Parashat Vayeishev & Chanukah 5781

9 December 2020 – 23 Kislev 5781

Rabbi Richard Jacobi

With this parashah, we begin the final section of the book of Genesis, often known as the Joseph story cycle. The narrative as a whole can be read as being about growing up, maturing and learning to behave better than when younger and two key characters specifically have to learn this. One, Joseph himself, has to learn this through being sold as a slave and then being imprisoned. Taking a favourable view of Joseph, we might say he is learning how to cope when, to quote Harold Kushner’s book title, “bad things happen to good people”. Out of his time in servitude and behind bars, Joseph loses his arrogance, finds God, and learns to be forgiving.

The other person who learns lessons and changes is Judah. He is the fourth oldest son, but is marked out as a leader. In the first chapter of the narrative – Genesis 37, he influences his brothers to sell Joseph for the infamous twenty pieces of silver. Curiously, the next chapter notably does not mention or involve Joseph at all. Instead, it is the story of Judah and his daughter-in-law Tamar, and how she teaches him a painful and important life lesson that forces him to become a more responsible adult, parent, sibling and son. Even nowadays, it reminds all of us that evidence of a transaction can be essential is there are repercussions!

That is an aside from my real message this week. Parshat Vayeishev ends with Joseph languishing in prison; the story begins to brighten in Mikeitz next week and reaches its happy conclusions in subsequent weeks. As the chapters and weeks go by, we realise that the leading characters have learned and grown. We see that light can emerge from darkness, and Joseph will later bring about reconciliation by telling his brothers that their nasty actions early in this story cycle were inspired by God so that Joseph would be in the right place at the right time. As an important factor, Judah will speak in ways that show he has acquired empathy, even humility, and has learned to take responsibility for his past actions.

How I wish we could be confident that political leaders in our countries and all too many others have matured and learned such lessons! How I wish we could foster an environment of reconciliation and empathy rather than vilification of those who see the world differently! Maybe, though, the trauma of the Covid-19 pandemic and the turmoil of Brexit will teach us all in the UK the lessons that Judah and Joseph needed traumatic personal experiences to learn. Maybe, the mid-winter timing of Chanukah will remind us that it is up to us to light candles to provide warmth and vision to those around us who badly need both. Maybe, each candle will give us its unique inspiration – learning from history, yearning for freedom, pursuing justice, supporting the fallen, healing rifts, caring for our planet, building bridges (not walls!), spreading joy. That’s my eight (at the time of writing), and the servant candle that enables all the others to be lit is Judaism as we keep learning it.

Chag Chanukah sameyach!

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