December 23, 2012

I have come to appreciate my sleep in the last 15 months more than ever before.  Benny wakes me up long before the time I have to be up.  Let me tell you that the contrast between a natural awakening and the sounds of Benny are stark (but music to my ears).

These two types of awakenings are reminiscent of the two times we read this week, “and Pharaoh awoke.”  He awoke to the puzzling images of his dreams, and immediately wondered what they meant and what response they demanded.  We awake with an equal sense of confusing reality—a mixture of hope and anxiety attends our rising, and we wonder always, “what should I do?”  What dramas can be put aside and what new challenges demand my full attention?  Increasingly, we ARE Joseph—called upon to be a voice of wisdom and holiness in a world of fear and hatred. Exercising this form of leadership is a privilege but also a burden. Our parashah is about the assumption of responsibility and living with the consequences of our decisions.

Miketz means “at the end” and in a way this parashah is about the end of the preliminaries of the Torah and the childhood of our people.  The transition from being a family in Canaan to a nascent nation inEgypt has begun.  The decisions made by the biblical characters increasingly impact not only on their own destiny but the world. From a modest beginning will come a mighty narrative that will eventually define the terms of civilized society.

It seems appropriate that Miketz is connected each year to the festival of Hannukah, which represents both a middle and a new beginning.  This is an activist festival—the one more than any other when the initiatives of the people determined their destiny.  The festival’s name refers of course to the rededication of the Templein Jerusalemto the worship of God.  But it also alludes to chinnukh, or education—this is a time to train ourselves with new skills and insights.  Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav brings out a beautiful word play—through Hannukah we reveal the hidden light of God’s face.  The second of the priestly blessings says that “the light of God’s face will shine on you andויחנך.  We translate that last word as “be gracious to you,” from the word חן, but Reb Nachman plays on the presence of the letters for חנוכה—by celebrating Hannukah we reveal the hidden light of God’s face. The human initiative is what reveals the light, though the source of the light is eternally present.

The latter point is made even more forcefully by Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (1565-1630) known generally as the “Shelah” for the name of his book, Shnei Luchot HaBerit.  There is an old tradition of reciting the passage “hanerot hallalu” after lighting the Hanukkah candles. The earliest version of the text is found in the Talmud, Sofrim 20:6.  The paragraph emphasizes that we are forbidden to use the light of Hannukah (e.g. to read or cook by it), but only to look at it.

The Shelah brings down that this unusual arrangement of lighting a flame and then declaring its light to be off limits for human use is reminiscent of the first light of creation.  As we all remember, God creates light on day one, but the sun, moon and stars are not fashioned until the fourth day. We use the secondary light of the celestial bodies—but what happened to the first light of creation? Already in Midrash, Bereshit Rabba 3:6 we learn the idea that God hid the initial light away for the future use of the righteous.  If I understand the Shelah correctly, he is saying that Hannukah is the “coming out” celebration where the righteous are able to reveal light that had previously been hidden and share it with the world.  What is that light?  It is the light is of the Shekhinah, the divine presence; the light of Torah; and the light of mitzvot.

One of my favorite Hannukah songs, Banu Hoshech L’garesh, makes this point as well. It is our collective responsibility and joy to reveal hidden light—sources of joy on this festival.  We can rise in darkness and feel burdened and overwhelmed by the troubles of the world.  We can bemoan the weakness of our institutions and despair of our ability to redeem goodness, tranquility and holiness in this world.  Or we can assert hope, and banish darkness.  Hannukah teaches us to simply light, and look at the dancing flames.  Not to use them, but to absorb their light until we gain hope and courage and the ability to carry on our holy work.

Shabbat Shalom and Hanukkah Sameach!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham