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Mikketz -Hanukkah 5782           December 4th, 2021

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Hag Urim Sameach, Hodesh Tov and Shabbat Shalom

     I was speaking to a reporter last week about Hanukkah and the subtext that hovered around our conversation is that Hanukkah is a children’s holiday. While I do not deny that there is a lot for children in our celebration of this Festival of Lights, the real meaning of Hanukkah is not kid stuff. Sometimes, in the lighting of colored candles, spinning dreidels and presents, we forget that the essence of this holiday is about fighting assimilation and that we believe that everyone has the right to worship as he or she pleases. In the dark days of winter, it is important to bring more light into the world. Hanukkah is not only about a small jar of oil that lasts eight days; it is also about the faith to light that oil knowing that it will burn out way too soon. There is a relationship between faith and miracles. This is not kid stuff.

     In our parsha, when we look at this story of Joseph and his brothers, we also see a fantasy story. Who here really believes that dreams do come true? Joseph and Pharoah both dream and their dreams become their reality. Are we supposed to believe that Joseph will forgive his brothers after they sell him off into slavery, after they are personally responsible for his years in prison and who have never come looking for him over 21 years? What are we supposed to make of this story of a dysfunctional family on a holiday that most people see as gathering around a table for latkes and sufgainiyot?

     Rabbi Aviva Richman, writing a d’var torah for Yeshivat Hadar cuts to the essence of what the Joseph story is all about. She writes, Yosef’s longing changes his experience of the world, allowing him in the end to recognize his brothers, even while they didn’t recognize him. It is this posture of longing that we can learn the most from, whether in our relationships with others, or with God. When Yosef’s brothers come to buy grain, the Torah records an asymmetry: “Yosef recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him” (Genesis 42:8). Why this discrepancy? A number of interpretations draw a connection between the act of physical recognition and the mental state of anticipation. We see what we are ready to see. Ramban states this most generally: Yosef recognized his brothers because he was hoping they would come to Egypt; they did not recognize him because they could never have anticipated that he would be the second in command in Egypt.”

     Rabbi Richman teaches us that we see what we want to see. Is this a fantasy story? It is if that is all we can see when we read it. Is Hanukkah only a children’s holiday? It is if that is all we want to see. We constantly make snap judgments, determining how we will relate to what is going on around us by reacting to what we see first. Companies decide who to interview based on their first impression of a resume. No matter how many times we are warned, we still judge books by their covers. I have always found it strange that our culture sees a special relationship that is “love at first sight.”

     The Rabbis have a strange take on this love at first sight thing. The Rabbis said that on the 15th day of Av, young women would go out to the fields and the young men would follow them looking for their “life partner”. Only the Rabbis declared that the women could only go out to the fields if they were wearing a white dress that they had BORROWED from someone else. So, the guys knew only one thing about the girls they were seeing, that whatever they were wearing, they did not own it. The guys needed to look deeper.

     Bible stories are not designed for our entertainment. We are not allowed to judge the parenting skill of our founding families. They did what they did, and they suffered the consequences. Their stories are recorded in the Torah because there is always something we need to learn from them. We too need to look deeper than just the words on the page.

     Pharoah, at the beginning of our parsha, sees something more in Joseph than a dream interpreter and prisoner. He sees someone who tells him, not what he wants to hear, but who tells him straight what is going to happen to Egypt. The advice Joseph gives is sound. This is no ordinary Hebrew slave. So Pharoah raises this exceptional young man to the second most important job in the palace. Joseph’s own brothers are looking for their snotty little brother, who probably is still a slave on some Egyptian farm. They come before Joseph, but they cannot “see” him. They can only see what they want to see.

     The Shabbat of Hanukkah always falls on Parsha Mikketz. We could say that Hanukkah, like Joseph, believes that dreams really do come true. Faith will always win the day. The little jar of oil will never go out. Children do need to know this. But we are only seeing what we want to see.

     Rabbi Richman goes on to say, “This longing and anticipation in the interpersonal realm can translate into longing to be in relationship with God, even as that may feel quite distant or even impossible. In much of our tradition and liturgy, we are fundamentally in a posture of “waiting” vis a vis God, like Yosef waiting for his family. In the Kedushah prayer on Shabbat each week, we name this posture of waiting, saying to God “כי מחכים אנחנו לך / for we are waiting for you.” It is a long wait and can be quite frustrating if we think the goal is to get past the waiting stage. Waiting can be like it was for Yosef’s brothers. We might feel stuck waiting for God and may never find God if we have too narrow a sense of what God is “supposed to look like.” From Yosef, we learn of the power of waiting that is grounded in clarity of purpose and expansive vision.”

