You know where you stand, you know your path forward, you’ve spent time deciding what your future is going to look like. And then something happens, all of a sudden, and your plans….they get eaten up like the seven fat cows of Pharaoh’s dream.
Every year we read parashat Miketz on a Shabbat that coincides with Hanukkah. Every year Joseph is suddenly snatched from a dungeon and hurried before the Egyptian throne. Whatever he had imagined for his future disappeared suddenly, and a new reality confronted him. He was alone, surrounded by strangers, without resources.
Except for one very important resource. As the text tells us, when he is asked to show what he’s capable of, Joseph says clearly that his strength and his vision are not his, but the inspiration and blessing of his G*d.
What does he mean, and how can we relate?
Each of us is alone in our skin and in our dreams, as in our hopes and our fears. In the days and weeks since the U. S. presidential election, a growing sense of vulnerability has begun to eclipse the fairer aspects of the autonomy – the individuality – of our lives. While we may cherish our time alone, no one wants to be lonely. More, to be alone is to be isolated in ways that may be dangerous.
We know it: the only thing you can count on in life is that change happens. As the Yiddish folk saying goes, man tracht und Gott lakht, “we make plans and G*d laughs.” We can attempt to deny it and keep going in the path in which we’ve already invested our time and our dreams, but day by day we will only become more out of touch, and more pathetic.
I once officiated at the burial of a woman who lived alone. It was two weeks before they found her. Long walks by yourself in the woods or on the beach are one thing, but there is nothing uplifting about that kind of solitude that leaves you without support when you need it most.
I worked with the Jewish community of Kiev during the collapse of the Soviet Union, and saw Soviet citizens at a loss for a sense of identity and belonging in the post-Soviet era they were entering, very much against their will. Jews were among the minority groups who had an ironic advantage; the Jewishness that had been held against them in the Soviet system gave them a fallback – although they didn’t know much about it, their Jewish identity was there for the exploring. Jewish communities formed with great rapidity and passion in those days.
Like Joseph, those Jews were vulnerable and without resources – except for one. The memory of where they came from and its teachings was still there for them, and as they sought it out, it strengthened them. Through the communities they formed and the support they gave each other, they experienced inspiration and blessing. As the Jewish mystics would say, they evoked G*d’s presence in their midst, and thus they knew strength and support and hope.
The same thing happened to the Maccabees in the Hanukkah story. The same thing can happen to us. Change happens, uproots our expectations, upends our lives. And when in response a small group of individuals comes together, supports each other, in so doing they create something holy.
All of a sudden. May it happen to us.
Hazak v’nit’hazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other
This is as dark as it’s going to get. From here on out, the light of the sun returns to us, slowly, day by day.
Darkness settles on us human beings like an oppressive cloak. Like Jacob and his sons in our parashat hashavua, we might even lose our grip on what’s real, and what’s really important. The darkness of their jealousy causes his brothers to sell Joseph into slavery and allow his father to believe that he is dead. The darkness of his grief turns Jacob away from his remaining sons. Love leads to hurt, becomes betrayal, and mires a family in misery.
The wisdom of our ancient tradition does not tell us to avoid darkness – we’ve been around too long to believe in such a possibility. Rather, we are invited to note that the eye has both a dark part and a white part, and it is out of the dark part that we see. (R. Berekhiah b’Rabi, Midrash Tanhuma to Exodus, commenting on Psalm 18.29) Light blinds the eye; it is only in darkness that we are able to see light.
Joseph, cast into the darkness of an Egyptian dungeon, embodies this insight. It is not by betrayal and hate that he is able to climb up out of that darkness. When he is offered success in Egyptian terms, he consistently applies the ethical terms he learned from his own tradition to those opportunities. His steady honesty leads toward blessings he can see in the greater light that dawns for him and, ultimately, for all Egypt, as he is able to use his position to create public policy to forestall the worst effects of a multi-year famine.
Some of us have been cast down into our own dungeons of darkness, flirting with despair and with helplessness, in these dark days. It has been harder to remember to be gentle with those we love, and kind to those with whom we share our communities. It is not only personal grief that turns one inward and can lead to more hurt than necessary. It’s not easy to find the strength that Joseph had, to banish the darkness through steady connection to one’s ethics and honesty.
How did Joseph manage it? What allowed him to see the light in the midst of the darkness that surrounded him? According to our tradition, it was because he never forgot the place from which he came and the people who came before him. He was able to see much more than light; because he remembered who he was and where he was from, he was able to see light’s Source.
We are taught that each of us is a reflection of G*d. That does not mean that we look, physically, like G*d. What we “see,” in the reflection that is each of us, is not carried on the wavelength of visible light. It is memory that communicates the resemblance between Creator and Creation. Memory is not a personal reverie; it is a collective, pulsing river of light, carrying the story of who we are, back and forth, all life long, creating us and forming G*d. Each individual’s memory illuminates a small part of the darkness that surrounds us.
