Shabbat Miketz: Ambiguity is Painful

Parashat Miketz always falls during Hanukkah. As such we search it for insights at this darkest, coldest time of the year, and it does not disappoint – more, it can overwhelm. Consider the terrible emotional ambiguity of just one question that arises from study of the parashah: 

“How is it that Joseph, after living many years in Egypt, having attained a high and influential position in the house of an important Egyptian official, did not send his father even one message to inform him (that he was alive) and comfort him? Egypt is only six days’ travel from Hebron! And respect for his father would have justified even a year’s journey.” (Ramban, Gen 42.9).

And just like that, the wonderful story of a smart Jew rising to unbelievable power in Egypt is made fraught with emotional distress. Why didn’t Joseph send a note to his dad? Some commentaries answer Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman’s question by suggesting that there was a purpose, either divine or human: perhaps Isaac (still alive?!) knew but realized that if Jacob did not, HaShem preferred to keep it from him for some reason. Or perhaps Joseph calculated that his brothers needed time to repent of their actions, and that time had not yet come (as we will see next week, it took some doing). But in all this, to let his father suffer so?

And so we are left with the uneasy feeling of not being sure how to judge Joseph. Suddenly the figure of this Jewish hero is not necessarily so heroic. People are complicated. The Mayor of Portland is, in his choice to follow in the steps of other elected leaders throughout the U.S. to criminalize homelessness, and Joseph is, when he manipulates a multi-year famine to make free farmers Pharaoh’s serfs as the price of their survival, too.

The snow that has fallen overnight in Portland Oregon, as in many places in the U.S. in the icy storm system that came through, might occur to be simply a beautiful transformation of our surroundings. But for those who are suffering from it, houseless or heatless or both, the simple beauty becomes painfully confused. For those who are privileged to experience snow from beside a warm fireplace or heating vent, how do we navigate the conflicting feeling of guilt that spoils our sense of innocent joy?

The next question is even more personal: why does it matter what we feel? Why not just curl into a little ball of enervation when confronted with such an overwhelming emotional challenge?

Because you matter, and your existence makes a difference. The challenge is to still be you in the world, a spiritually functional you, and not to sacrifice either your awareness of the pain in the world, nor yourself, in the process. 

From our Jewish ethical tradition comes the vital practice of balance. It bids us neither to look away nor to be consumed, but to find a middle position. Come and hear, as our ancestors said: all the beauty and all the pain exist, all the time. We sing psalms of praise for the glory of nature and we follow them with prayers begging relief from the pain of our lives. We are capable of doing both, and in this unredeemed world that is what we are called upon to do.

“On the one hand” and “on the other hand” is an old Jewish joke for a reason. But never forget how the joke ends….”on the third hand.” There’s always a position that balances between the two opposites you behold. As a people that continues to light candles every erev Shabbat despite pogroms, cossacks, and what is worse, betrayal among our own people, we are meant to have regular practice in this realization. We keep singing in the icy darkness, and in this way we keep adding light to the world.

On the one hand, the snow is, indeed beautiful. On the other, the cruelty of U.S. government attitudes toward the vulnerable among us makes the snow deadly for our fellow human beings. And what is our balance? Intellectual contemplation of this reality is Torah study; feeling the emotion of it is prayer; and according to our tradition, the culmination of these is action.

Extend your third hand, the spiritual one that finds the prayer-study balance in action; the one that reaches out to lift the shamash candle to light the others in your Hanukkah menorah. The balance that saves us from despair is expressed in the Jewish mystical tradition as compassion. Take that guilt and pile it up on the altar of your heart, just as our ancestors once knew how to do. Light it afire with your anger at the senseless suffering of so many. Feel that act spur you toward doing what you can, energized by your ability to not only discern but to evoke light in the darkness – for today, you need not give in to sadness. For today, keep feeding the light.

Shabbat Shalom and Hanukkah Sameakh!

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