Illuminating the Darkness

December 8, 2023 / 25 Kislev 5784

This week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev, plunges us into the complex narrative of Joseph’s life. As we delve into the twists and turns of his journey, we uncover timeless life lessons that resonate not only with the challenges faced by Joseph but also with the themes of our Hanukkah holiday.

The opening verse of Vayeshev sets the stage for a tale of epic jealousy and betrayal: “Now Jacob was settled in the land where his father had sojourned, the land of Canaan.” (Genesis 37:1) The use of the word “Vayeshev,” meaning “settled,” introduces an ironic twist as Jacob’s family faces unsettling times ahead. This contradictory [perceived] tranquility and impending turmoil mirrors the contrast we find during Hanukkah, a festival of light celebrated in the midst of darkness.

Our great scholar Rashi explains that Jacob sought to dwell in peace, but his dreams of contentment were shattered by the challenges that lay ahead. Rashi’s commentary reminds us that life’s path is often unpredictable, and our desire for peace may be disrupted by unexpected trials – a sentiment that resonates with the theme of Hanukkah.

The connection between Vayeshev and Hanukkah becomes even more pronounced when we consider the story’s central figure, Joseph. His journey involves a descent into a literal pit and metaphorical darkness, akin to the spiritual darkness experienced by the Jewish people during the Hellenistic oppression leading up to the Maccabean revolt.

Today, we find ourselves in the midst of a different type of darkness. We live in a world clouded in hate denying our personal flames the oxygen to burn bright. This week we heard prestigious university presidents testify before Congress. Sadly, we were left craving true leadership as these spineless presidents sidestepped their responsibility for moral and ethical clarity at their respective campuses (Harvard, MIT, University of Pennsylvania). Of course, later, upon returning to their universities, when attorneys, donors, and trusted friends helped them understand that they had just advocated in front of the nation for open hate against Jews, their marketing teams went into crisis management and posted on social media that they were misunderstood. Alas, you were not misunderstood. You were, in fact, understood very clearly.

Hanukkah teaches us to persevere even when our light seems to be diminishing, just as Joseph’s unwavering faith in Gd’s plan sustained him through years of adversity. And although we are struggling through this immediate darkness, our history, tradition, and the upcoming holiday of Hanukkah, all teach us to stay strong.

The juxtaposition of Joseph’s journey with the Hanukkah narrative emphasizes the transformative power of light in the face of darkness. As we light the Hanukkah candles, we recall the words of the Psalmist: “The light of [Hashem] is the soul of man.” (Proverbs 20:27) This light, both physical and spiritual, has the power to dispel darkness and bring hope.

In the parable of the small village, where a powerful storm struck one evening, sending the village into darkness, there lived a group of people who each owned only one lantern. Individually, the lanterns struggled to pierce the thick veil of blackness. However, when the villagers gathered together, joining their lanterns in unity, their combined light not only dispelled the darkness but shined bright across the entire village.

This parable serves as a poignant reminder that our individual lights shine brighter when we come together. Similarly, the Hanukkah candles collectively dispel the darkness, fostering an environment of hope, resilience, and unity.

As we navigate our personal challenges, as well as those across the globe, may the lessons from Vayeshev and the festival of Hanukkah inspire us to become beacons of light, individually and collectively, bringing warmth and hope to those around us. Because we are…


Shabbat shalom and chag urim sameach (“Happy Holiday of Light”).