     One of the problems we face is that we do not really like waiting. We do not like to look deeper. If we look deeper, we will begin a relationship with what we see that could change our lives. If Hanukkah is about assimilation, then we will have to encounter the assimilation that we find in our daily lives. We might have to, God forbid, change the course of our lives in reaction to what we find hiding in the Hanukkah story. If we open our eyes to see the things we don’t want to see, then we will have to respond differently to what we encounter in the world. We will not be able to walk past the beggar and the homeless. We will no longer be able to close our eyes to injustice and evil. We will have to open our eyes to see the environmental damage we are doing to this world. If we look deeper, we can also find God.

     In Samuel Beckett’s play, Waiting for Godot there are only two characters and only one set. The two are waiting for Godot to tell them what they need to do next. They have many vapid discussions about the nature of the world, but they are unable to do anything because they are standing there waiting for Godot to arrive. They are afraid to move from the spot lest they miss the arrival of Godot. Godot never arrives. We leave them where we found them, still waiting, and waiting for a friend who never comes.

     As Rabbi Richman says, we too are always waiting for God to show up in our lives. We are looking for that big miracle that will “prove” that God exists. We are looking for the one sign that will show us once and for all that God really cares about us and our lives. Of course, there are people who give up on waiting. They say that there is no God. God is never coming. The world is just random and there is no meaning behind anything. The Bible is just stories. Holidays are to make our children happy. Our job is to go to work, make enough money so we can do what we want in this world. And if we have to cheat a bit to get to our goals, well …. Everybody is doing it so why shouldn’t I?

     But the Joseph that his brothers are seeking is right in front of them. They are waiting for what has already been found. They cannot see that the obnoxious teenager has matured into a political genius. Joseph will play with them as he tries to understand if they have grown up in the 21 years that he has been gone. Are they the same brothers who left him to die? Or have they grown into a maturity that helps them learn from what they have done? Will they sell off another brother if given the chance or have they learned to be a family? Joseph sees that God is giving him a second chance to have a family. The brothers only see what they expect to see. They cannot envision what is standing right in front of them.

     Hanukkah is standing right in front of us. It is not a children’s day at all. The miracles it celebrates are all around us. The God that we seek is right here in the essence of this holiday. Dreams can come true. Miracles do happen. We need to have the faith necessary to open our eyes to what is all around us. God is not about the big miracles of splitting the sea or raining manna on a hungry people. God is in the daily miracles of food growing, rain falling, babies being born and love lasting 50 or more years between two people. People can be like a fish, searching for water; God is all around us, giving us strength and giving us hope. We just need to open our eyes. God can be found in the eyes of a homeless women when we bring her in from the street to a warm and safe shelter. God can be found in a wilderness area that we save from the greedy corporations that would exploit the trees, ground, and sky for their own profit. And God can be found in the smile of a child who we comfort when she skins her knee, when we share what we have with her or celebrate a holiday by giving a gift.

     Lighting the Hanukkiah is only half the mitzvah of Hanukkah, the other half is putting that Hanukkiah in the window for all to see, to proclaim the miracle. The lights of Hanukkah may seem small and insignificant compared to the animated reindeers, the icicle lights, and inflatable Santa Clauses, but they stand for something much bigger and more important. “Sheasa nissim l’avoteinu, bayamim ha-hem bazman ha-ze” For the miracles that happened to our ancestors in those days at this time of year. This is the season of miracles, when all appears dark in our lives, the lights of Hanukkah pierce that darkness giving light, faith, and hope to those who are searching for something deeper in their lives.

     Today is a triple miracle. Shabbat comes with its blessings of rest and peace. Rosh Hodesh comes with its message of the cycle of life in the cycles of the moon. Hanukkah is here with its message of courage, faith and bringing light to the darkness. Joseph will reunite his family, there will no longer be the struggles that marked the brotherhoods of Isaac and Ishmael or of Jacob and Esau. The twelve brothers will become one family, to be called Bnai Yisrael, “the Children of Israel” and in their unity, they will find the strength to overcome the greater challenges yet to come.

     We are the People of Israel; we too can find our strength and our hope in the miracles that our ancestors experienced, in their days at this time of year. May God open our eyes to see the miracles that surround us in our days as we say….

     Amen, Shabbat Shalom, Hodesh Tov and Hag Urim Sameach

Mon, February 26 2024 17 Adar I 5784