Messy Prophets of Hope

Hanukkah could not come at a better time each year. As winter sets in and days grow shorter, darkness descends. Moods are affected and we hunker down for the long haul. But one of the remarkable things about the timing of this unique festival on the Jewish calendar is that Hanukkah occurs just at the nadir of darkness and we respond, indeed are obligated to respond, with light. The sages of the tradition are even said to have debated how one should light the menorah: should the festival begin with all eight lights and then diminish as the days unfold; or should we start with one, and day by day, increase the light emanating warmth, brilliancy and the resiliency of Jewish history for our surrounding community to see?

We know who won that debate: Jewish Hope. The sense that no matter how challenging a time may be in our history, we are a people duty-bound to optimism, to better days, one day at a time; to hope.

Yesterday marked the one year anniversary of a hate-filled terrorist attack in Jersey City, where three people were killed at a kosher grocery store. At the time of the attack and Thursday on its anniversary, citizens gathered to remember three beautiful souls lost in the atrocity, each from different walks of life, different faiths, different backgrounds, and pledged again to banish hate with love, to drive out darkness with light. Said Jersey City councilwoman Joyce Watterman, “We would not allow fear or division to grip our hearts. We found our strength in one another.”

Gun violence, hate crimes with assault-rifles and high powered magazines are their own pandemic. And as we continue to embrace the unifying ideas of mask wearing, hand washing and social distancing, we await a vaccine that will hopefully remove this pandemic from our midst. And mourning those lost to this terrible virus, we will gather ourselves, find “our strength in one another,” and continue to battle against forces of hate, division, racism and intolerance to difference. This is our duty as Jews.

We learned it the hard way, the sages also taught us. And in this week’s Torah portion, we get a glimpse into one of the most significant inflection points of hatred and violence that tears a family apart in the present while leaving future generations to ponder the lessons and draw new conclusions, healing lessons, in order to plant seeds of hope and prosperity rather than rancor and destruction.

In this week’s parsha, Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1-40:23) we encounter the patriarch Jacob among his children and because of Jacob’s special love and bestowal of a coveted jacket for his young son Joseph, the brothers conspire to kill their brother. His audacious personality, his self-aggrandizing dreams, his status as favored son, enrages them. Of course, sibling rivalry is not new to the Biblical Genesis. In fact, one might argue, it is a necessary through-line, an object lesson in what life can really be like. Rivalry and jealousy are to a large extent exposing and, at times, embarrassing mirror images of ourselves, reflecting our worst selves so that, with hope, we might see us as others do, change our ways and grow into better people.

Judaism is funny that way, isn’t it? We don’t populate our epic stories with saints and role models whose virtues are impossible to emulate. Rather, we embrace the messiness of it all, expose their flaws just as our own are plain for all to see, and through the interpretive process of “turning words of Torah over and over because everything is in it” refine our hearts and souls and model that duty to refinement for the next generation.

The tradition begins with narrative rivalry in the first family. Cain is jealous of his brother Abel’s favored offering to God and in his anger, murders him. Ishmael toys with his younger brother Isaac and is banished with his mother Hagar. Jacob is born immediately on the heel of his brother Esau, gripping him by the foot on their way out of the womb, foreshadowing a competition among the brothers for the right to be called firstborn and to merit their father Isaac’s most sacred blessing.

The fighting, the wiliness, the jealousies, the caginess of it all. What a mess! But what a brilliantly realistic mess it is, engaging us in its realism, its close-to-the-bone depiction of what it means to be a person. Saints are wonderful human beings and sinners got their work cut out for them; still, who would you rather talk to at a party? Some years ago I met an older gentleman in an artists’ loft who was a child stagehand to vaudeville and in his later years, a stained glass worker. As a gift, he gave me a piece called “Saint and Sinner,” and it depicted a kind of generic, angelic looking youth alongside a leering, cigar chomping, eyebrow raising Groucho Marx. I used to marvel at how quickly my eyes focused on Groucho. I don’t know about you, but at a party, I’m talking to Groucho everytime.

The biblical scholar and literary critic Robert Alter describes the Joseph story in Genesis as its own novel. Its ear for language, narrative detail, and dramatic twists and turns, depict Jacob’s family in colorful, outrageous and at times very unflattering light. But the drama draws us deeper into the story, a many-sided mirror as efflorescent as the technicolor dreamcoat the brothers all want, and we see a Jewish family that may be all too familiar to us. And that is precisely the point. It’s no wonder so many Jews turn out to be lawyers and therapists. There is something about close examination, dissecting words and parsing meaning, and seeking the depth of understanding and reconciliation to life’s endless challenges that we all deserve.

The Talmud has a particularly timely and necessary corrective to the Joseph story. The sages teach that the reason Israel was enslaved in Egypt is because of sibling rivalry. While it is true that the forces of history have often conspired against us; that our fate has often been in the hands of leaders who determine the trajectory of our lives; it is also undeniable that had the brothers not hated Joseph, had their jealousy and rivalry been so acutely tuned, they never would have conspired to kill him; they never would have sold him into slavery; they never would have gone down to Egypt themselves fleeing famine; and they never would have all been together when “a new pharaoh arose who did not know Joseph” and enslaved an entire nation.

Our fate can sometimes turn on a dime, it is true. And our fate is also in our hands. Both can be true. And perhaps the lesson here is that we need to see both to be true in order to embrace and absorb the lessons of life that understand life’s fragility alongside our own agency in bringing hope, love, reconciliation and justice to our communities and the world at large.

As we light our Hanukkah candles tonight and on through all eight days, let’s increase the light, warmth and love in our world. Let’s be messy prophets of hope.

Chag Sameach.