The holiday season is upon us. Tonight we’re celebrating the sixth night of Hanukkah, Christmas memories are still fresh for many people, and we’re all looking towards the start of 2020.
Culturally, we have a pervasive way of celebrating this time of year, from late-night retail hours to 40+ college football bowl games. From endless loops of holiday music to festive decorations in all sorts of unexpected places (my neighbors have an inflatable Darth Vader delivering X-mas gifts on their front lawn!?!). Scheduling can become quite a chore, what with family gatherings, workplace get-togethers, and community celebrations, etc. While these celebrations provide us with an opportunity for personal connection and communal bonding, maintaining a sense of routine and normalcy can become an uphill battle. As Ram Dass (may his memory be a blessing) once shared: “If you think you’re enlightened, go spend a week with your family.” If you’re anything like me, there’s inevitably a breaking point where the joyfulness of the season gets sucked out, leaving just a sense of burden, stress, and disappointment.
More often than not, these breaking points are traps we’ve set based on our unrealistic expectations for ourselves and for others. Despite the reality of breaking points (and accompanying break-downs), I’ve also learned that I don’t have to be enslaved by my unhealthy expectations and can accept that, ultimately, I don’t have the power to control most of the things that can get me so wound up.
This week’s parashah, Miketz, also gives us some guidance about accepting our limitations and having the humility and faith to keep moving forward. We find ourselves in the midst of Joseph’s story of growth from an immature teenager to a leader with immense spiritual depth. The first verse in this week’s installment indicates there’s been a two-year break in the action from where the story had left off with Joseph imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit.
Why are the details about this two-year period so important?
Because Joseph comes out of his incarceration a different man than when he entered. Eventually, Joseph is granted his freedom and, through another series of unexpected events, ascends to become Pharaoh’s second-in-command. In describing the path of Joseph’s ascension, the Torah is sharing a subtle message about Joseph, his relationship to G!D, and the power (and limits) he has to control his circumstances.
Several times throughout his life, the Torah describes Joseph as having a special relationship with G!D. Early on, their connection isn’t obvious and can only be inferred through his ability to interrupt dreams and escape dangerous circumstances without a scratch. Later, as his good fortune is also witnessed by others, does the Torah explicitly state: “…the Lord was with Joseph.”
Initially, Joseph is described as condescending and arrogant. While he doesn’t take credit for his good luck, he generally seems oblivious to G!D’s presence in his life. It takes quite of bit time (and life’s ups and downs) for Joseph to start to recognize and give credit to G!D for his good fortune. This shift, from ignorance to awareness, occurs during his two years in prison. While the Torah does not describe the events over these two years, we can witness his transformation by the first interaction his has with Pharaoh upon being released:
And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I have had a dream, but no one can interpret it. Now, I have heard it said of you that for you to hear a dream is to tell its meaning.” Joseph answered Pharaoh, saying “Not I! G!D will see to Pharaoh’s welfare.” (Genesis 41:15-16)
Rather than entitlement and insecurity, this response is grounded in humility and grace. We don’t know the exact the steps Joseph took to undergo this change, but it’s obvious that he’s a changed man, having taken the time and space to develop a new way of living. In doing so, Joseph was able to release his attachment for recognition and control. And instead, was able to humbly see himself in relation to G!D.
When I’m living in a way that connects me with my sense of purpose, I’m better able to navigate the challenges and disruptions that I inevitably encounter. When I accept the truth that I’m living on G!D’s schedule, not my own, I can be more fully present for myself and others.
During the week-long celebration of Hanukkah, there is a small prayer (al HaNisim) that is inserted into the traditional liturgy. This prayer begins,
We thank You for the miraculous deliverance, for the heroism, and for the triumphs in battle of our ancestors in other days, and in our time.
While the miracles of the Maccabees may have been thousands of years ago, our tradition continues to emphasize a reality not of our own doing, but one of miracles and G!Dliness.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukkah!
Chaplain Adam Siegel