‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness. It was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity. It was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. We had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.’
So begins Charles Dickens epic ‘Tale of Two Cities.’ Written in 1859 about the events of the French
Revolution it could so easily be applied to the era we are currently living it.
The rise of anti-Semitism and hatred of Israel combined by a new intolerance of converse opinions couched in political correctness make this a worrying era indeed.
Yet as we head into the Festival of light, we hopefully can connect ourselves to the spring of hope rather than the winter of despair.
Yosef, by the end of this week’s Parasha was firmly in the other camp. Attempted fratricide, sold to Egypt and now languishing in Prison. For him it truly was a season of darkness, a winter of despair with nothing before him.
And it is not just Yosef whose future is looking bleak. The leader of the brothers, Yehuda, our eventual forefather, is also on a downward spiral. He advises the brothers not to kill Yosef but sell him instead. They then report back to Yaacov saying that Yosef is no more, and Yaacov grieves. The Torah then informs us: ‘And it came to pass at that time, and Yehuda went down away from his brothers.’ [Genesis 38:1])
Rashi explains that the Torah uses this language because Yehuda parted ways with his brothers as a result of his lowered esteem in their eyes; they blamed him for their father’s bereavement, and, by extension, for Joseph’s disappearance. Rashi explains:
They said, “You are the one who said to sell him! Had you said, return him to his father, we would have listened to you.” [Rashi on 38:1]
So, darkness all round, where is our hope to come from?
However, there is a remarkable Midrash which tells us:
R’ Shmuel, the son of Nachman said: “The brothers were busy in the selling of Joseph; Joseph was busy with his sackcloth and fasting; Reuben was busy with his sackcloth and fasting; Jacob was busy with his sackcloth and fasting; Judah was busy taking a wife for himself; and God was busy creating the light of the King Mashiach. ‘And it came to pass at that time and Judah went down …’ before the first slave is born, before the final redeemer is born.” [Midrash Rabba 85:1]
Rav Ari Kahn comments ‘The Midrash is, in effect, answering the unspoken question: Where was God during the sale of Yosef? The answer is amazing. God was busy creating the light of the Mashiach. Surely this is a bizarre response. As the result of the sale the Jews would all make their way to Egypt, slavery will ensue, and along with it, incredible suffering for countless people. And this was all of part of God’s Messianic plan?’
Later, Yosef comes to recognise that this was indeed true. He understands that the Divine hand was involved in the events of his life. As he would inform his brothers upon their reconciliation:
‘And now do not be saddened that you have sold me into this slavery in a foreign land, for God has sent me ahead to be a source of sustenance for you … it is not you who has sent me here but God.’ [Bereshit 47:5-8]’
The Jewish story has always been and thus in those dark moments a spark is present to take us from darkness to light. It happened at the time of Yosef, then during Yetziat Mizraim and onwards throughout the centuries.
Chanukah was one of those times, the growth of Hellenization, the defiling of the Bet HaMikdash and a weakening of Jewish sovereignty left the Jewish people in a state of chaos. The Midrash calls Galut Yavan, the Greek Exile, Chosech – darkness. We actually never left the land during the ‘exile’ but the confusion and the attack on our Torah lifestyle created a spiritual darkness that we still see today.
However then as hopefully now, the light of Torah and of liberty emerged as the Hasmoneans briefly were victorious against the Hellenist Jews and the Greek army. They rededicated the Bet HaMikdash and created a spiritual energy point which has embedded itself into our people for eternity as the festival of Chanukah that we begin as we light those lights on Sunday evening.
So, when we look at the current state of affairs, we must draw our inspiration from the past and realise that our job is to of course fight the darkness but ultimately realise that our final redemption will come through connecting ourselves to the light.
The light of Hashem and Torah, the light of Medinat Yisrael and the light of the Jewish People.
Shabbat Shalom and Chanukah Sameach,
Rabbi Andrew Shaw