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Sermon: Parshat Vayeishev, 12/21/19

12/24/2019 12:55:47 PM


Rabbi Charlie

Shabbat Shalom! The Joseph story begins this week with Parshat Vaheishev and let me tell you – it’s got everything! Family intrigue – check! Attempted murder – check! Romantic/Sexual temptation - check! Betrayal and tragedy – check and check! And of course – miraculous change of fortunes! The Joseph story is fantastic storytelling – they should really make that into a musical… well, anyways…

It’s such a great story because it takes you on a journey. We start off with the beautiful, charmed, egotistical child: Joseph. He’s spoiled. His dad clearly favors him and he rubs it in his brothers’ faces. He has dreams about how he’s going to be so much better than them and he brags about it. So Joseph starts out as an arrogant little jerk.

From there, it’s nothing but darkness. Joseph is betrayed by his brothers – they don’t kill him, but only because they want to make a buck. He gets sold into slavery. As a slave in Potiphar’s house, Potiphar’s wife can’t keep her hands off of him. Because he’s moral and doesn’t give in to her whims, he ends up in jail for doing the right thing.

It’s hard to know what an Egyptian prison would have looked like or smelled like thousands of years ago. It probably wasn’t great. Then here come two guys who were servants of Pharaoh. Joseph correctly interprets their dreams. But when Pharaoh’s cupbearer gets free, Joseph is forgotten… for years!

And that’s where the parsha ends. It’s a whole lot of darkness. We know that the light is going to come. Joseph will ultimately be remembered and do very well for himself in Pharaoh’s Egypt – saving the known world from a terrible famine. After the darkness, there will be light.

A close reading, however, teaches us that you don’t have to wait until next week to find the light in the midst of the darkness. Probably due to his brothers almost killing him and getting sold into slavery, Joseph undergoes a transformation. Gone is the arrogant little jerk. He’s a slave in Potiphar’s house. But Joseph doesn’t complain about his situation. He doesn’t talk about how this isn’t supposed to happen. The Torah teaches us that God is with him and that he’s very successful. He takes a horrible, impossible situation and does everything he can to make the best of it. He manages to create light out of darkness.

The same thing happens in jail. It’s jail. But even though he was wrongly imprisoned, he doesn’t grumble or whine. Again – he’s in a terrible, absurd situation and he does what he can to make the best of the situation. He’s learned humility and patience and faith. He embodies the idea that there are things he can control and there are things he can’t control and he knows and understand the difference between them, helping him create light out of darkness.

I was thinking about this aspect of the Joseph story because in the Talmud, it teaches us that we should light our Chanukiyah – our Chanukah Menorah – in the window. It’s supposed to be a visible source of pride and connection. The Talmud also says that in times of danger, that it is permissible to light the menorah on the table away from the window (Shabbat 21b).

It troubles me that the rabbis in the Talmud had to write that. It troubles me that far too many times in history, far too many Jews, living in far too many different areas, had to sit down and discuss whether they could put the menorah in the window. And yet that has been our reality.

And today – in too many parts of the world – Jews have been advised not to show their kippah, not to display their Star of David, not to be visible about their Judaism. People are not always being held accountable for antisemitic acts (one example from today’s news - and there is far too much fear and difficulty. Will the Jews who live in areas where antisemitism has increased proudly be able to light their menorah in the window this year? I sincerely hope so.

No matter the darkness that surrounds us, we always have a choice. Hugo Gryn shares the story of his father giving up precious margarine during the Holocaust to light one small wick. When he protested about the loss of food to his father, his father looked at him and said, “You and I have seen that it is possible to live up to three weeks without food.  We once lived almost three days without water; but you cannot live properly for three minutes without hope.”

Joseph’s story reminds us that there’s always reason to have hope and he teaches us that we can create light in the darkness. There is much we cannot control, but we are not powerless. From our attitude to our voice to our actions - we must do what we can for ourselves, for our People, and for all who are living in fear and oppression. In the midst of darkness, we, too, can create light.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Chanukah!

Thu, July 9 2020 17 Tammuz 5780