Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, December 16, 2017
Rabbi Michael Friedland
This Shabbat, Shabbat Miketz almost always falls during Hanukah and thus every year the Hanukkah story and the Joseph story become linked. And while the details are very different, in our tradition it is Purim and the story of Esther which is seen as a kind of parallel to the Joseph story, there is a natural connection from the miracle aspects of both stories and the unexpected reversal of fortune in each tale.
In the Joseph story, Joseph is hated by his brothers, conspired against, sent into slavery and despite doing the right thing, keeps getting beaten down until his dream interpretive skills are appreciated by the Pharaoh. In the Hanukkah story, the Jewish people are oppressed by a greater empire, forced to abandon their deepest religious practices until a small military force arouses the people to fight back and against all odds defeat the greater power. And yet the legend tells us even then they seemed to be stymied in their efforts to consecrate the Holy Temple until a miracle occurs that affords them the time to prepare consecrated oil for the Temple menorah and resume the sacred rituals.
Both tales tell of the victory of light over darkness, in the metaphorical sense and in the case of Hanukkah, in a very literal sense as well.
There is a midrash on a chapter in last week’s Torah portion. At the conclusion of the narrative about Judah and Tamar, we read of the children born of their relationship, Peretz and Zerah. The midrash states that at that moment, all of our characters were entrenched in their own personal issues: the brothers of Joseph were busy selling their brother, Jacob was in the midst of mourning for his allegedly deceased son Joseph, Joseph was suffering in slavery and Judah was busy taking a Canaanite wife, this was his wife who dies and leads to his mistaken relationship with Tamar. Everyone was busy dealing with the sufferings or transgressions of every day life, things looked dark for the people of Israel however hidden behind the scenes the Holy One was busy creating the light of the Messiah, for our tradition tells us the Messiah will come from the union of Judah and Tamar, the ancestors of King David.
Likewise the story of Hanukkah is a story of light illuminating what appears to be dark.
What sometimes comes as a shock to those who are familiar with the Hanukkah story of the one cruse of oil that lasts for eight days, is that the only source we have for that story is the Talmud. Even there, the passage introducing the story is kind of odd: Mai Hanukkah? The Talmud asks – What is Hanukkah? The assumption is that the custom of lighting lights during this dark winter period is a common custom among Jews but it is not clear why or how this commemorates the Hanukkah story of the Maccabean revolt and reconsecration of the Temple.
The realization that this story is really more of a legend comes from the reading of the Book of Maccabees 1 and the Book of Maccabees 2 which are chronicles of the Hasmonean court. These books were originally written in Hebrew but were not included in our Biblical canon, though they are in the Apocrypha, texts that are included in the Catholic Bible and written in between the close of our Tanakh and the New Testament. Neither of these historical chronicles include the legend of the miracle of oil. Instead they explain that the holiday was called for by the Maccabees to make up for the holiday of Sukkot that they were not able to celebrate during the war.
It is not found in the official Hanukkah prayer “al hanisim”, recited in the Amidah during Hanukah, which recounts the story of the Maccabees’ victory but makes no mention of miraculous oil. Instead it refers to the miracle of the victory of the weak and the few over the strong and corrupt.
There is, however, another explanation of the lighting of lights at Hanukkah time found in our tradition. The Sages told a story about what happened to Adam, the first human being, at this winter time of the year. As the days began to become shorter, Adam was terrified. Each day there was less light and, having never experienced this before, he assumed that this was the end of the world, each day would become darker until the world receded into its original nothingness. He assumed that this was the punishment for his disobedience to God. But after the winter solstice, when the days began to become longer he realized that this was merely the natural order of the world and the Talmud tells us Adam instituted an eight day festival each year to celebrate it. He did so in gratitude to God, but later pagans celebrated it in honor of their false gods (Avodah Zarah 8a). This legend was the Sages’ explanation for the origin of the Roman holidays that occur at this time of year, holidays that included lighting lights, holidays that later were adopted by Christianity as Christmas and New Years. It is no accident that Christmas lights play such a prominent role in that holiday. Lighting of lights during the darkest days of the year is a common element to festivals in many cultures. Rabbi Reuven Hammer notes it probably originated in sympathetic magic. In an attempt to encourage the sun to shine longer, you light fires. This, people believed, would help to restore the sun’s brilliance.
Lighting lights when the days are short makes sense in many ways. The light is needed to see in the lengthened darkness but we also know that lack of light during these months can cause a physiological condition called SAD, Seasonal Affective Disorder, that can cause depression. The solution to those who suffer is to employ an especially bright artificial light.
It makes sense, then, that Jews – no less than all cultures living in deepening darkness – would have wanted to light lights at Hanukkah time in order to dispel the darkness and gloom, to brighten their lives when the depression of the winter season sets in. The legend of the miraculous oil insured that Jewish lighting of lights was not an imitation of pagan rituals but were truly tied to the events of Hanukkah.
We all need light in our lives, not only physical or physiological, not only metaphorical but psychological as well. We need signs, examples, reports that remind us that even when things seem dark, the dawn is just around the corner. Or in the words of the midrash, while others are dealing with sorrow, the Holy One is preparing the light of the Messiah.
In the midst of continuous stories about government corruption and incompetence, assaults on democracy and basic human decency, the daily reveals of sexual assault by well know public figures, we need reassurance that life can improve. And we were given an example of that this week, on the first night of Hanukkah no less, when Doug Jones, the lead prosecutor in the case against two members of the KKK who killed four little girls in the 16th Street Baptist church bombing in Birmingham in 1963, defeated Roy Moore, a homophobic, racist accused of molesting young girls when he was in his 30s, for Senate in Alabama.
That a democrat could defeat a republican, even one as disreputable as Roy Moore, in Alabama was considered unachievable. But a coalition of Democrats and republicans, black and white voters, conservatives and liberals chose decency over tribal politics. Almost 20% of the voters for Doug Jones who supports abortion rights, stated in post election polls that they believe abortion should be illegal in all cases. I mention this because despite these thousands of voters who believe deeply that abortion is wrong, they could overcome that one issue to elect a better overall representative for their state. This illuminates a hope that people can disagree on one issue or another but can come together for the betterment of the country, and lights the way to believe that better days are to come.
That is also the reason why Hillel’s way of lighting the lights – increasing them each day - is more acceptable than his colleague Shammai’s method of decreasing the number each day until there are none. Increasing light is optimistic, the other is pessimistic. One gives us hope, the other takes it away.
The story of Joseph, who by wit and moral constancy, overcame his struggles, and the story of Maccabees who fought against religious persecution, show us that light can be increased in the world, but only when we take actions to improve the world. These stories remind us that God is there more often in hidden miracles and depends on us to do the fighting against the darkness that threatens the values we treasure. Let us consider these lessons when we kindle the lights of Hanukkah.