Holding Fast and Kindling Light
This week’s פרשה / parasha (Torah portion of the week) – מקץ / Miketz – has long held special status for me. More than four decades ago, I celebrated becoming a Bar Mitzvah on the weekend we read its dramatic tales of unsettling dreams, of feasts and famines, of יוסף / Yosef (Joseph)’s startling rise from prisoner to Viceroy of mighty Egypt, and of his first encounters in decades with the nearly fratricidal brothers who once sold him into slavery and who now bowed before him, unknowingly fulfilling his youthful dreams that they would do just that.
In these fraught interactions, the book of בראשית / Bereishit (Genesis) continues its remarkable chain of family melodramas: Yosef, on several occasions, turns to shed private tears, overcome by emotions at moments when lesser men might have exacted cold-hearted revenge; his brothers, all the while, bounce about as seemingly helpless pawns in his schemes, as these move through our chapters toward uncertain ends; and their once gallant, Angel-wrestling father, now displaced as the hero of the story by his favored son (whom he presumes dead), remerges as an aged patriarch focused on his own bereavement. It makes for quite a drama, one I certainly had a limited capacity to grasp as a 13-year old. I wish for all of us long lives of study (and years of less fraught family interactions) so we might sort through its intricacies.
Miketz carries a broader claim to special status. The reading of this parasha nearly always coincides with the festival of חנוכה / Chanukah. Even if we regard this as an accident of the calendar, the pairing provides rich opportunities for exploration of shared themes. We do not need to look far for these, since both the parasha and the חג / chag (holiday) address the encounter of Jews with great civilizations, each the mightiest empire of its day and each advancing its own aesthetic and its own alluring worldview.
Chanukah, of course, marks the triumph of a band of zealots who resisted the powerful forces of Hellenization – both external and internal – and who rose up, against all odds, to preserve tradition and to secure Jewish autonomy. Interestingly, the Rabbis who consecrated the Hasmonean’s victory celebration as a minor holiday, set aside a focus on military matters. They did not include the Books of the Maccabees, with their tales of heroic battles, among those canonized in the תנ"ך / TaNaCh (Sacred Scriptures), and they instead chose to emphasize the implausible story of a cruse of oil whose contents burned in the Temple’s menorah well beyond rational expectations.
The הפטרה / Haftarah (Prophetic Reading), chanted along with Miketz, ends with the image of a golden menorah bound by olive branches and now used by the State of Israel as its symbol. The selection of this passage affirms the Rabbis’ more spiritual vision of the holiday, with the stirring concluding words from the prophet זכריה / Z’charyah (Zachariah):
לא בחיל ולא בכח כי אם ברוחי אמר ה' צבאות (זכריה ד:ו)
Lo v'chayil v’lo v’choach ki im b’ruchi amar adonay tzva’ot
“Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit – said God of Hosts” (Z’charya 4:6)
Like many a Bar Mitzvah boy who practiced his haftarah over and over, and who has repeated it from time-to-time (though not recently), I still remember these verses and their traditional cantillation by heart.
Back in Miketz, we find a far more personal Jewish encounter with a great civilization, and in some ways a more profound one. At the moment the parasha begins, with an account of the Pharaoh’s troubled dreams, Yosef has been in jail for two years, falsely accused of sexual impropriety by a mistress who had unsuccessfully tried to seduce him and also temporarily forgotten by an erstwhile cellmate who has now returned to his position as the Pharaoh’s Chief Butler.
[I do try hard not to let the image of an aging Donny Osmond in a loin cloth and belting out Andrew Lloyd Webber tunes co-opt my own vision of Biblical events, but cannot help hearing the melancholy strains that end the first act of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat:
If my life were important I
would ask will I live or die,
but I know the answers lie
far from this world.]
Even before this chapter of Bereishit ends, however, dizzying events transform Yosef’s life: the Chief Butler recalls him and his prowess at dream interpretation and recommends him to the Pharaoh; the ruler summons Yosef from jail, finds his explanations of the troubling visions convincing – having rejected all those put forward by the sages of Egypt – and even adopts the Hebrew’s recommended responses. The Pharaoh then gives Yosef his ring, dresses the new Viceroy in linens and golden chains, presents him with a glorious chariot, and orders the Egyptian people to heed his words. Yosef also marries the daughter of an Egyptian chief and fathers two sons, even as events unfold just as he prophesied, leaving him in charge of food distribution in the one nation prescient enough to set aside some of its bounty during years of plenty.
Yosef, we should note, certainly carried compelling reasons all the while to reject the faith of a family that had not treated him well, just as his new position in Egypt exposed him to all that was most beautiful and most tempting in that civilization. Even situated as Viceroy, he gave his second son, אפרים / Efrayim (Ephraim), a name that characterized the powerful empire he now administered and the place of his great triumph as ארץ עניי / eretz onyi (“the land of my affliction”). Surely Yosef represents one of the most remarkable stories of Jewish continuity recounted in our texts. We do him and all that he embodies a disservice when we let the images of his youth – the idle dreamer, the favorite son taunting his siblings, the clothes horse in his striped coat, or the hapless victim wallowing in a pit and then carried off by Ishmaelites – monopolize our sense of the strikingly resilient and faithful son of ישראל / Yisrael (Israel/Jacob), who resisted the glories of Egyptian culture, even when they were laid at his feet.
