Friday, December 7, 2012

Parsha Vayeshev: Chanukah and Dealing with Spiritual Emptiness

This week's Torah portion brings us to the story of Joseph (starting in Genesis 37). The favoritism that Jacob shows towards Joseph agitates his brothers. The chutzpah that Joseph exudes by telling the interpretation of his dreams doesn't help. One day while Joseph was out with his brothers, the brothers hit a breaking point and try to figure out how to dispose of Joseph. They initially think of murdering Joseph. However, Reuben comes up with the idea of throwing Joseph into a pit. I can come up with some nice, brief explanation of how much like Joseph, we have our high and low moments. Joseph's low moment was being hated by his brothers and sold into slavery, and how that nevertheless, he still managed to hold it together and become very successful. I am not denying the validity of such an interpretation, but would like to draw attention to  Genesis 37:24, which talks about throwing Joseph into the pit:

והבור רק, אין בו מים.  

"The pit was empty; there was no water in it."

When I read this, I had to ask myself an important question: If I already know that the pit was empty, why did the Torah have to repeat itself in saying that there was no water in it? Isn't that a redundancy? Also, what does this have to do with Chanukah? Chronologically speaking, Chanukah took place long after the Joseph story. To better attempt to answer these questions, we have to go to the Talmud (Shabbat 22a). The Gemara's primary focus is on the laws of lighting Chanukah candles. Out of the middle of nowhere, there is a discussion about the redundancy of mentioning that there is no water in the pit. The tangent is about as abrupt as the story of Judah and Tamar. 

Nature abhors a vacuum. Pits aren't mere emptiness. The void has to be filled with something. The rabbis also realized this. To put these pits into context, they were used as water storage facilities. The pit into which Joseph was thrown into, however, was not. What was concluded in the Talmud is that there were scorpions and snakes in the pit. For a Jew, this can harken back to the simile that Torah is like water. Without the water (i.e., Torah) in a Jew's life, that lack of spirituality means that more undesirable elements take over. Again, it's a nice drash, but it still doesn't answer what it has to do with Chanukah. 

Let's run with the rabbinic interpretation that Joseph was thrown into a pit with snakes and scorpions. Coming out of that pit unscathed would have to be defined as miraculous. As such, the connection between lighting Chanukah candles and Joseph's survival is the idea of a miracle. It was a miracle that a day's worth of oil lasted eight days, as it was a miracle that a small, rebellious, rag-tag band of Jews can defeat one of the most advanced militaries of its time in order to fight for religious freedom

Joseph had his struggles. The Maccabees had to fight political oppression. Even in the modern world, we have our obstacles, whether internal or external, to face. The world can be a cold, dark place, much like the pit into which Joseph was casted. Although it's easier to wallow in pity and despair when [metaphorically] thrown into a pit, one of the joys of being human is that we are not confined to being victims of our circumstances: we have free will, and thus the potential to change

As Einstein stated, "Darkness is the absence of light." The fact that Chanukah is near the darkest time of the year for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere (sorry for those in the Southern Hemisphere....Israel is still in the Northern Hemisphere, so the interpretation still applies), and I don't think that is incidental. We light the candles during this time to remind us that even during the darkest times, we still can bring light to the world, whether that is in the context of our own personal lives or in the greater global sense. It's actually nice to remind ourselves that the candle-lighting doesn't occur during the darkest time. Why? If we hit a rough patch in our lifetimes, we don't want to hit rock-bottom. If we hit rock-bottom not in the hyperbolic sense, but in the sense that we have no resources, family or friends, or way out, then there's no recourse. If we are in the recesses of darkness, we want to climb out of that pit before it gets too dark. If you reach a point where such darkness falls upon you, G-d forbid, never forget that there is still hope for spiritual ascent so that we can make our lives, as well as the world, a brighter place

שבת שלום וחג שמח! 

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