Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah – Miketz
The Joseph story is in full swing. He is the second in command of all Egypt. His brothers have come bowing to him, fulfilling the prophecies of his younger dreams. His opportunity for revenge is at hand. The drama is as high as it gets! Then Joseph proves that he is truly a Talmid Chacham – a wise scholar. Long before he had access to Torah (generations before Moses appears in any story), he demonstrates the Torah’s most sacred teachings. As summarized in a text from Pirke Avot (the Mishnah), “In a world where people do not behave like humans, behave like a human.”
He could have exacted any punishment he wanted. The power was his to choose. He chose compassion. He chose to let his brothers know that despite their ill will to him, they saved the world. Had they not thrown him into the pit, he could never have been present to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams and preserve food from the years of plenty to feed even the lowliest in the years of famine. However much anger he held for the hate they demonstrated, Joseph knew the right answer moving forward. He welcomed them, reunited with his father, and took good care of the entire clan.
This week we also celebrate Chanukkah. Growing up, I never quite bought the story that one declares a miracle because oil lasted longer than anyone expected. Hundreds of years after the event, we find the first mentions of the oil. According to the Books of Maccabees (Apocryphal texts), we celebrate for eight days because it was Sukkot (the Festival of Booths). Many other stories proliferate as to why the holiday runs eight days, but the original reference is that we fought to restore access to the Temple to celebrate the holiday.
That said, the true miracle of Chanukkah is that people felt strongly enough about their faith that they fought to overturn the evil empire to re-establish their right to pray. Justice writers throughout history teach us that if one doesn’t believe strongly enough in something that he is willing to die for it; he may lack a cause for which to live. This teaching is powerful in organizing for justice. The problem is that it presumes that what we believe in is a justice worth fighting for.
No one goes into battle not believing in his/her cause. People on both sides of any dispute all believe that their cause is worth fighting for; worth dying for. For everyone who argues that his is the path to justice and truth, someone taking the opposite view feels just as strongly. In teaching that we have to be willing to die for our cause, we have only polarized society and doomed civilization.
From this week’s Torah portion I learn a better answer: I have to believe in something so strongly for which we all want to live. Bringing everyone from disparate positions under one umbrella requires a focus that transcends being right, winning a battle, or subduing my neighbor. Joseph has every reason to want revenge but chose life and blessing. His brothers never quite trusted his ethos until after he passed, but his message rings true: better we learn to live and respect each other, giving the future generations an opportunity to heal, than to destroy all hope for a better tomorrow.
So, I struggle to teach the traditional story of Chanukkah as the source of miracles. I have to wonder why the Rabbis rejected the original story and went for the oil. Perhaps it was an attempt to bring the supernatural into a human-based story. Whatever their truth, this year, I find a new one in the oil story – one of hope. While it turns the entire historical story into a metaphor, it helps me faithfully observe. The oil lasting eight times longer than expected is the metaphor for the human soul and its capacity for love and compassion. Joseph had to call on the immense power of love to overcome his pain.
Perhaps the holiday summons humanity to call on that same power to overcome the pain that has so divided our society. Perhaps the holiday beckons us to look past the places where we don’t agree and find our way back to a place where we can agree that we all want to be loved and to live in peace. Maybe if we led with compassion, we would find a way past the situations that make us fearful or angry. Chanukkah means “Dedication.” The Maccabees stopped the war and rebuilt the Temple, their place of worship. It is time to celebrate the real miracle of faith that heals the world and dedicate ourselves to rebuilding our world – our place of worship. Shabbat Shalom.