There’s a Famine in the Land
By Joel M. Hoffman
Genesis is about families, creation, where we come from, and what our lives are like. But it is also about famine. In fact, famine was so common that Genesis 26:1 begins, “there was a famine in the land,” but then the text has to clarify that it wasn’t the first famine, it was another famine.
Abraham and Sarah endured a famine. So did Isaac and Rebekkah. And so did Jacob, Rachel, and Leah, along with their children. Joseph was spared hunger, but that doesn’t mean that the famine didn’t impact his life. In fact, it was the famine that led to his rise in the ranks of the Egyptian power structure. Whether for the better or for the worse, famine shaped our people’s early life.
Three things about famines are important.
First, they always happen “in the land.” Even though some people suffer more than others, and even though some people, like Joseph, actually benefit, no famine is a personal famine. Famines belong collectively to everyone in “the land.”
Secondly, famines are not sent by God. They just happen. Our text does not read, “God sent a famine,” or, “God punished Abraham with a famine,” or even, “God tested Abraham with a famine,” but rather the clearer and more accurate, “a famine happened.”
Thirdly, when our ancestors suffered during a famine, they didn’t try to hide their pain. Their only reaction was to acknowledge their undeserved misfortune and try to make things better. They looked for food. Genesis 12:10 reads: “There was a famine in the land, so Abram went down to Egypt” to get food. He didn’t sneak out of the house (well, tent) trying to hide his situation. He accepted the problem and set out to try to solve it.
All of this seems suddenly relevant in 2009 America as our own savings accounts dwindle and as some of us lose our jobs. Most of us haven’t descended into actual hunger, but there are those who fear that it’s not far off. We are like our ancestors, unexpectedly faced with uncertainty, unsure of the future and sometimes even afraid of the present.
Unfortunately, we are also unlike our ancestors, for we have brought something into our modern misfortune that never plagued our forebears: shame. It’s not that they didn’t know about shame. They did. But in the Bible shame was reserved for vile actions. Judah’s episode with a harlot is a source of shame. So too is building the idolatrous golden calf. More generally, shame is tied up with behavior, not circumstances. Do something wrong to someone else, and you should be ashamed. If something happens to you, you should not. We seem to have forgotten this basic fact.
When the bottom fell out of the Argentine economy several years ago, when half of that country reverted to the barter system, synagogues there did two things. They collected food for members who couldn’t afford to feed their families. But the synagogues also left their doors unlocked at night so people could sneak in under cover of darkness and find food, avoiding the shame they would otherwise have felt when people saw their poverty. Why was this second step necessary?
In this country, too, though most of us still have food, shame has crept in where it doesn’t belong. Synagogues are offering job services, but most are trying to do it anonymously. Some people who lose their jobs don’t even tell their spouses or children. Again, why?
We live in an unredeemed world, our sages teach. Life is good, but life is also hard. That’s just the way it is. Perhaps we can learn from our ancestors that misfortune is part of life, and, more importantly, that we have no reason to hide it.
The coming months and perhaps years will be hard enough on their own. Let’s not make them worse by adding the unnecessary burden of shame.
After all, there’s a famine in the land.