By Rabbah Arlene Berger
This week’s Torah portion is Miketz, Genesis 41:1 – 44:17.
A common greeting for Chanukah is “Chag Urim Sameach,” meaning happy holiday of lights. The haftarah that we read on the Shabbat of Chanukah is Zechariah 2:14-4:7. It contains mention of Zechariah’s vision of the menorah and its lamps or branches that stood and will stand again in the rebuilt Temple.
Light is a pervasive theme of Chanukah, and of most traditions that occur around the time of the winter solstice. Light banishes the long night’s darkness during the winter months.
Light spreads hope and openness and transparency. One looks into a flame and becomes mesmerized by the beauty and paradox of a constant light that is ever changing.
I experience a sense of awe, possibility and hope every time I kindle the Chanukah candles and gaze at their flames. There is something about fire. It is powerful and dangerous, yet also cleansing and mesmerizing. The light of the smallest candle can fill a space so much larger than itself.
It tells us to take courage, to peer into the darkness, into the cracks and corners of our world and our lives. It illuminates the possibilities of our lives. It reminds me that if the flame of one little candle can breathe such potential, imagine the impact that each of us can make.
One person can make a difference. Witness the legacy of Joseph in the four Torah portions, including this week’s, Miketz, that tell his story. He goes from being a bratty younger brother who is sold to slavers and is imprisoned in Egypt, becoming then its second highest leader, saving the country from famine and finally, forgiving his brothers for trying to kill him.
If one person can do all of that, just imagine the difference that many people standing as one can make.
The haftarah, meanwhile, contains a prophecy about rebuilding the Temple. The prophecy will be fulfilled in large part due to the pragmatic pluralism practiced by Cyrus the Great over the areas that he governed. Cyrus’ position was to respect and allow the traditions of the people of his empire. It helped keep the peace and ensured that taxes would be received.
In many ways, this attitude is model of governing for our world today.
Zechariah contains the famous words “Lo b’chayil v’lo b’koach, ki im b’ruchi amar Adonai Tzva’ot “ (Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit — said the Lord of Hosts) (4:6).
This verse contains a powerful message both for Chanukah and for our world today. We recognize this timelessness and timeliness nightly in the second blessing over the Chanukah candles: bayamim ha-hem (in those days), bazman hazeh (in this time). It takes more than armies and war and physical strength to make change and to live a good life. It requires faith in God, in a higher power, in the goodness and possibility of mankind.
When I see the words “but by My Spirit” it tells me that I must nourish a personal godliness while recognizing that the godliness I see in others may be very different from my own. It requires the moral strength of having one’s own belief while at the same time holding space and respect for others without feeling threatened.
That is what Chanukah represents to me, that Judaism is a constant light that is ever changing. The faith we hold, the traditions that imbue our lives with meaning, those same traditions that we often fight against, the sense that being a Jew means something — to me this is the answer to the sages question in the Talmud, Mai Chanukah? What is Chanukah?
Questions for discussion
- What does the concept of light mean to you?
- Chanukah was a time of conflict not only against an oppressive ruler but it also was a civil war dealing with religious practices and ideas and the reality of assimilation. Who were the real winners of the Chanukah story?
Rabbah Arlene Berger is the rabbi of the Olney Kehila and a community chaplain.
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 29, 2016, edition.