Sometimes hope emerges in unexpected times and places, if we remain open to the possibility of light emerging out of darkness.
Our Torah portion for this week, Vayeshev is filled with loss and despair. Jacob mourns bitterly for his beloved son Joseph, whom he believes is dead. Meanwhile, Joseph (who has, in fact, been sold into slavery by his brothers) is carried into exile in Egypt, where he will languish for many years in Pharaoh’s prison. As the portion ends, despite Joseph’s gift for dreaming and dream interpretation, he is essentially forgotten. In the darkest depths of the dungeon, all hope seems lost.
It is no coincidence that we often read this parashah around the beginning of Chanukah (this year, the Festival of Lights begins on Saturday night). Chanukah arrives at the darkest season of the year, at the new moon closest to the winter solstice. The situation of the Maccabees, pitted against the mighty Assyrian empire, also seems hopeless. Like Joseph, they face a dark night of the soul. The old, familiar, comfortable paths are all closed off to them. They face overwhelming odds, with little sustenance and profoundly limited options.
And yet Joseph ultimately rises and the Maccabees prevail. Each of these incredible underdogs defies the probabilities—and each begins by nurturing a tiny spark of light. Joseph always holds the memory of his youthful dreams, and the possibility that they might yet come true. The Maccabees muster the faith and courage to kindle light. In both cases, there are no guarantees that the flames of hope will flourish. But Joseph and the Maccabees share the wisdom that in dark times, we must ignite our own little lights and hope that others—including God—will sustain them. We must take the first steps to banish darkness, and believe that when we do, our efforts will spread and inspire others to help illuminate the world.
The poet Rumi wrote:
Night comes so people can sleep like fish
in black water. Then day.
Some people pick up their tools.
Others become the making itself.
In this season, let our lives be the lights the reawaken hope and compassion.