Light One Candle
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I love the Joseph story. It is the perhaps the finest thirteen chapters of the entire biblical narrative. And no scene captures our imagination like this week’s tale of Joseph being pulled up from prison to interpret Pharaoh’s two dreams of ears of grain and cows. Joseph’s unique character is revealed not merely in the fact that he correctly interprets Pharoah’s dreams to represent the coming years of plenty followed by famine. It is not just the fun of watching Joseph opportunistically positioning himself in Pharaoh’s court. What I love most about the scene is that upon interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams, Joseph immediately and seamlessly offers a solution to the coming environmental crisis, a system of storage and reserves that we know will ultimately save not only Egypt, but his family, the children of Israel, as well. Joseph does not flinch, there is no paralysis of analysis. The situation is grim, the odds are long, and the stakes couldn’t be higher, but Joseph throws himself into the solution without any hesitation.
It is not, incidentally, only Joseph who deserves credit. At that moment, he was, after all, just an inconsequential prisoner; Joseph had nothing to lose. In my mind, it is Pharaoh’s response that most deserves study and emulation. Faced with the prospect of an apocalyptic national crisis, Pharaoh turns on a dime and sets into motion the most massive public works project imaginable. There is such a stark contrast between this Pharaoh, who engages in a mid-course correction to save his people, and the other Pharaoh whom we will meet soon enough in Exodus, the Pharaoh whose intransigence and hardened heart spell the doom of his people.
As for Joseph, he is far from perfect, and it is not without some soul searching that he musters the strength of will to forgive his brothers. But eventually, we know, he makes the effort, he transcends the darkness of their past in order to find light ahead. As of this week, the brothers are still mired in that past, quarreling as to who was responsible for their present predicament. Joseph will assure his brothers that their actions, ill intended as they may have been, served a greater good, and that they too must move on. One senses that Joseph has spent enough of his adult life in prisons, physical and otherwise. The last thing he is interested in doing is letting his soul be incarcerated by the wrongs committed against him long ago. This story, no different than the stories of our own lives, can only find resolution when the main characters find the strength of will to let bygones be bygones, looking for light in the future, not the shadows of the past.
It is not easy, not easy at all to find light in the darkness, to kindle a light when logic counsels otherwise. But it is this will to believe that constitutes the essence of who we are and who we can be. Our tradition explains that we will each be asked questions by the heavenly tribunal: questions of ethics, family, Torah study, and others. Perhaps the most enigmatic but also most important question is “Kivita la-yeshua?” Did you look to – or anticipate – redemption? Regardless of your theological leanings, it is really a question of the attitude with which you carry yourself. What is your posture of being? Are you forward-looking or, like Lot’s wife, ever facing the past, stuck in the moment, unable to get out. Like a rock climber who must constantly readjust and recalibrate in order to scale the face of a mountain, we need to be ever able to adapt and respond when faced with what appears to be intractable or insurmountable. No different than the House of Hillel’s rationale as to why we begin Hanukkah with one candle and then increase to two, three, and so on – so it must be in our own lives. On matters of importance, our attitude must always be to seek to increase the light. We must always anticipate and work towards redemption.
In the years to come, as Joseph reaches old age, he gathers his family together for one final request. Knowing he will die in Egypt, but never forgetting his roots, he requests that one day his remains should be buried in the land of Israel. The Hebrew va-ha’alitem et atzmotai mi-zeh is more often than not translated “you shall carry up my bones from here.” (50:25) If you have a bit of Hebrew, then you know that the Hebrew word for “bone,” etzem, is from the same root that means “strength,” otzma. The verse can also be read to say, “take up my strength from here.” Even now, even at the end, as Joseph faces his own mortality, he adopts a hopeful posture of faith, seeking to find purpose and meaning well beyond the limitations of his lifetime. His strength, his values, his love for his family, his people, and homeland must continue, a light that must not go out, but must shine, even through tears.
As long as we have a breath, n’shamah, to breathe, there is always enough oil to light one candle. May we, the descendants of the Maccabees, live with their faith, ever seeking to mend our broken, fissured world, ever leveraging our lives towards creating and sustaining light in the darkness.