Yom Shlishi, 16 Iyyar 5779
Tuesday, 21 May 2019
Parashat Mikketz & Channukah 5776

Rabbi Deborah Khan-Harris
11th December 2015

We are no strangers no natural disasters. As our political leaders now debate how to contain climate change in Paris, our fellow citizens are flooded from their homes in Cumbria and Lancashire. And The Guardian reported as early as March of this year that climate change has had a significant impact of the crisis in Syria as well: ‘The prolonged and devastating drought that sparked the mass migration of rural workers into Syrian cities before the 2011 uprising was probably made worse by greenhouse gas emissions.’1 Today’s refugees are fleeing not merely from an horrific civil war, but also from the land once known as the Fertile Cresent, which from 2006 faced the worst three year drought in instrumental records.2 Many sub-Saharan migrants, too, are seeking refuge from the ill effects of climate change. Where droughts and floods and greenhouse gases go, so follows famine and refugees to richer lands with better forward planning.

Much like the story we read this week in our parasha, Mikkets. We pick up the story of Joseph as he finds himself interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams in Egypt. Pharaoh does not rely on climate change scientists to interpret the future for him, but he does need Joseph to interpret his dreams. Thus, the relatively wealthy kingdom of Egypt is able to plan in advance, storing up grain during abundant periods to enable them to get by during the famine that is approaching. When the nations around Egypt are struggling to feed their people, the refugees from famine will come to Egypt to find food, work, and shelter.

And so we find Jacob finally realising that there was food to be had in Egypt. The famine in the land of Israel appears to have been in full flow when he sent out his sons to go procure rations in Egypt in order that they should not starve. And here the biblical text becomes interesting. In Gen 42:1 Jacob uses an uncommon word for these rations:

וַיַּרְא יַעֲקֹב כִּי יֶשׁ-שֶׁבֶר בְּמִצְרָיִם

Jacob saw that there were rations (shever) in Egypt…

Up to now the biblical text has used other terms to describe food, but never shever. Rashi purposefully misreads the term in his commentary replacing the shin (שׁ) of shever with a sin ( שֺ), reading seiver, hope, in its place. Jacob, prophetically, saw there was hope in Egypt, not merely food, but a fulfilment of the Divine plan for his progeny.

Yet without deliberately misreading this term, another way, a more common way, exists to understand shever. It much more typically means a fracture, breach, or break. Jacob saw that there was a fracture in Egypt, a historical breach on its way. In fact, in one of the versions of the definition of this version of shever, the breach in question is actually the breaking into a dream, i.e. the interpretation of a dream. Perhaps just as Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams to foresee and plan for the famine, Jacob breaks into his own dreams to foresee the how these rations will lead to the fracture in history being set in motion by the movement of his family from Israel to Egypt. This famine, after all, was to be the catalyst for one of the greatest ruptures in the fabric of Jewish time.

But fractures, even in time, can be healed. In the haftarah for Shabbat Chanukah this week just such a healing is imagined. Zechariah sees a vision of the restoration of that other great rupture in biblical history, the destruction of the Temple. And then he hears the word of the Eternal One to Zerubbavel, ‘Not by might, not by power, but by My spirit…’ Just as the ruptures in biblical history are ordained by God, so is their healing. The rebuilding of the Temple, just like the liberation from Egypt, is not an act of human political machinations, but an act of the Divine will.

This solution leaves us with a gaping hole, however. If ruptures in time and history are healed by acts of God, then where does that leave us in our own contemporary circumstances? Can the climate change talks in Paris manage to agree meaningful reductions in the greenhouse gas emissions? Will the flood ravaged counties of Cumbria and Lancashire find that 2005, 2009, and now 2015 are simply the way of things to come? What do we do now that we live in post-biblical time, beyond the reach of God’s supposed miraculous interventions? How can we read Zechariah in our lives? What might it mean for us today to sing his words, adapted by late Debbie Friedman: ‘Not by might, not by power, but by spirit alone shall we all live in peace.’

 

1 (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/02/global-warming-worsened-syria-drought-study, accessed 07/12/15)

2 Ibid.