In the previous parsha (Vayeshev), we have met Joseph with his multi-coloured robe, the envious brothers who sell him into slavery, and learn of their wicked deception of their father Jacob. In an interlude we hear of Tamar’s righteous deception of Judah. Returning to Joseph, after his swift rise to success in Egypt, Potiphar’s wife deceives her husband, and has Joseph thrown in prison. There he interprets the dreams of Pharaoh’s servants.
Today’s portion, MiKetz, begins with Pharaoh’s two dreams of first the cows, and then the ears of corn. Joseph interprets the dreams and becomes Pharaoh’s right hand man. Jacob’s brothers come to Egypt twice, the second time bringing Benjamin, the youngest. The parsha ends on a cliff-hanger, with Benjamin being accused of theft.
Today has been designated Human Rights Shabbat. Our parsha is Miketz, and it is Chanukah. So, what connection might we be able to find between these?
In Joseph’s story, we hear about a family abusing one of its members, about people trading in slaves, about a woman fighting to assert rights that are eroded by someone she should be able to trust, about an employer abusing power, and the application of the death penalty. Some of the darkest aspects of humanity are laid out before us.
At a time when human rights abuses constantly come to our attention, there is always a risk that we lose sight of the good in humanity and become numb; that we lose hope, that we lose touch with our collective resourcefulness and creativity, and that we also lose the will to work towards a better, fairer, healthier world. What is the antidote to despair or numbness? Fred Rogers, the remarkable children’s TV broadcaster who I watched as a child in the States famously once said:
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
I find that a remarkable and beautiful piece of advice.
Once a week, we celebrate Shabbat. For these 24 hours, we make a special effort to live with a heightened consciousness. We are commanded to be joyful. It is when we aim to live with a positive state of mind, and see what is good in the world. And once a year, when the days are short and at their darkest, we celebrate Chanukah. For 8 days, we make a special effort to see the world as a world of miracles, and of positive possibility.
MiKetz means ‘in the end’. At Shabbat, and at Chanukah we imagine, and hold in mind, the best end that we could hope for, a world at that has been made whole. Joseph interprets the dream of the butler, the baker, and of Pharaoh. And Genesis 41:13 says: “And it came to pass, as he interpreted.” Pharaoh’s dreams were about ultimate disaster, the cows wasting away, and the ears of corn shrivelling. Joseph offers an alternative story. Disaster and starvation are not the end point in Joseph’s vision. He imagines disaster averted. But this is not empty hope or unfounded optimism. The people are saved because Joseph helps. This is Judaism’s wisdom. The world – and human rights – will not be preserved by random chance. They will be preserved because through our stories, through Shabbat, through the lights of Chanukah, we dream of a better world – and we work towards making that dream a reality.
From Proverbs 20:27 we are told that “the soul of a person is the candle of God.” We must not let darkness win. We light the Chanukah candles to remember that we are the candle. We are responsible for making sure there is more light in the world. We must be the helpers.
© Alexander Massey, Oxford, 12 December 2015