Sunday, December 6, 2015

Light One Candle (Portion Miketz)

Our Torah portion, Miketz is almost always read during the week of Chanukah. Is this a coincidence of the calendar or is there something to learn from this juxtaposition? Rabbi Laura Geller notes that as Miketz begins, Joseph has spent two years in an Egyptian prison, which is much like the pit he was thrown into by his brothers years ago before they sold him into slavery.

But shortly into the portion, things take a turn for the better.  When Pharaoh needs an interpreter for his dreams, Joseph is remembered suddenly and summoned from the darkness. Not only does Joseph interpret the dream as a prediction, but also he tells Pharaoh what to do in response. Pharaoh immediately recognizes the wisdom  of this former Hebrew slave and appoints Joseph as the second most powerful ruler in Egypt.

What does the Joseph narrative teach us about Chanukah? Like our portion, Chanukah moves from sadness to joy, from darkness to light, from bondage to deliverance.  Later in the story, when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, he says: “It was not you who sent me here; it was God.” All along, despite the darkness of exile, Joseph understood he was serving God. Chanukah comes at the darkest season of the year, and we make the light, one candle at a time.

Rabbi David Hartman asked why Chanukah is celebrated for eight days rather than seven. Since there was enough oil for one day, the first day is no miracle. The miracle is that it burned for the seven remaining days. Therefore Chanukah should be a seven-day holiday. But it is eight days. So what is the miracle? The miracle is that our ancestors were willing to light the oil in the first place, even when they couldn’t be sure that they had enough oil, enough strength, to complete the rededication of the Temple. The miracle was that they lit that first candle. They, like Joseph, made light in the face of darkness, confident that the darkness would eventually end.

In many ways, the past few weeks have been a dark time.  We have witnessed brutal violence, met with too little political resolve to make things better.  Yet our calling, as Jews, is to maintain hope, and to work to bring light into the world precisely when it is darkest.  As the poet Theodore Roethke wrote, “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.”  May Chanukah’s lights inspire us to bring illumination, peace, and justice to our community and our nation.

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