Dvar Torah delivered by Mike Garmise on Shabbat Chanuka, 5th Tevet 5775, 27th December 2015
Here we are in the midst of the Festival of Lights, celebrating the wondrous victory of the few over the many, the weak over the strong, the believers in God over the non-believers. And every year, we read parshat Miketz during Chanukah, part two of the magnificent literary tale of Yosef and his brothers. And we have to ask, what is the connection?
Nothing obvious. We can of course refer to the victory of the single brother, Yosef, over his brethren, although Yosef, in his vaunted guise as a tzadik never used such terminology. No , it was God’s will, he said. Or perhaps we could read into the story that this is the as-yet-unrecognized beginning of the trials and tribulations of the Israelites in Egypt, while Chanukah marks the end of another period of trials and tribulations (which, of course, repeated itself yet another time a century and a half later).
I would like to consider another aspect, which is prompted by the haftara that we read today, about the menorah and light. This holiday of lights we light the Chanuka menorah, we sing about bringing in light and banishing darkness. Light is good. Light is strength. Light is life. Light is happiness. Light is understanding (I see the light). Light is hope (at the end of the tunnel). Light is the eternal. It is the Torah. It is the first and the last, as in the Haftara. It is one of the constants in our lives. Without light, from the sun, we all perish. The first day of creation in Bereshit, we read ‘Let there be light!’ and from then on, light has been the ultimate positive symbol.
Turning to our parsha, light does not appear explicitly. We could say that Yosef sees the light of freedom beckoning to him after years in prison for no wrongdoing of his own (except his own radiant good looks and shining devotion to being a moral person). And Yosef helps Pharaoh to see the light with his explanations of the king’s dreams and the advice he gives him about appointing a supreme commander over the food stores (an early Rami Levi?).
Yosef after his elevation lives in a world of light, of glitter, of wealth, of plenty, yet we understand that his inner life is dark. It is oppressed by memories of his brothers, who hated him, fears for the health and the very life of his aged father, bitter memories of a woman who perceived herself as scorned, and perhaps a bit of shame when he recalled the narcissistic and totally unbearable ass he had been back at age 17. He is looking for the light that will lift his spirits, and the first flicker comes when his brothers arrive in Egypt.
They don’t recognize him. The brothers, of course, are not looking for Yosef. As far as they are concerned, if he is still alive, he’s a slave somewhere. But there are two interconnected objective reasons why they don’t recognize him. One is his personal grooming, which is totally Egyptian. And second, clothes make the man and his clothing announces that he is a very high ranking official. And here by the way, as Rabbi Jonathan Sachs beautifully notes, we have the fifth case in the book of Bereshit of clothing concealing the truth. In other words, the clothing serves to hide who he really is – to prevent the light of truth from getting in or out.
It is with the arrival of the brothers that light comes back into Yosef’s life. He schemes to test them, not from a desire for revenge but because he wants to know if they have truly changed, as he has.
The only part of this story (which we will read next week) that seems to contradict all this goody-goody stuff and to introduce a shadow that dims the light, that Yosef is the one who basically enslaves the whole of Egypt to Pharaoh. It is he who buys up the land, virtually in exchange for 24 dollars’ worth of wampum, in this case food, and leaves the whole country, except for the priests, vassals to Pharaoh. Of course, this transaction is presented as a manifestation of Yosef’s good-heartedness, his concern for the welfare of the people and their continued survival.
But in a week when data are released about poverty and difficulties in making it through the month, I can’t help but think of the accusations in Israel today of how the 20 richest families in Israel control many of our legislators and ensure that the laws they promote work for those who have and not necessarily for those who don’t have.
We have a lot of light to be thankful for this Chanukah. Here in Netanya our mayor adds colored lights to every new traffic circle and mini-fountain in the city. But beyond that, we have magnificent accomplishments in terms of high tech biomedical innovations that help save lives, other technological advances that make our lives easier, advances in all walks of life that any country would be proud of.
Yet around us we see the threatening shadows of darkness pushing and bubbling in all directions. This week I heard that an agency that follows such matters reported that in November, 5000 people were killed in terrorist attacks around the world. 5000. 1500 in Iraq, 700 in Syria, etc. Australia had a small taste of terrorism and doesn’t know what to do with itself. In Pakistan 130 children were slaughtered in their school by the Taliban. It almost makes our country seem like an island of tranquility in a raging sea, and it reinforces what the sergeant used to say at the end of each day’s briefing on the police series Hill Street Blues, be careful, it’s dangerous out there.
We have to believe that we will prevail. Over our enemies, our friends, our politicians and most important, over ourselves. This is the message of Yehuda Hamaccabi and of Chanukah, and of Yosef in Egypt – with unlimited belief and good planning we have it in us to overcome the odds. We just have to get our act together.
Chag Urim Sameach. Shabbat Shalom.