Saturday, December 20, 2008

We Count Up:
A Vayeishev ShulDrasha


This is the story of יוסף.
He was seventeen years old,
and he would herd sheep
with his brothers.

יוסף dreamed dreams
of power —
of bundles of grain
paying homage
to his own;
of the sun, moon and stars
bowing before him —
and his brothers
were jealous
and angry.

And they threw יוסף
down
into an utterly empty pit.

And then
יוסף was sold to traders
who brought him
down
from כנען to Egypt,
where he was bought
as a slave;
where he narrowly escaped being raped
by his master's wife;
where he was then falsely accused
of attempting to rape her —
and was then
thrown down
into prison.

At the end of this week's פרשה,
פרשת וישב,
יוסף has descended
into tragedy
as far
as he will ever go.

Not only
is he in prison
in מצרים —
one of the תורה's prototypes
of the most immoral society imaginable —
but his last best hope for release,
the שר המשקים,
פרעה's chief wine steward,
the one who was supposed to remember יוסף —
supposed to tell the king
about this innocent Hebrew youth
who could interpret divine dreams —
the שר המשקים forgets all about him.

יוסף
is at the low-point
of his life;
the darkest period
of his story.

And while for us
it will only be one week
until next week's פרשה
and the continuation of the story,
for יוסף
it will be
two long years
before he finally
begins to shine.

In the Babylonian Talmud
in מסכת שבת
our Sages explain
the holiday of חנוכה
with the story
of the miraculous jug of pure oil
that lasted for eight days
when it should have only lasted
for one.

When the Maccabees
liberated the בית המקדש,
they found the Temple
stained
with spiritual darkness
and impurity.
Everything had been desecrated.
And then,
in the midst
of that thick dark cloud
of impurity and despair,
they found that first small jug of oil —
the first glimmering hint
of holy light.

But we find another explanation —
another layer of significance —
to the eight days of illumination
in the Books of the Maccabees,
which describe the first חנוכה
as a late סוכות,
celebrated by the victorious Jewish warrior-priests
in commemoration
of the סוכות they were unable to observe
when they were busy fighting
for the survival of Judaism
against the Seleucid Empire.

This other layer
of the Festival of Lights
is corroborated
by hints in the על הנסים prayer
and by the opinion of בית שמאי in the גמרא —
who taught
that like the bull sacrifices
of סוכות,
we should count down in candles
for the eight days
of the חנוכה holiday.

Just as the number of sacrifices
decreased each day of סוכות
from 13 to 12 to 11 and so on,
according to בית שמאי
we should kindle the חנוכה lights
8 on the first night
and 7 on the second
6 on the third
and so on,
all the way down
to one.

However
we don't rule
according to בית שמאי.

Instead,
following the opinion of בית הלל,
we start
at one candle the first night;
on the second night, two;
on the third night, three —
and slowly,
day by day,
work our way up
to eight.
As בית הלל put it, going up in holiness.

We increase light
we increase holiness
and we increase hope.

In מסכת עבודה־זרה
we are told a story
about אדם הראשון.

After he was kicked out of Eden,
Adam noticed
that the days
were getting shorter.
Every 24 hours
the amount of daylight decreased
and the amount of darkness grew.

אדם fasted and prayed
for eight days,
terrified
that it was all his fault —
that because of his sin inside the Garden,
the light of creation
was dwindling away
to nothing,
and the world was returning
to empty chaos.

And then
תקופת טבת came —
the winter solstice —
and אדם saw
that the days
were once again
growing in length.

When he realized
that light
was returning to the world —
that the universe
was not dissolving
back into the primordial darkness —
that what he was so frightened of
was nothing but a natural cycle,
instituted by God —
אדם celebrated
for another eight days,
from the solstice onwards.

אדם celebrated תקופת טבת
for eight days
as hope returned to his dreams
and light returned to the world.

Now, the calendar doesn't fall out this way every year, but...

Tomorrow
is תקופת טבת.
The winter solstice.
The shortest day of the year.

Tomorrow
we will stand
with יוסף
abandoned in exile
and forgotten in prison.

Tomorrow
we will stand
with אדם
watching the light of creation
dwindle away
into darkness.

And tomorrow
we will stand
with the Maccabees
in the Temple,
mourning a בית המקדש
mired and murky
with impurity.

And just at that point,
when all hope seems lost,
tomorrow night
we will light one candle.

And the next night,
we will light two.

And while each night
we increase the number of candles
on our חנוכיות,
adding to the illumination
in our homes
and in the streets —
counting up in holiness
according to the ruling
of בית הלל —
each following day
will last
just a little longer.
Each following day
the sun
will rise
just a little higher in the sky.

The Maccabees
will find
that first jug of pure oil,
and re-inaugurate
both the Temple
and Jewish independence.

יוסף
will be released from prison
and rise to second-in-command
of all of Egypt.

Think about this
when you light your חנוכה candles
this year.

As we add light to our homes,
light returns to the world.

As we add holiness to our observances,
holiness returns to the world.

And as we add hope to our lives,
hope returns to the world.

We count up
in ever-increasing illumination —
and the universe
counts up with us.

(idea of videoblogging originally inspired by Rabbi Josh Waxman, later stoked by Drew Kaplan, RIT, and reinspired by Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz and Rabbi Jeff Fox)

9 Comments:

Blogger thanbo said...

Ah, a modern Milton - drashas in poetic form.

12/22/2008 11:42 AM  
Anonymous jdub said...

perhaps an alternative idea, is that Sukkot is a universalist chag -- we bring korbanot for umot ha'olam. Chanukah is a particularist (very, very particularist) chag. We say to the world, in particular the Hellenized world, this isn't about you, it's about us. You tried to stop us from being who we are, God saved us, let's eat. We survived and thrived, you've gone the way of all flesh.

That's why I think we follow B"Hillel rather than B"Shammai.

12/23/2008 8:40 AM  
Blogger EmFish said...

Reading your drashas here every so often, I thought the short-line form was great, made it easier for me to read. Hearing you do it now, though, takes it to a whole new level-- it's like slam torah!

1/06/2009 6:09 PM  
Anonymous Moish said...

Thats why I light according to Beit Shammai;-)

1/14/2009 1:04 PM  
Blogger Wil Roepke said...

Thank you. I've been thinking about Chanukah and Yosef and wondering if there is any way to make a decent connection between the two. I'm glad you came up with something not only reasonable but extremely meaningful.

1/15/2009 9:47 PM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

thanks for all your comments!

1/15/2009 10:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A muppet? My heavens. Bapribap!


Yes, I could see the resemblance.


---Grant Patel

1/27/2009 3:12 PM  
Blogger DEATH BY NOODLES said...

What exactly does the word 'drasha' signify? Lesson? Lecture? Informative speech?

2/04/2009 2:40 PM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

"sermon", more or less

2/04/2009 11:50 PM  

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