It is Hanukah. I have discussed the reasons I have found observing it difficult in a past blog. Namely, as an ecofeminist, I will not celebrate the violence of war or the slaughter of animals at the temple. This year presents a new challenge: how to celebrate the miracle of the oil in the midst of a global pandemic. For inspiration, I have looked at this week’s Torah portion: Mikeitz. Its Joseph tale has helped me find a meaningful practice for my Hanukah observance this year: the power of a human community’s action to preserve life.
The parshah begins with pharaoh having bad dreams. He has called on every interpreter he can think of and no one could interpret them for him. That is until he hears tale of Joseph and summons him. After hearing his dreams, Joseph satisfactorily explains the dreams’ meaning. Joseph says that there will be seven years of abundant crops followed by seven years of famine. The pharaoh believes Joseph and begins to make preparations. He appoints Joseph to oversee them.
Long story short, eventually Joseph’s brothers get hungry and travel to Egypt to buy grain. They do not recognize that Joseph is selling it to them. He doesn’t treat them all that well to begin with: putting them in jail and forcing them to return with Benjamin. They reason amongst themselves that their current maltreatment is karmic payback for how they treated Joseph years ago. When they return to Canaan and realize that they have both the grain and what they paid for it, they begin to fret even more. Eventually, this grain too runs out, and the brothers must return to Egypt to buy more grain or die of hunger. Jacob, however, doesn’t want to loose another son, having lost Joseph years ago, having Simeon put in prison in Egypt by said Joseph, and now sending Benjamin to Egypt to placate the man (also Joseph) who sells the grain. Jacob loads them up anyway with a variety of gifts and prays for divine intervention, that that man (Joseph) may treat them with compassion.
Joseph is certainly not done causing them strife. After selling them more grain, he tricks them framing his youngest brother Benjamin as a theif. Joseph’s servant encounters them on the road and does indeed find the goblet in Benjamin’s sack. This forces all of the brothers once again back to speak to Joseph. The parshah ends with Joseph threatening to take Benjamin as his slave and allowing the other brothers to return to Egypt.
We have to wait for the next parshah to see how the story plays out and what eventually happens between Joseph and the brothers. (For my thoughts on the next parshah, see here.). Nonetheless, the parshah can be used to shed light on our current situation as well as our celebration of Hanukah because, as I have mentioned, it shows the connection between responsibility, human action, and preserving life.
Working under the direction of Joseph, the Egyptians take advantage of the seven years of plenty to mitigate the toll of the following seven years of famine. They save themselves and those around them. When it comes to his brother, Joseph’s actions flow out of a mixture of joy at seeing his brothers and his anger at what they did to him. At the same time, it is quite clear that had his brothers not done what they did to Joseph, Joseph would not have been in Egypt and thus not able to help the Egyptians avert the famine.
Interestingly, the deity plays a very minimal role in the story. Since Israelites often shunned what they considered the pagan practices of divination like dream interpretation and the like, the deity is called on as the source of Joseph’s abilities to interpret dreams and as the One who gave pharaoh the dreams in the first place. Yet, the plot genuinely unfolds quite independent of divine intervention, signaling the importance of human action. It is the priorities of the pharaoh, the organizing skills of Joseph, and the work of the ordinary Egyptians that work miracles in Egypt. In other words, it took the work of an entire community to prevent famine from decimating the land and its inhabitants.
And, this relates to Hanukah how exactly? The way I see it, the miracle of Hanukah – the oil lasting eight days and night – is also on account of the community’s action. Humans, knowing they only had one day worth of oil, attempted to rededicate the temple anyway. If they hadn’t lit the oil in the lamp, then the miracle of Hanukah would have never occurred. Their actions brought more holiness into the world, as they believed the divine presence literally dwelled in the rededicated temple.
Now, let us look at the state of our world. Perhaps you already know how this will go. As a global community we have a responsibility to preserve lives. We have been told by those in the know – our Josephs – what must be done: we must act responsibly. Specifically, we should wear masks, practice social distancing, venture outside of the house only when necessary, and postpone family gatherings. That is the least we can do.
We should also find ways of supporting those on the front lines caring for the sick as well as those whose communities have been ravaged by the pandemic’s consequences. In addition, we have to pay attention to the ways in which this pandemic has burdened, on a global scale, women more so than men. We should reexamine our priorities as often leaders often value economies over people’s health. We need meaningful discussions about mental health as well. I could go on.
Hanukah looks different this year. The state of the world is different this year. However, if the story of Joseph teaches us anything, the actions of humans can alleviate suffering, and the miracle of Hanukah illustrates how human actions can bring more of the divine into the world. Now then, we know what we have to do.
Let the lights of the hanukiah remind us of the difference our actions can make.
Chag hanukah sameach.
Ivy Helman, Ph.D.: A feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies, Feminist and Ecofeminist courses.