“The house of Jacob shall be a fire, and the house of Joseph a flame, and the house of Essau for straw”
Rashi on Genesis 37:1
There is nothing easy about the story of Joseph. I think we all feel a natural sense of injustice what happens to Joseph, even though no-one is without guilt.1 The rabbis seem to be similarly conflicted with this sense of injustice. In Bereishit Rabbah the justification for these events is that “Joseph was the cause of all of Jacob’s offspring.”2
This idea that sometimes we need a good kick in order to advance from a stagnant place is not new and does not always find biblical inspiration. Nietzsche said in 1888 “Aus der Kriegsschule des Lebens – was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich starker”– “From the war school of life – what doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger.”3
We see that in Joseph’s story this rings great truth. Joseph was his father Jacob’s favourite – which Jacob marked by adorning him in new, expensive, colourful garments. His brothers hated Joseph not only because of this. Joseph was annoying, a tell-tale and a know-it-all. They even went as far as to plot to kill him. Reuven, Joseph’s oldest brother, was shocked by this idea and instead pleaded to throw him in a well (from which Reuven intended to save him after the other brothers left). Lo and behold – there is a chain of caravans. So instead of allowing Reuven to save his youngest brother, he was sold to an Ishmaelite caravan who in turn sells him to Potiphar. This story contains a lot of darkness. It seems very fitting for this time of year to read this parasha. There are even special instructions for when this parasha is read on Chanukah. The idea that the world’s natural light is at it’s absolute lowest coincides with a mentally idea of low light/ mood as well.
איך ווייס ניט דיינע וועגן.
I know not your ways —
It can be very difficult to uncover the underlying meaning of what happens to us in a certain period in our lives. Joseph, surely, must have felt the same. Why me? We are family? I was only trying to help them. Great intentions; honesty leading to unfortunate outcomes. But what is the alternative? Should we not speak out? Should we not try to warn our brother or colleague if we think that they are at risk of something?
א זונפארגאנג איז מיר א גאטפארגאנג.
A sunset is for me
Where are you going,
This idea of finding oneself alone in a destitute situation, like Joseph’s, is heart breaking and this light can be difficult to see. But it is still there! We celebrate Chanukah for that reason. Chanukah becomes more than just the festival of rededication the temple (almost 2000 years after that temple was destroyed). It became the festival of Jewish survival! It is a festival that deals with destitute situations – appropriates them, and makes it into a festival. There is still light in this menorah. There is still Jewish presence. And when I say Jewish presence, I also imply individual presence.
After the resent tragedies in Berlin and Ankara, we find our inner light again somewhat dimmed. This is not just Jewish light, it is a collective light. We may lose a little of our confidence in humanity and a little bit of hope for the future.
נעם מיך מיט אויב
אין אט דער מיט
איז ליכטיק ,גאט.
Take me along,
If, in the “along”
It is light,
Kindle your Chanukiah. Enjoy the light that emanates from it. Let this light be more than just a candle that burns, and that expands in the course of it eight days of celebration and commemoration. Allow its light to pick you up from whatever dark place you found yourself in. Let it be a light of reflection not only (re)dedication. Let it be eight sparks of hope, like the hope that Joseph fostered whilst battling with his situation.
איך האב מורא אין דער פינצטער.
I am afraid of the dark
The end of Joseph’s story is a good one. Joseph became the viceroy of Egypt. He made up with his brothers and they all prospered. Even when his life seemed to be at his darkest, he found his spark that kindled his future and the future of his family and later offspring (which includes ours). The end of the Chanukah story is equally hopeful. We are celebrating a festival that used to be a minor festival and is now very popular indeed. It is a celebration of acculturation a Jewish Chag that includes non-Jewish customs, from the Latke, to the dreidel, and yes – even to the melody of the Maoz Tsur.
I guess what I am trying to say is “Kol zeh ya’avor” this all will pass – it will become better. When Rabbi Lionel Blue z’’l talked about the festival of Chanukah in 2013 at the Chanukah reception in Parliament he “commented on a modern miracle – the social change that is leading to widespread acceptance for LGBT people in our society – by saying “Chanukah is a festival of wonder, and tonight is truly a wonder”.4 Chanukah celebrates survival, hope and the promise that the world’s natural AND spiritual light WILL come back. That, my friends, is the hope imbedded in Chanukah and that is the hope imbedded in the story of Joseph and his family.
Peter Luijendijk LBC Rabbinic student
1 Tanchuma 7.
2 Bereishit Rabbah 84:5.
3 Götzen-Dämmerung, oder, Wie man mit dem Hammer philosophirt, 8.