When I discuss values that could be associated with candles on a Chanukiah with most any age group, two of the principles that are often suggested are hope and light.
These two aspects of the Chanukah story relate to the Torah portion for this Shabbat, Vayeishev. In this section of Genesis, we encounter Joseph first as a young boy who dreams of his future status as a ruler over the rest of his family and is sold by his brothers to be a slave in Egypt due to their jealousy towards his dreams. Joseph, however, had no idea at the time what those dreams of rulership and leadership meant. We then see Joseph, a decade later, as a young man in an Egyptian dungeon, imprisoned there after being framed by the wife of his master, Potiphar. Even when in such dire straits, seemingly without hope, Joseph was willing to act as an interpreter of the dreams of his fellow inmates, the king’s cupbearer and baker. The light of Joseph’s wisdom enabled him to see clearly the fate of these two men. Yet, Joseph wouldn’t take any credit for his ability to explain the meaning of their dreams. He said to them, “Surely interpretations of dreams are in God’s domain.” Just as Joseph predicted, the cupbearer was restored to freedom. It was he who would later mention Joseph’s special insight to Pharaoh at just the right moment. The baker, as it turned out, had a much different fate, which followed Joseph’s reading of his dream. At that point in the story, Joseph already knew that there was a higher purpose to his presence in Egypt, even as a prisoner, so he held out hope for his eventual release.
In the story of Chanukah, there are also higher purposes at work. The Syrian-Greek Ruler Antiochus IV had presented the Jews of Judea with a clear and foreboding choice: adopt Greek ways and worship Greek gods, including the new statue of Zeus at the Jerusalem Temple, and live. OR refuse this demand and practice Judaism and face death.
The priest Mattathias, his family (including the hero Judah Maccabee) and many Jews in Judea were disillusioned with the tyranny of Antiochus and his supposedly enlightened Greek culture. Unlike other Jews who had adopted a Greek way of life, these Jews realized that their difficult situation didn’t place them beyond the point of hope. Their heritage taught them about higher values: cooperation, courage, optimism, and the light of knowledge. Their beliefs offered them inner strength to persist, individually and together, until they won their freedom and their right to be different.
When we light the chanukiah in our homes and look at the glow of the candles, we have the opportunity to see in the flames how focusing on our higher values can lead us to hope. Conflicts can be brought to peaceful resolution when people with the greatest wisdom and patience are allowed to speak to each other. Rabbi Ron Kronish of the Interreligious Coordinating Council of Israel still develops programming that bring Jews, Christians and Muslims together in Israel to talk about what they have in common and to allow their faith to heal the wounds that may result from political division. An adversarial culture may often manifest itself in international relations, whether in the United Nations chambers or in consultations between world leaders. Common interests, however, for peace and stability, can give way to the realization that we don’t want to live on the brink of war. Concerns about the dwindling of our natural resources and the possible negative effects of human life on the natural world have a way of bringing people together onto the same page to combat those challenges and, if necessary, to change our ways towards greater conservation. While the President and Congress have not yet reached an agreement on dealing with a looming fiscal crisis, the higher purpose of preserving the well-being of all Americans may yet lead them to, somewhat, see eye-to-eye. We can view the challenges of caring for family members of all ages as opportunities to grow closer and to strengthen each other. When a loved one or community member dies, we have a way of recognizing how his or her legacy can lead us to reach for our highest potential, and to do so with a sense of awe and humility. Finally, our daily lives contain many encounters and conversations with all sorts of people. It is possible that every one has a higher purpose, which calls on us to always be on our best behavior.
As Chanukah approaches, we have every reason to continue to hope and to search for light in the darkness, knowing that we have the faith, the strength and the ability to work together to make miracles right before our eyes. And like Joseph, a dreamer and an interpreter of dreams, may our vision lead us to see the higher purposes in our work and our relationships that can make every moment of our lives worthwhile and holy. So may it be – and let us say amen.