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Parashat Vayeshev

December 11, 2020
25 Kislev 5781
Chanukah: 2 Candles
Parashat Vayeshev
Genesis 37:1 - 40:23

Dear Friends,

There is a story I have been telling myself of late. It is a story of resiliency, of making it through to the other side, of maintaining a sense of self when our expectations of what life would be like have not been fulfilled. It is the story of an individual, but the lens through which that individual is seen is of my own making. It is the lens that is needed at this particular moment in my life and in the life of the world in which I live.

We tell ourselves stories to help us navigate through times that challenge us and adjust our expectations of what ought to be. Chanukah is here; we are lighting the lights but the circumstances are quite different from years past. This year, each of us must chase away the darkness of winter in reduced circumstances, even as we warm ourselves by the light of the candles. The joy of Chanukah is that as we add a candle each night, we remember that this is a holiday that the rabbis made about the spirit. “Not by might and not by power, but by spirit…” are the words found in this week’s haftorah. Clearly, Chanukah was a choice made by the rabbis to underscore the power of the unexpected, the miraculous, as in the story of the oil that lasted.

This week’s Torah portion begins the epic tale of Joseph -- his dreams, his youth, his father’s favoritism and his brothers’ clearly justified jealousy. His story is also one of resiliency. He is not the same callow youth who wears his father’s gift of the coat of many colors on his journey to find his brothers. Would you wear something special that only you had when sent to find your ten older brothers who were tending your father’s flocks? Not only does he report to his father about his brothers’ actions, he shares the dreams he has where everyone in the family seems to be bowing down to him. He is oblivious to his own privilege. And then seemingly out of nowhere his fortunes change dramatically. He finds his brothers, they throw him in a pit, take away his coat, and sell him to a caravan heading toward Egypt. The text gets muddy here as to exactly he is sold to; as is so often true when we hear important stories in our families, there comes a point where the narrative gets fuzzy and details are obscured. But Joseph’s story differs from his father’s in that he does not use trickery to get ahead, instead, he grows up in front of our eyes. Although he confronts more trials and tribulations, ultimately ending up in prison, he rises up even in prison, with one major difference from his earlier years. He comes to understand that the gifts that he has been given are gifts that are uniquely given by the Divine and so by the end of the parasha when he interprets the dreams of his fellow prisoners, he credits God for his insight. 

Whether you believe the gifts you were granted at birth were Divinely given or simply a part of who you are, these gifts are uniquely yours and not to be squandered. This time of early sunsets is a good time to inventory those gifts we have been granted. Although we may have the benefit of food, clothing, and shelter when others around us do not, that is not what I am referring to. What I am inviting you to think about is the innate gifts you were granted at birth.

Why think about it now? If we give ourselves the space and time to tell ourselves our own stories and the stories of those who influenced who we are, we like Joseph, might come to value what we have and who we are even in these most challenging of times.

As we travel together through this terrain, I wish you light and strength and compassion for yourself first and then for others. And like our ancestors, may we have the courage to rededicate ourselves and go forward into the light.

Chag Urim Sameach and Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Linda Shriner-Cahn

Tue, January 19 2021 6 Shevat 5781