Happy Hanukkah – “Light One Candle” with Joseph in chutz-la’aretz

Vignettes:

You haven’t actually moved to another place until you spent (at least – more coming…) a day at its DMV… and – After a day of running errands in the Bronx: San Francisco drivers might have topography to contend with; New Yorkers have New Yorkers to contend with… Between that and the weather, my Blue Stallion might be waiting around for a while…

Hanukkah – still

The rabbis dedicated a whole Talmudic tractate to the Purim story, the megilla and related issues, and only a few pages to Hanukkah, hidden in the tractate of Shabbat. Since they anyway were speaking about candle lighting, it reminded them about Hanukkah so they added some rules and a relatively short discussion: what kind of oil, how many candles, should we be adding or subtracting, where to put it, etc. They emphasized the fact that women are obligated in this mitzvah as well, for “they too participated in that miracle”. But now, I wonder if it’s sort of a warning, as if they say – ‘they too participated in that miracle, some miracle’… The rabbis of the Talmud struggled with Hanukkah. There was a lot of “yes, but”. They had troubles with the Maccabees who were priests turned warriors turned rulers turned corrupt. They had trouble with war, with being defiant to the authorities, and with the short term light it brought.

It’s possible that Hanukkah caught an extra “wind” in recent decades from two unlikely partners: the neighboring xmas and its excessive consumerism, and the pioneers of the State of Israel, who saw the Maccabees as their true heroes, ideological ancestors and role models. Check the famous poem “Anu Nos’im Lapidim” where “we” are the ones creating light in the world, claiming “vayehi or!”. The words of G-d Himself from Genesis were now due to our own doings.

At a recent class, we were asked: in the war against Hellenism, who won?? The quick answer is, we, of course. But then, check again: where do we live? What’s the world around us looking like? What are we buying? Languages we’re speaking? Music we’re listening to? Clothes we’re wearing?? So who won?

Wait, so what are you saying? We didn’t lose, did we?? Which way is it??

Yes. The strength of the Jewish way of living (one of them anyway) is in our ability to dialog with our environment, bring things in, constantly kneed them, and find – and create – new meanings with them. Maybe, that is the victory of Hanukkah too, that is how darkness is dispelled, and that is light.

The Torah portion of Miketz

Usually read during Hanukkah, is the story of Joseph the dreamer who, having been sold to slavery and spending time in prison, is now rushed out to solve Pharaoh’s dreams. Long before Freud and modern psychoanalysis, the Talmud spends quite a few pages (in the last chapter of Tractate Brachot) fascinated by dreams, and I am fascinated with its fascination. A dream is a prophecy of sorts, and yet, it shows up, davka when it’s dark and our brain is seemingly least working. “An unsolved dream is like an unread letter”, they say, and teach that much depends on the dream’s solution, therefore one should consider carefully who would give the dream’s most favorable interpretation. They also say that in every dream, there is truth mixed with shtuyot (nonsense) and remind us dreams can take a long time to come true, learning from exactly Joseph here, who, as a child, dreamed of his brothers and parents bowing down to him, which took 22 years and was only partially fulfilled (his mom died long before).

22 years.

264 months.

8,030 days…

Day by day Joseph is in Egypt. First, as a servant in Potifar’s palace, then in prison, then as Pharaoh’s right hand. When he speaks, G-d is present in his life, and yet, what was he thinking every, every day?

Some suggest that as a child, he was very self-centered. Everything was about him, his specialness, his beauty, his being loved, being attractive, being wanted, being wise. Only in prison, he switches. No longer a tattletale, no longer busy with his looks and showing off his dreams to those who don’t want to hear them – things I don’t think he did maliciously, but nevertheless, he did. In prison, there are other people who need him and to whom he can be of assistance. Ironically, he needed the confined space to see outside of himself. Only once helpful to others in the world, he is invited to take a bigger role in it.

One of the hardest questions around joseph is why did he not call home?? Let’s say that he could not do so as a servant and definitely not as a prisoner, but as the second to Pharaoh, for sure he could take a few days “off” and visit his aging father. After all, everybody knew he was a “Hebrew” – so he’s introduced by the butler (Genesis 41:12). Ramban was especially bothered by this, and especially after he himself (Ramban) moved from Spain to Israel and realized how short the distance between Egypt and the Hebron area, where Jacob most likely lived.

It’s possible that Joseph didn’t know that his father was mourning for him. From his (Joseph’s) perspective, he would not do anything that his father didn’t want or ask of him, and so, if the brothers threw him in a pit and then sold him to a convoy heading to Egypt, that could be only because that was their father’s instruction to them. If so, Jacob sent him to check on the brothers, knowing they will harm him. Others suggest, that he had to have his dreams be fulfilled first and could not go home until that happened. I find the latter especially problematic, because if every dream has some nonsense, how does anyone know which part will be fulfilled until it is, and artificially pushing a dream is not a real way for it to be fulfilled.

A hint might be in Joseph’s sons names: the older one is called Menashe – כי נשני אלוהים את כל עמלי ואת כל בית אבי “for G-d has made me forget all my toil and my father’s house” (Genesis 41:51), and Ephrayim – כי הפרני אלוהים בארץ עוני – “for G-d has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction” (41:52).

Joseph is the first one to really make it in the real galut (diaspora). Until now, our forefathers, occasionally, went back to their family in Haran, but to go “down” to Egypt, get an Egyptian name, clothing, even a wife, and be successful there (and Joseph is called “ish matzli’ach” – a successful man [Genesis 39:2])? That is a first. Perhaps in order for that to happen, there are things he has to let go of – his pain in his father’s home. Only then, he can be fruitful in the new land.

We too constantly juggle the weight of the past and what we need to carry along to go forward. Our tradition struggles with memory and forgetfulness with endless commandments and instructions what to remember and what to not forget (one wonders what’s the difference between זכור and לא תשכח). Perhaps for Joseph, finding a balance between the two, means he first had to make peace with the past. It’s the darkness that precedes light. Only then his brothers can show up for the ultimate reconciliation.

Hanukkah Same’ach and Shabbat Shalom.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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