New Year’s Eve, Haifa, 2016. We’re walking back after watching the fireworks amidst raindrops, trying to figure out what is the origin of this custom we too got drawn into, and celebrate by default. I can’t help but bring up the Jewish roots of both Christmas and New Year’s. I can’t escape the parallels between Christmas and Hanukkah, both beginning on the 24th – in the evening – of their respective months, symbolically, or actually, 3 days after the winter solstice, and emphasizing the theme of lights. Christmas and New Years are also (the only?) two Christian holidays which start on the evening before, just like Jewish days (Genesis 1: “and there was evening, and (then) there was morning…”); and, If Christmas is Jesus’ birth, then New Year’s is the day of his brit (or bris, covenant of circumcision), which, I find that it is still observed as such in the Anglican and Lutheran Church. Before the Gregorian calendar, introduced in the 1500’s, in pre-Christian Rome, there was a Julian calendar, starting with January, and dedicated to Janus, the god of beginnings and Gateways.
Switch and turn to this week’s Torah portion, and find we are opening the Book of Shmot, or Exodus. Shmot literally means “names”, retelling us who came down to Egypt and what happened there. Interestingly, Genesis was about the journey of individuals, and when their linage was told, we heard about toldot, “the begets”, from the root of births. Now that we’re moving to the story of a People, we switch to the story of a Nation.
As we now, and read every Passover, and as is repeated in modern days, what started out as a short trip (to get some food) and quick relocation endeavor, turned into a long term settlement which span over generations. Now “a new Pharaoh rises, who knows not Joseph” (Exodus 1:8). First there is a plan, then hard work, then enslavement and bitter torture. The situation looks bad, and dark.
Then the next chapter opens, and like any good TV drama, the scene changes: while slavery is going on outside, we’re now in the home of some man and some woman of the tribe of Levi, names not mentioned; the woman is pregnant, and gives birth to a boy, who will grow up to be Moses, the leader who will be instrumental in the redemption of the people from their predicament.
And, it might be cliché, and it’s not the first time, nor the last (we are slow to learn!), but once again we’re reminded, that dawn comes after the darkest part of the night. Rav Kook is quoted to say that for a plant to grow, the seed must rot in the ground, a process which must be uncomfortable, painful, unwanted and so, dark on many levels; a process we would much rather avoid, or talk about theoretically rather than go through, but turns out that is not possible. Coincidentally, this is what we should be celebrating today too: the beginning of longer days (later Shabbat J) and more light.
Much ink has been spilled on the verse quoted above: “a Pharaoh who knew not Joseph”. What is this “knowing”? Did Pharaoh not study history? Is it really possible that anyone didn’t “know” that because of Joseph Egypt and the whole region was saved? To gain some more insight, we should check the first time the word “to know” appears in the Torah, which was when Adam “knew” Eve and she bore a son (Genesis 4:1). The common translation is that they “had relations”, but if that is it, what would we do with Pharaoh here?? Turns out that “to know” is really “to connect”, and often on a deeper level. Adam and Eve’s connection bore a promise for continuity; Pharaoh, maybe “knew” Joseph in the way we think of knowing some random fact, but it didn’t mean anything to him; he was not connected to that fact and it didn’t matter to him, thus he really didn’t “know” it.
We can’t be connected all the time to everything; we can’t also live in eternal bright light, which by the way, is often how the afterlife is described, thus being a time when we are not alive in this world. But it’s interesting to think of darkness as a form of disconnect and of light – as a form of renewed meaningful connection, and from there, sort out where we’d like to light our flame.