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Lighting the Darkness

Parashat Va-Yeshev (Genesis 37:1 -- 40:32)

by Rabbi Shawn Fields-Meyer

December 2, 1999 | 7:00 pm

With the simple act of lighting a candle, you can illuminate an entire room. Add a mirror, and you have twice as much light. So, too with people. We all carry internal sparks, rays of light within. But sometimes it takes another person to show us how to release them to ourselves and to the world.

In this week's Torah portion, Joseph -- favored son of the patriarch Jacob and the possessor of the coat of many colors -- finds himself lost, far from home. He is searching for his brothers, but instead of finding them, Joseph encounters only a stranger: "And a man found him, and -- behold! -- he was wandering in the field, and the man asked him, 'What do you seek?'" (Genesis 37:15)

The Torah does not identify the man. All it tells us is that Joseph is directionless. Searching. Without a compass and without a clue. And all of a sudden, another human being appears, and notices that Joseph is needy. Upon seeing Joseph's vulnerability, the man does not attack him. He does not take advantage of Joseph's confusion and he does not try to manipulate him in any way. Instead, the stranger poses a question to Joseph, to see if he can, by some chance, be of help.

"What do you seek?" the man asks.

Rabbinic tradition has it that this unnamed figure is no man, but rather an angel -- the archangel Gabriel. It is this celestial being, sent to earth by God, who approaches the roaming Joseph, asks him a single question and sends him on his way.

Until the appearance of the stranger/angel, Joseph had been in darkness, unsure where he was going, feeling his way around as though he were unable to see. The man's question helps illuminate his path, and Joseph's answer helps him continue on it.

The power of this type of encounter is not limited to our Biblical ancestors. We too find that we are often wandering, aimless, in need of direction. But we don't need to be told what to do, we need to hear questions. Sometimes all we need to hear is just one question, one that encourages us not to rely on the advice of others, but to see our direction for ourselves.

The Hasidic master, Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, explained that the angel helped Joseph understand his own existential condition. The angel, he said, taught Joseph that when he is wandering through life, when his soul is weeping from despair and self-doubt, he should ask himself that question: What do you seek? In doing so, he will be able to see his path and walk down it with confidence. According to the Kotzker Rebbe, then, it is the question -- posed to the self -- which enlightens our path.

This is the season of Chanukah. It is a time of wintry darkness, of shortened hours of daylight, of clouds and cold. Like Joseph wandering directionless in the field, we may find ourselves in a season of potential gloom and blackness. But in the midst of the darkness, we kindle lights. By lighting that chanukiah, that Chanukah menorah, we break through the darkness.

The act of kindling the Chanukah lights -- brief, flickering though they are -- reminds us that we have an obligation to bring enlightenment. As the rabbi taught, we do it for ourselves, and as Joseph's angel teaches, we do it for others. We place the menorah in a spot where it can be viewed by as many people as possible: let the lights inspire us to bring enlightenment, clarity and warmth.

In this season, may the glow of the chanukiah bring us the confidence we need -- and enough light -- to help us see our way clearly.


Shawn Fields-Meyer, of Los Angeles, is rabbi of Congregation Etz Hadar in Redlands. She is Instructor of Liturgy at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.

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