The pairing of his story with the celebration of Chanukah, and its version of holding fast to faith amidst the temptations of a powerful and idealistic empire eager to swamp a stubborn minority, underscores these themes. We, a latter generation also familiar with the allures of a mighty civilization – some admirable, some tempting in other ways – have much to consider as we move through a season when some Jews can feel marginalized by the dominant celebrations that surround them, yet also do not always resist turning our own minor holiday into something like a “Jewish Christmas.”
Miketz also stands apart as the Torah portion most fairly characterized as ending with a cliffhanger. As the parasha closes, Yosef bring his scheme to its climax. He has ordered one of stewards to plan a goblet in the sack of his youngest brother בנימין / Binyamin (Benjamin) – the only one who shares his mother רחל / Rachel (Rachel), the favorite wife, and now a source of some lingering comfort to their father in his unhappy latter days. Yosef has already insisted that the other brothers must bring Binyamin to Egypt, forcing them to compel יעקב / Ya’akov (Jacob) to accede to this despite his strenuous objections, and now the Viceroy insists that only the alleged thief must stay in Egypt as his slave, brushing aside the brothers’ insistence that they could not leave him alone and would stay as well. There the parasha ends, with a terrible dilemma before the brothers.
[It would be as if the curtain came down on Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, just as Yosef belts out:
Benjamin, you nasty youth
Your crime has shocked me to the core.
Never in my whole career
Have I encountered this before.
Guards, seize him, lock him in a cell.
Throw the keys into the Nile as well.
– leaving the patrons to wait another week before learning what happens next.]
In the Torah, within the first 20 verses of ויגש / Vayigash, the following parasha, resolution arrives quickly: first, the fourth brother, יהודה / Yehudah (Judah), steps forward with a complete nobility that has heretofore eluded him and, then, Yosef reveals all in an unfolding of destiny and an emotional reconciliation, drenched in “weeping heard throughout the land.” But that comes next week.
For now, as the story unfolds, the future remains uncertain, just as it had throughout much of Yosef’s incredible life. And just as it did for the Hasmonean zealots, few in number, but inspired to take on the many warriors of a powerful empire. In Miketz and in Chanukah, we encounter stories of perseverance and continuity, even surrounded by the allures of ancient civilizations. In Miketz and in Chanukah, we encounter stories of faith and destiny, even amidst the uncertainties of fraught moments in time.
Will Binyamin have to stay behind in Egypt? Will Yosef disclose his own identity? Will the other sons of Yisrael rise to the challenges and opportunities of the moment? And will the descendants of אברהם / Avraham (Abraham) sustain their proclaimed destiny to form “a mighty nation” even as they gather in a foreign land? Fast-forwarding: Can brave Maccabee warriors, hidden in caves, stand up to the far more numerous and far better armed forces of Antiochus Epiphanes IV? Will one cruse of oil last long enough to keep fires burning in a re-consecrated Temple as holy workers take the time to replenish resources? And will Jewish identity survive its encounter with Hellenism?
The theme of uncertainty itself helps to explain one of the most celebrated debates about the ritual practices of Chanukah. In the time of the Mishna, בית שמאי / Beit Shammai (The House of Shammai) argues that celebrants should light eight candles on the first night, then reduce the number by one candle each successive night. This upholds a clear logic: just as the quantity of miraculous oil slowly depleted, so should we reduce the light we kindle each night. בית הלל / Beit Hillel (The House of Hillel) calls for the opposite approach, the practice we follow to this day – increasing the number of candles each night. They argue:
מעלין בקודש ואין מורידין
Ma’alin b’kodesh v’ein moridin
“We increase in sanctity and we do not decrease.”
That sounds well and good, but what does it actually mean in this context?
Taking note of the heavy clouds of uncertainty in both of our stories, of the cliffhanger experiences of those who lived the events recounted in the Torah and commemorated by the holiday, points to this idea: what must increase amidst uncertainty is perseverance and commitment to kindle light amidst darkness, holding fast to what matters most even as we adapt to evolving circumstances. The more the uncertainty hovers, the greater the need becomes for light and the clarity it can provide. The directive associated with Chanukah, after all, is simply להדליק / l’hadlik (to kindle). Where there is darkness, seek to bring light. And when the darkness persists, seek to bring more light.
We too have experienced some darkness in our times and some uncertainty beyond the regular rhythms of the seasons. We too face the call for perseverance and commitment. We too have the opportunity to find inspiration in our ancient texts and in our festive celebrations to hold fast to what matters most to us and to kindle light that sustains faith and brings clarity.