Rabbi Scott Nagel
The Sophia and Nathan Gumenick Senior Rabbi
Congregation Beth Ahabah
For those that follow an annual Torah reading cycle, a part of the Joseph story always falls during Chanukah.
The story of Joseph and his brothers is often described as a story about sibling rivalry and parental favoritism. But the story of Joseph and his brothers can also be told as an epic tale about never-ending love, forgiveness, and the willingness to change oneself for the better. We know this Bible story, all of us; we didn’t just learn it as children in religious school.
We know this story because we have lived it: we know how it feels to hurt and be hurt by the ones we love the most. Even as only children we can know how it feels to have borne the brunt of being the unfavored child, or worse, the favored one. The story of Joseph and his brothers is not unknown to us. It is the story of the lives we live.
At the beginning of our story, Joseph is a very self-centered young man who dreams egotistical dreams about his future. He is oblivious to the feelings of his brothers or his father. And even though God is with Joseph and helps him to succeed, he is completely unaware of God’s presence in his life. Joseph is a secular Jew. However, as a result of
several personal adversities, Joseph becomes a totally different person. Once so self absorbed, Joseph grows up to become a highly altruistic man who devotes his life to saving the lives of others. Once focused on only his own grandiose dreams, Joseph becomes a skilled interpreter of other people’s dreams. Once a secular Jew, now Joseph speaks of God’s role in human history and in his own life.
From the story of Joseph and his brothers there is a lesson for this third night of Chanukah.
On Shabbat, there are different customs about how many candles are lit on a Friday evening. Some people light one candle while they are single, and two once they are married. Others always light two, single or married. The most common custom is to light two candles, one to Zachor "remember" Shabbat and one to Shamor "guard" Shabbat. Additionally, parents often add one extra candle for each of their children.
So tonight, as our number of candles moves from two to three, our thoughts move to the idea of family.
Family brings light to our lives, but it is rarely easy. The story of Joseph and his brothers teaches us that if we want to have better relationships with those we love, we must be willing to work on ourselves, to change ourselves for the better.
At the beginning of our story, Joseph’s brothers treat him harshly, throw him into a pit, sell him into slavery. And when the tables are turned, when Joseph has become the second most powerful man in all the world, and his brothers appear before him pleading for food, Joseph struggles with his anger and desire for payback. At first, his desire for revenge wins out. Joseph treats his brothers harshly, he throws them into jail, he imprisons them. But by the end of our story, Joseph forgives his brothers. Joseph embraces them, weeps over them, and even calls them “brothers.”
Joseph shows us that the more family we have in our lives, the more lights we have, the more we need to choose the path of reconciliation over clinging to hurt, the path of peace over the desire that someone must pay. Created as we are by a forgiving God in the image of God, God wants us to be forgiving-minded people, people with an open and generous heart.
As we light our three Chanukah candles tonight, I encourage you to gaze into the light and the warm glow of the Chanukah menorah and think of your family. Whom do you need to apologize too, whom do you need to forgive. Whom do you need to embrace, and who needs a reminder of how much you love them. See in those candles the family that fills you with love, with laughter, with joy, and with light no matter how they are related to you.
Amen and Chag Sameach