And so Hanukkah comes to remind us, just exactly at the right time, that darkness is nothing but an invitation to believe in our ability to kindle light, and to see in that light much more than the present reality it illuminates. Our Havdalah candle tomorrow evening leads directly to the kindling of the first light of the Hanukkiyah, as if already to encourage us to see how the spark becomes a bigger flame when we remember all the Hanukkah holidays that have come before, and all those who kindled light before us.
This, we pray, is as dark as it’s going to get. From here on out, may light of our own kindling return to us, slowly, day by day.
This parashat hashavua (parashah of the week) is called Miketz, “at the end”. The word refers to a period of time, as the Torah specifies: “It was at the end of two years….” It describes the Egyptian Pharaoh in the grip of dreams that start out innocuously enough, but then turn into terrifying nightmares: happy, fat cows grazing on the lush grass by the side of the Nile are eaten by horrifyingly gaunt, zombie-like cows who look no different after consuming the healthy cows. Then, in a literary echo of the parashah’s name, we read vayikatz Par’oh, “Pharaoh’s sleep came to a sudden end”. The dream was repeated, this time with stalks of grain, and once again the Pharaoh was startled out of a troubled sleep.
The King of Egypt became desperate to find a meaning for the dreams, and a way to answer them, to understand and therefore to escape from the nightmare they presented. And a dream interpreter was found: Joseph, son of Jacob, who in the process becomes the first “court Jew” of many in our people’s history.
When the dreams are related to him, Joseph declares to Pharaoh, “the two dreams are one and the same. You have been shown what is to be.” (Bereshit [Genesis] 41.25)
Joseph is able to correctly foresee the coming catastrophe and to offer guidance to meet it which Pharaoh was able to accept. Disaster, in the form of a years-deep, deadly famine, was successfully averted by centralized government planning, led by a wise and capable “Famine Czar” – Joseph himself, appointed by Pharaoh. Disaster is averted because the Egyptian Pharaoh woke up startled from a nightmare and took action.
In Israel right now, our fellow Jews are trying to wake up from a dream of Israel that has slowly turned into a nightmare. If the “public square” of Israeli media is any indication, more and more Israelis are desperate to find a way out of the ever-recurring nightmare which is the ethical and political morass of the status quo.
But that’s not all:
In the United States right now, our fellow citizens are trying to wake up from the recurring nightmare of the interrupted march of our nation toward equal rights that started as a beautiful dream, but is being consumed, just like the healthy cows of Pharaoh’s dream, by harbingers of death and disaster: persistent racism, sexism, economic classism. It is known by many names, and its evil threatens to consume us.
The two dreams are one and the same.
The only real question is whether we will wake up, and take action to avert the catastrophe. For us as American Jews, there is supportive action we can and must undertake, and it is dictated in our traditional Jewish ethics: “justice, justice you shall pursue, that you may live.” (Devarim [Deuteronomy] 16.20)
The dream of Israel: It is true that we are not in Israel, not part of the Israeli polity, and not subject to Israeli taxes; nor can we vote in an Israeli election. But it is a mitzvah, an obligation incumbent on every Jew, to build the land and to care for it, to do our part in help the Jewish homeland become the light to the nations that the prophets foresee as its destiny. We do have a relationship with the land and people of Israel. We can and should support those Israeli causes that further the Jewish values of justice and equality as proclaimed in the State of Israel’s Declaration of Independence In so doing we are helping Israel become what the people of Israel aspire to be as their best selves, most fully reflecting the presence of G-d in the world. In the declaration’s own words:
THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.
The dream of the United States of America: “You shall not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds.” (VaYikra [Leviticus] 19.9) Those of us who used to feel safe, who thought that we would remain untouched by civil wrongs, are coming to see that we live in a truly inter-connected world. There is nothing wrong with money – it is a gift and those who have it are privileged to do good with it – but there is clearly something wrong with the way wealth is used in our nation. There is nothing wrong with being white, either, unless those of us who identify as white are blind to the obligation to help our neighbor lift his load when we see that he has fallen under it, as our non-white neighbors suffer under the racism that drives them to their knees. And there is nothing wrong with celebrating one’s own sexual identity, unless one is driven to defend it by hurting others. The ethical obscenity of the inequality we see demonstrated every day requires an ethical Jewish response, as the Prophet Jeremiah demanded: that of working for the welfare of the community in which we live, that it may prosper. (Jeremiah 29.7)
For the sake of all that is good in our dream, we must wake up and take action against the looming nightmare it is becoming. Let your kindling of the Hanukkah lights be sanctified this year by your own personal urgent search for Joseph’s way forward.
