “shever” to “sever” is not a matter of blind optimism. The Jew has always been optimistic, but it has been an enlightened optimism, not what William James called “the religion of the happy-minded.” It is the kind of optimism that requires insight and intuition, not only a profound and mighty faith. And more than that; the transformation of “shever” to “sever” requires hard work and sweat and often great sacrifices. It is a way of life, not a way of shielding one’s self from the ugly realities of existence.
During the past decades, within the Jewish community there have been studies pointing to massive assimilation, and youngsters searching for spiritual renewal outside of the walls of our community. Many individuals have viewed this dire situation as a spiritual “shever,” foretelling the decline of Judaism and the withering away of loyalty to the ideals of our sublime tradition. Because of this despair, it has been difficult for some to creatively plan expansive, energizing ideas and strategies in the face of the competing values of American society and thus they have drawn inward trying to protect their small community of faithful followers. There were others, however, who saw beyond the “shever” to the “sever.” They knew that the Jew has weathered many storms and surmounted previous crises, and so they began to lay the groundwork for the era of “sever,” where the uneducated and under-stimulated American Jewish community could begin to re-experience the vitality and depth of Jewish tradition through newly formed institutions and communal structures. With toil, will-power, and sacrifice they lifted the dot from the right bar of the “shin” and made hope of ruin. Now the students of these newly formed institutions are energetically, enthusiastically and creatively sharing the profound teachings of Judaism with communities that are being revitalized by their exposure to profound ideas and loving faithful Rabbis, Cantors, and Chaplains.
Each of us, in the course of a lifetime is beset by one “shever” or another. Our Tradition encourages us in such moments not to submit to defeat, but to look beyond to “sever.” And the best way to convert ‘Ruin into Hope,’ is by listening to the very next words of our Father Jacob, “Why do you look at one another?” Just looking about in desperate bewilderment is not going to help. Instead, “Get you down there,” begin to work and toil with faith. “Sever” will come.