In this week’s Parashat Miketz, we rejoin Joseph as a prisoner in the Egyptian jail and follow him on his path to becoming Pharaoh’s right-hand man. Dr. Gila Vachman the director of Torah Lishma in Tel Aviv and a lecturer of Talmud and Midrash at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies explains how the age old motif of darkness to light and underdogs rising up are present not only in the Parasha, but also in the coinciding holiday of Hanukkah.
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“וַיְהִי מִקֵּץ שְׁנָתַיִם יָמִים …” “After two years’ time, Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing by the Nile” (Genesis 41:1)
We all remember what happens when Pharaoh wakes up from his dream: he calls all the magicians of Egypt and all its wise men, and none can interpret his dream. At this moment, the chief cupbearer, שר המשקים, who had been jailed and released two years earlier, remembered Joseph. Pharaoh commands to call the Hebrew servant, and after he interprets his dreams, and moreover advises him what to do during the years of abundance and hunger that will come upon Egypt, Pharaoh makes him second-in-command.
This is, without any doubt, the most dramatic turnaround in Joseph’s life: in a moment he converts from a slave to a master, from a Hebrew youth imprisoned in the jail to the ruler all of Egypt, from Jacob’s beloved son Joseph who was persecuted for his dreams to צפנת פענח, the great interpreter of Pharaoh’s dreams. This story and this parasha, are regularly read on Shabbat Hanukkah. Naturally, one might look for the connection between them.
Indeed, there is a connection. Hanukkah is celebrated in the winter, when the days become shorter, the temperatures drops, the darkness increases. As we all know, there are many cultures which celebrate at this time of year a holiday of light and fire, and this goes back to ancient times. It is a way of confronting the darkest and coldest time of year, bringing light and joy to the people, giving them comfort.
In our Jewish tradition, there is also a historical event connected to this holiday: the story of the Hasmoneans who succeeded to defeat their enemies and purged the Temple, establishing an independent kingdom in the Land of Israel for the first time in many years. The story of Joseph can be seen as a kind of prefiguration, or an example, of such a process: despite of his poor condition, despite all the trouble he had to go through, he manages to rise with the help of God and reach unbelievable achievements.
In Midrash Tanchuma we find a beautiful formulation of this idea: “Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levy said: out of a narrowly confined space into a spacious area; from darkness into bright light; from the disgrace suffered by the righteous to princedom. The Midrash gives various examples of this idea – Daniel in the lions’ den, Mordecai and Esther in Shushan – and eventually reaches Joseph: he too, was humiliated but then exalted.
Both the story of Joseph in Egypt and the holiday of Hanukkah remind us that the darkest moments in our lives can turn in a flash into moments of highlight. There is comfort in this for all who are in distress, mentally or physically, for all who’s days have turned dark, or simply for those who hate the winter: out of darkness will come light, as happened in those days בימים ההם, so will happen in our time בזמן הזה.
Dr. Gila Vachman studied at the Hebrew University where she received a BA (cum laude) in Talmud and Hebrew literature, an MA (cum laude) in Midrash and Aggadah as well as a PhD. She is a lecturer in Midrash and Aggadah at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies and the Hebrew University. Born in Kibbutz Yavne, married, the mother of three children, and lives in Jerusalem.