It’s not true that our bodies replace every single cell over the course of seven years. But it’s a captivating idea nonetheless.
The choice of seven years probably isn’t accidental. When it comes to marking time, the number seven is very potent, originating in our founding myth – the Seven days of Creation.
The Days of Creation are only the first of so many special sevens in the Jewish imagination. Our week culminates in Shabbat, the seventh day. Our wedding ceremony features seven circles and seven blessings. The major festivals occupying each axis of our year – Pesach and Sukkot – each last for seven days. We observe larger cycles of sevens through our sabbatical and jubilee years. We have seven ancestors (four matriarchs, and three patriarchs.) We have seven first-order relatives – mother, father, sister, brother, son, daughter, spouse. The Land of Israel is host to seven native species.
Seven stands for the natural world, for things when they are working as they should. For when things go right.
Mikketz opens with Pharoah’s dreams. First there are seven fat cows. Then seven thin cows appear and eat them up. In the second dream seven healthy ears of grain sprout. Seven skinny ears come next and eat them up.
Joseph interprets the dreams: seven years of “sova”, bounteous harvest, followed by seven lean years, years of “ra’av”.
The word for seven, is “sheva”. Exactly the same letters also spell “sova”. Only the vowels are different. In a Torah scroll – which is unpunctuated and unpointed – it’s impossible to tell “sheva” from “sova”.
Maybe “sheva” and “sova” are the same. The natural, optimal state of the world is one of regularity, cyclic predictability, and abundance. Seven years is enough time for things to feel stable, normal, comfortable (even irritatingly dull – witness the marital seven year itch!). Inside a seven year cycle, life is steady and it can be hard to imagine things being different. Most people like familiarity and resist change, finding it hard to plan and take action even when they are appropriately warned. We’re all going to die, but loads of us never get round to writing a will.
Maybe the appeal of the seven-year-cellular-renewal myth is that it explains how unnoticeable incremental change – which feels like nothing – does in fact add up to something.
Verses 29-34 are a tongue-twister of “sheva” and “sova”, although Joseph warns that the seven lean years will be so harsh that they will obliterate the memory of the good times (41:30-31). The idea of forgetting recurs when Joseph names his first-born son, Manasseh, “for God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s household.”
The seven years of plenty have flown by and suddenly it is announced that they have come to an end. “Sheva” and “sova” are joined by another pair of tricky words. Verse 53 begins “vatichlena sheva shenei hasova” – “The seven years of abundance came to an end”, and verse 54 begins “vatechilena sheva shenei hara’av” – “and the seven years of famine began.” In Hebrew, the words “vatichlena” and “vatechilena” sound almost identical (although they are spelled differently with a chaf and a chet respectively). Yet they mean opposite things!
So what’s going on? Why the deliberate confusion, the blurring of boundaries between opposites? Why does it seem so hard to keep track of the seven years of plenty ending and the seven lean years beginning? What’s the message?
When you’re physically experiencing something, it seems impossible to remember that anything else is even possible. We have all felt that way about pain, hunger or cold. Have you ever packed for the wrong climate because where you are in the world now means you have trouble imagining that it could be different somewhere else? Or vowed never to overindulge in chocolate or alcohol only to fall off the wagon immediately?
We can feel that way about both good and bad situations. Seven simply represents a state of habituation, of obliviousness.
We are all sleepwalking through life much of the time, many of us enjoying long stretches of well-being and barely even noticing enough to appreciate our good fortune. Or perhaps we are experiencing terrible suffering, mentally trapped and unable to imagine that we might turn a corner and find joy or contentment again.
What feels like forever, is really just a phase.
Student rabbi Zahavit Shalev
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.