s/he was bullied by siblings.
s/he was terrorized by being thrown in a pit and ignored.
s/he was sold into slavery in a strange society.
s/he knew neither the language nor the customs.
s/he was accused of crime s/he had not committed.
s/he was thrown in a dungeon and forgotten.
In parashat Miketz, Joseph models for us the self-reliance and courage needed to survive when one is powerless and adrift. Jews wandering in Exile have long identified with powerlessness, being blamed for terrible crimes we didn’t commit (blood libel being one), and being confronted with languages and customs we don’t understand, but yet must somehow make our way through in order to survive.
Many generations of Jewish commentators have seen in the Joseph story clues for our own survival. Our sense of difference may come from Jewish historical experience and epigenetic trauma, and may be sharpened by further experiences of exile, such as being Queer, Black, converted, Sephardi, returning, or female in a cis white heterosexual male-dominated Ashkenazi Jewish society such as that considered normative in the United States.
Our ancestors look closely at the Joseph story and derive lessons for us that resonate with profound truth over much human history. As we enter the darkest days of the year in the northern hemisphere of the planet, may their words stay with us:
- Let there be light is the first obligation of Judaism. As we are taught to see ourselves as shut’fei Elohim, partners with HaShem, these first words of Creation are an ongoing mitzvah for us to fulfill. To the dark corners of our fears, let us bring light to each other by a simple email or phone call, a word or a gesture.
- They continued to give their children Hebrew names. How did our ancestors finally merit to be rescued from the darkness of Egyptian slavery? Just as Joseph modeled when finally a parent, giving their offspring the Hebrew names Efrayim and Menashe, so we continue to preserve this custom that links us to our people, with names (Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, and more) that come from elsewhere, and remind us of who we are.
- Our sources point out that in a way significant for us, Joseph was greater than even Moshe Rabbenu, Moshe our teacher, because Moshe concealed his identity (see Exodus 2.19, where the daughters of Reuel call him an Egyptian and he does not correct them) but in our parashah Joseph, when brought before Pharaoh powerless and without allies, nevertheless proclaims their identity at the first opportunity (Genesis 41.16).
Joseph’s feelings of abandonment are expressed in the names of their children (Gen. 41.51-52) “I have forgotten my parental home” and “I thrive in the land of my affliction.” Yet Joseph remains rock steady in knowing where they came from.
This is the key to keeping our own balance in these dark days: remember where you came from. Hold on to who you are, even if no one else validates you. Hang in there: keep learning (no one’s perfect) and keep the light of hope burning. Hanukkah may be over but the light we kindle together never goes out.
…one more thought: some have designated a Ninth Night of Hanukkah for this year in honor of the Shamash, that candle that does all the work of bringing light to the others yet is not itself representative of a day. In honor of all those who have done the essential work of bringing light, health care, food, shelter, and compassion to others in this terrible year, we honor the Shamash. You can light nine candles, or you can add one more candle to your Shabbat lights, to honor the light brought by the faithful Shamash and all those symbolized by it.