But it does use the same word, over and over: לִשְׁבֹּר. It’s an unusual root that occurs only 23 times in the Torah, 21 of them in this story.
And it’s not just buying and selling, but specifically buying and selling food:
There really isn’t an English equivalent. It would be the verb form of “grocery”: “Danny, can you groce some milk on your way home?”. But “grocer” doesn’t really mean that:
The word still has allusions in modern Hebrew:
There’s a rhetorical device called polyptoton for this kind of thing; repeating the same root in different forms to add emphasis. But in Tanach this kind of repetition is deeper; it reflects the central meaning of the text. Martin Buber coined the word leitwort, “leading word”, מִילָה מַנְחָה, for this when he wrote his German translation of תנ״ך. Umberto Cassuto (who was a professor at Hebrew University in the 1930’s) noted that they tended to come in sevens or multiples of sevens. In our story, the root שבר occurs exactly twenty-one, seven times three, times.
Why would שבר be the leitwort of our parasha? Certainly, the buying and selling food is important, but Rashi sees a deeper hint here:
שֶׂבֶר is also an unusual word for “hope”, but we say it three times a day, so it should be familiar:
And I think that was the message of וכל הארץ באו…לשבר אל יוסף. Yosef was selling more than food, he was offering hope:
To use a חז״ל־דיק expression, אל תקרא הַמַּשְׁבִּיר אלא הַמַּשְׂבִּיר. And it’s Yaakov who sees that there is still hope in the midst of the famine, because that’s what Yaakov does.
(And my son-in-law Aron Rubin points out the obvious connection to חנוכה, חג האורים, lighting the menorah in the darkness of גלות. But that’s the subject of a different shiur.)
There’s one other side of וירא יעקב כי יש שֶׂבֶר במצרים. In Aramaic, and thus in modern Hebrew, שֶׂבֶר (or סֶבֶר) means, not “hope”, but “understanding”:
There is one use in תנ״ך where the שֶׁבֶר (with a שׁ)-understanding connection is explicit:
שֶׁבֶר means “understanding”, both of the good and the bad. שֶׁבֶר alludes to both “hope” and “brokenness”, as the Midrash that is Rashi’s source points out:
Yaakov dimly sees hope ahead but it’s not just hope for food in the famine, but hope to understand everything that has happened to him and how he and his family fit into ה׳'s plans for the future.