Saturday, December 12, 2009

Parshas Vayeishev - A Light in the Darkness

The conjunction of Parshas Vayeishev and Chanukah features two sets of brothers, the sons of Leah and the Macabees. And both also feature something that was thought to be hopelessly lost, being found again.

Parshas Vayeishev begins with Vayeishev Yaakov Baaretz Megurei Aviv וַיֵּשֶׁב יַעֲקֹב, בְּאֶרֶץ מְגוּרֵי אָבִיו--בְּאֶרֶץ, כְּנָעַן., Yaakov wanted to dwell in the land where his fathers had sojourned. While his fathers had only sojourned there, Yaakov wanted to dwell there, which implies permanence. The famous Rashi mentions that Tzaddikim wish to dwell in peace, but G-d asks rhetorically why they are not satisfied with the rest of their afterlife, to want it here and now in this world.

There are two elements at work here. First Yaakov wanted to live permanently in the land, yet the second half half of the sentence informs us, Ba'aretz Caanan, that it was still the land of Caanan, not the land of Israel. It was not yet a place where Israel could live permanently, only sojourn. Secondly, Yaakov wanted to rest from all his troubles. Just as the story of Avraham's life had ended with Yitzchak's marriage, and Yitzchak's story had ended with Yaakov's departure, so too Yaakov thought that his story had ended with his sons. He could live out his years peacefully, without strife or struggle.

Instead the incident of Yosef occurred, because while Yaakov's sons would play major roles in what came next, Yaakov's own role had not ended. Avraham's role ended when he passed his mission on to his son Yitzchak. Yitzchak's mission ended when he passed on his own mission twice, through the blessings, to Yaakov. However Yaakov had yet to pass on his mission, and the role of his sons in this arrangement was as of yet unsettled.

It is a very human thing to want to be at peace, but achieving anything worthwhile in life requires struggling to overcome obstacle. Yaakov had not become a great man when he was an Ish Tam and a Yoshev Oholim, mild mannered and studious, his mission began when he was forced into exile, which developed the traits in him that made him great. And while Yaakov assumed that he would only have to endure one exile. In fact, like his descendants, he would be forced to endure not one, but two exiles. The second of which would last into the lives of his descendants, seemingly without end.

To want peace in this world is to give up the struggle for greatness and for truth. It is easy enough to be at peace by surrendering. And had the Macabees chosen to surrender, to give up their beliefs, they too could have lived at peace. But at what price. The Pasuk in Vayeishev tells us. It is only possible to dwell in peace, Vayeishev, on those terms, if you accept that it is Eretz Caanan. On the other hand if you want it to be an elevated place, you must stand for something, and that will force you to either be a Ger, to sojourn homelessly in the land, or to fight for the land. Yaakov wanted to do neither, he wanted to dwell in the land at rest, and that is only possible if you give up and accept that it is to be Eretz Caanan, and nothing more.

The Macabees refused to accept that it is Eretz Caanan. Just as we refuse to accept that it is Palestina. And so we cannot live there in peace, neither could they, without being willing to stand up and fight for what is right. And so Tzaddikim may wish to dwell in peace, but G-d tells them that the nature of this world is not such that they can dwell in peace in it, unless they accept that it is Eretz Caanan, at which point they will cease to be Tzaddikim. But if they wish to strive for it to be something higher, then this requires toil and struggle. Only in the spiritually elevated world of the hereafter can they dwell in peace.

And thus the events unfold. There is struggle and great darkness. Yosef, the 11th child, who makes the tribes complete, the bright star whose bright dreams seemed to light the way to the future is lost. He falls into darkness. He is thrown into a pit, given up for dead, sold into slavery in the most corrupted land on earth, and finally tossed into prison there, in the hands of his master, the Chief Executioner of Pharaoh.

The lad who had run and played with the younger sons of the maidservants,וְהוּא נַעַר אֶת-בְּנֵי בִלְהָה וְאֶת-בְּנֵי זִלְפָּה, נְשֵׁי אָבִיו is exiled by his Leah's older sons (with whom he has a large age gap). And seemingly is lost. So too when the Macabees retake the Beit Hamikdash they find it hopelessly defiled, the walls pierced in 13 places, one for each of the tribes including Shevet Levi which conducts the priestly work, and each of the flasks of pure oil defiled. The Temple seems lost in darkness as well.

But though Yosef seems hopelessly lost and defiled, that one pure flask of oil survives, and lights the way for his father and his brothers, and for the survival of his people. So too the single flask of oil, out of all those that were lost and defiled, is lit and endures for eight days. Though both sets of brothers, the Tribes and the Macabees were imperfect, at the end God had prepared a single light found improbably in the darkness to lead them both.

And thus while the struggle for what is right may often seem hopeless. We may, as Yaakov did, wish to simply be left alone to dwell in peace, nevertheless are comforted by the knowledge that if we wish Eretz Caanan to be Eretz Yisrael, we must struggle on, and that for us too, the Lord God has prepared a light in the darkness, waiting for us when things look their worst.

As the preceding verses to Haftorah for the Parsha has God proclaiming of Joshua, the High Priest whose lineage had been tainted, "Is Not this Man a Brand Plucked Out of the Fire" הֲלוֹא זֶה אוּד, מֻצָּל מֵאֵשׁ , removing his dirty garments and replacing them with clean ones. And the Haftorah itself goes on to say זֶה דְּבַר-יְהוָה, אֶל-זְרֻבָּבֶל לֵאמֹר: לֹא בְחַיִל, וְלֹא בְכֹחַ--כִּי אִם-בְּרוּחִי, אָמַר יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת "This is the word of the LORD unto Zerubbabel, saying: Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, saith the LORD of hosts."

The brand plucked out of the fire, the clean flask of oil found amid the impure debris and the lost son sold into slavery found to rule as a viceroy, all these are a light in the darkness lit by God to show us that the struggle is not futile. And that though slavery in Egypt may await us, we should not give up and settle down to dwell in Eretz Caanan, but follow the light of God through the darkness wherever it may lead.

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