The Shabbat of Hanukkah is nearly always Shabbat Miketz. The word miketz means “at the end of”, and in this context it refers to the end of a period of time – a dark time, with Joseph missing from his family and his home. Joseph is imprisoned in a dungeon as we begin the parashah, and back home a famine is ravaging the land. Everyone is starving: for freedom, for food – for love.
This time of year is the darkest; like all ancient religious traditions, we have our festival of light now, to reassure us that there is light at the end of this darkness. If only it were as true that there is freedom at the end of every enslavement, nourishment at the end of every drought, and love waiting for us all.
The reason that this is not reliably true is not because G-d plays favorites, but because we do. Francis Moore Lappe showed years ago that there is enough food on this planet to feed us all if only we would treat Earth wisely, and each other with respect; in the case of love, also, we act as if there is a limit to love, and ration it to the deserving, the attractive, the pleasing. Enslavement both real and metaphorical traps so many who could be freed….
In the parashat hashavua for this week, Jacob’s sons will go down to Egypt seeking sustenance for their families. Why, the midrash asks, are they called “Joseph’s brothers” instead of “Jacob’s sons”?
In so doing, the Torah is signaling the beginning of a move from darkness toward light. The brothers will confront their brother, whom they betrayed, and, after great emotional upheaval, be reconciled with him, and in the nurturance of that moment, so many longings will be answered.
Joseph’s brothers were afraid when they first met Joseph – afraid of what they did not know about him, afraid that he would be angry at them, and perhaps try to kill them. Especially in this dark time, we too are afraid of what might be lurking within that which is impenetrable to our sight. Like the brothers, we assume fear, anger, difficulty – and we add to the darkness in that assumption.
In a midrash, it is pointed out that the eye is made up of a dark part (the iris) and a light part (the white of the eye), and that one sees only out of the dark part. Consider a dark room with a spotlight: only when one is in darkness can one see that there is light (if you are in the spotlight you cannot see what is in the dark). Thus it is in our lives: darkness is a necessary precondition to seeing, and not at all, necessarily, an impediment. We forget to look sometimes for the light in the darkness, but it is there.
These long nights are a time to admit that these long nights can be full of grief and sadness, to express it and comfort each other in it. Let us seek to answer each other’s longings, feed each other’s hopes, and free each other as we are able from the prison of our fears. Let us kindle light together – not in defiance of the darkness, but in recognition that it is only when we realize the nature of the darkness that we are in, that we can begin to see the light.
One of my favorite English lines from an old siddur is from a Kaddish meditation: “in light we see; in light we are seen.” This kind of light is not only visible, of course; illumination can also be of the “aha” kind, when something suddenly clarifies in the mind. The universal illustration for that at one time was a light bulb suddenly illuminating over one’s head. Suddenly, that which was hidden is visible. We can see, and we are seen.
This week the parashat hashavua is called VaYeshev, “dwell”. It is the last time that the name of the parashah will be taken from a story about Jacob’s life; now the acts of his children become central. The narrative for the year of the Triennial Cycle begins with a story that seems tangential to the action, but has great power to illuminate:
Judah, son of Jacob, has a daughter in law, Tamar; she has been promised that she will marry Judah’s son, but Judah avoids fulfilling the promise. Tamar is hidden away in the tents of the women, where he can pretend not to see her. Recently after being widowed, he travels to Timnah for the sheep-shearing. By the side of the road he sees a veiled woman – the convention of the time was that prostitutes veiled themselves. He sleeps with her, unaware of who she is, gives her his signet and his staff, and then he travels home again, and continues with his life.
Three months later Tamar is accused of having sex outside of marriage (an offense punishable by death for a woman in certain circumstances). “Let her be brought out and burned,” (Gen.38.24) says her father in law. “Wait a minute,” she says. “The father of the baby is the man who owns this signet and this staff.” And Judah admits that “she is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to Shelah my son.” (Gen.38.26)
Judah hides from Tamar by pretending he cannot see her, and rationalizing that she’s probably fine.
Tamar hides from Judah by veiling herself, and the two darknesses kindle a great light, one that would have destroyed her if she had not been clever enough to grab that signet of his.
But the fire that he would have kindled against her becomes the catalyst for a moment of illumination. In it, he sees himself in disgust and her act as brave.
“In light we see, in light we are seen.” It may not be easy to like what we see, and there may be that which is immolated in the moment of truth – but in that moment we will also, inevitably, see the necessary way forward on the path of our lives more clearly, more honestly, and more meaningfully. We cannot always dwell in light; the clarity would be overwhelming for us, as the Zohar teaches. In the future, that great light – from which we will feel no need to hide – will once again shine on the righteous, and it will include us all. That’s the promise of the light that we yearn for, even as we flee, sometimes, from what it shows us.
Hanukkah is a time of light; may it also be a time of illumination, of clarity, and of understanding for you.