Shabbat VaYeshev: Return, O Light, and We will Return to You

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.

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Shabbat VaYeshev: Do You Believe In Your Life?

Do you believe in your life? Enough to lose it?

The media reports that people are frightened. More and more, the ordinary activities of daily life seem to be places in which a mass shooting might occur. “When I drop off my child at school,” “when I go to the mall,” “when I am at work,” “when I go into a cafe to grab a coffee, I realize, it could happen there.”

An article describing the rising fear Americans feel about random gun violence goes on to consider ways we might cope with this anticipatory, more and more general fear.

“I think awareness of your own fears is the only way to go and to do the things that are soothing and comforting and distracting to do, and to do things that bring meaning to your life and bring comfort to other people,” said Dr. Sherry Katz-Bearnot, assistant clinical professor at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. “It’s what your grandmother said: Keep busy.” (“Fear in the Air, Americans Look Over Their Shoulders”)

Our Jewish ethical tradition holds that we can do better than that. We cannot just “stay busy” if our lives do not have value to us; busy nonsense does not calm the storm of existential terror. And we cannot simply stay in bed and pull the covers up over our heads.

We Americans are beginning to experience what other peoples in our world have already learned: there is no guaranteed safety. On any day, life may end for any one of us. We are accustomed to as, as an idle conversation starter, “what would you want to do if it were your last day?” But we do not live our lives that way, because it’s not possible. 

There is a different question we should be asking ourselves. In a world in which my choices might end with my death, do I believe in my choices enough to stake my life on them?

In Israel during the second intifada of 2001-2003, I witnessed the way people behave who are used to random violence in their everyday lives. Average Israelis, many of them opposed to the policies of their government that had caused the uprising, and had no necessary connection to politics, were aware that their daily choices were existential choices. Israeli social culture has evolved, over more time than just the last decades, a common awareness that life, itself, is not a supreme value, but a relative value, to be used to demonstrate one’s convictions about how life should be lived. Israelis do not stay home and cower; they live with a heightened awareness that where they live, how they live, will cost them their lives.

In America in these dark days, we are surrounded by random violence by the armed and angry, and heinous cowardice on the part of our elected officials. The choice to live as we wish and be safe is not now, if it ever was, available. Many of us average Americans have had no direct part in what makes the gun wielders angry, but we may be killed. 

Your life as you live it, with its commitments, expectations and desires, is going to require you to walk into a world of random violence today. Do you believe in what you are doing today, this and every day, enough to say “I may be cut down before I can finish, but I am building a meaningful life day by day”.

In our parashat hashavua for this week, people suffer and sometimes die, sometimes because of choices they have made and sometimes as a result of another’s whim. May our lot be with those who are privileged to be aware that our lives are made valuable by our conscious choices, and may we believe in our lives.

Shabbat VaYeshev: What Do You See in 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.