These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

[Alumni Guest Post] Transitions – Parshat Mikketz by Peter Stein

Posted on December 1, 2013 by The Director of Digital Media

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Dvar Torah by R. Peter Stein (Kollel '09-'11):

piccroppedLife is full of transitions.  Sometimes these transitions are clear and separate between distinct seasons of our life.  Yesterday I was single.  Today I’m married.  Yesterday I had no child.  Today I’m a parent.  Yesterday I was in school.  Today I have my degree.

But often times, the transition from one season of our life to the next is not so clear cut, not clearly marked by an event such as a wedding, a birth, a graduation. Transitions may take place gradually, over the course of time, and we may or may not be aware at first that we are even changing until one day we realize that somehow things are different than they used to be.

In Parshat Mikketz, we find the transition from feast to famine experienced in the ancient Near East of our ancestors.

וַתִּכְלֶינָה שֶׁבַע שְׁנֵי הַשָּׂבָע אֲשֶׁר הָיָה בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם. וַתְּחִלֶּינָה שֶׁבַע שְׁנֵי הָרָעָב לָבוֹא כַּאֲשֶׁר אָמַר יוֹסֵף

“The seven years of abundance that the land of Egypt enjoyed came to an end, and the seven years of famine set in, just as Joseph had foretold.”  (Genesis 41:53-54)

At first blush, this seems pretty simple – the seven years of plenty Joseph had foretold were up, and now Egypt was in for seven years of famine.  One era ends, the next begins: day and night, on and off,  a binary set of experiences so radically different from each other as to change the course of history.

But transitions of this magnitude are rarely that neat.  A closer look at these verses suggests that the break between feast and famine may not have been so clean as it initially appears.

The Torah uses two verbs to describe the transition between these two seven year periods:

וַתִּכְלֶינָה (to end)

וַתְּחִלֶּינָה (to begin)

These words come from two completely different roots that mean exactly opposite things.  Yet the Torah has cleverly chosen two words that, when pronounced, are nearly indistinguishable – vatichlenah and vatchilenah.  The main difference in spelling – a chaf vs. a het – is noticeable in the written word, but is completely lost when spoken.  The remaining difference in vowels is very subtle and easily lost to the untrained ear.

The aural experience of hearing these verses suggests that the transition from feast to famine was not so clear cut.  Just as it is hard to distinguish by ear between the words “ending” and “beginning,” it was likely not so clear to the Egyptians living through it exactly when the experience of plenty ended and the experience of famine began.  It is often difficult for people to fully comprehend that their life circumstances may radically change for the worse, until they actually do.  We can imagine how ancient Egyptians might have heard stories of crop failures and watched food prices slowly rise, while – Joseph’s warning notwithstanding – not internalizing that the growing catastrophe would soon overtake them personally and become a permanent reality for the foreseeable future.  Reality became worse and worse – small steps at a time – until people woke up one day and realized that famine was in fact upon them and panicked.

Fortunately for the Egyptians, Joseph foresaw what lay at the far end of that transition and managed the nation’s affairs to prepare.  But we are not prophets and do not often have the benefit of seeing where our transitions will take us or even being aware that we are in a state of transition.  Sometimes in the mysterious journey of life, we end up where we are headed and only when looking back do we realize we had even been on a journey.  But sometimes we are blessed with people in our life who can see what we cannot – our own personal Josephs who can hear the difference between vatichlenah and vatchilenah and can help us prepare for the end of one season of our life and the beginning of another.  Such people may be friends or family, a colleague, a therapist.  Their message may be welcome and easy to hear.  Or it may elicit resistance and pain.

As we give thanks this Shabbat, let us be grateful for those people in our life who help us see our journey more clearly, and pray for the wisdom to transition gracefully from one season of growth to the next.