Rabbi Rachel Timoner – “The Darkest Night”: Shabbat Vayeishev 5781 D’var Torah

It’s not an accident that Hanukkah encompasses the longest, darkest nights of the year. That’s because it contains the new moon closest to the winter solstice, combining the lunar calendar with the solar calendar for maximum darkness.

In our Torah portion this week, there is a parallel descent into darkness. The parsha opens sunnily enough with its title, Vayeishev, denoting Jacob’s readiness to settle down in the fullness of his life. The patriarch has had enough of adventure and is prepared for a retirement of tranquility, but quickly the actions of his sons prevent a glowing fade out.

Instead, eleven of his sons, wrought up in bitter hatred and jealousy of their brother Joseph, seize him and cast him into a deep, dark pit. Rashi notes that the text says both that the pit was empty and that it contained no water. He finds this seeming redundancy (obviously any empty pit doesn’t have water in it), to beg further interpretation and references the Talmud (Shabbat 22a) to say that in fact the pit contained snakes and scorpions. Torah Temimah explains that the brothers couldn’t see the snakes and scorpions at the bottom because the pit was so very deep and dark. It explains that the exact action the brothers took to throw Joseph in — the verb is shalakh—means to throw a distance of at least 20 cubits. Too deep to see the bottom.

Indeed, Joseph has been thrown into the depths, out of and beneath his brother’s line of sight, into a kind of oblivion. In fact, the brothers proceed to eat lunch nearby, seemingly unable to hear their brother’s cries or to be troubled about his well-being. He has descended beyond the limits of their concern or even awareness. The contemporary scholar Aviva Zornberg describes his condition as, “To be in emptiness, to be assigned to a hole, discontinuous with past and future, gone from the minds of others” (“The Beginning of Desire,” p. 292). By throwing him into the pit, the brothers have erased him from their sight and their consciousness.

This is maybe the most terrifying thing of all. That we would not only suffer, but that no one would know or care. That we would be without witness. Somehow in our lowest moments, the experience of being witnessed matters. We’re relational beings after all, and even if others can’t prevent our particular despair, and even if we are physically alone, it matters to know that others see us and see what we’re going through.

And the pit is only the beginning of Joseph’s descent into darkness. He is then brought down to Egypt — it is always described that way, as going down — and because of the false accusations of Potiphar’s wife, he is further lowered into the dungeon, where he sits imprisoned in the dark for two years. Largely forgotten.

Now tonight is not just Hanukkah Shabbat, it’s not just Parashat Vayeishev, it’s also Human Rights Shabbat, as yesterday was International Human Rights Day, and T’ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights calls upon all rabbis and congregations to consider human rights in the world and their abrogation on this Shabbat. As I looked up articles and reports about human rights violations worldwide, and found information I did not know about death threats to journalists in Yemen and authoritarian rule in Bangladesh, arrests in Myanmar for the simple act of alleging voter intimidation; and I was reminded of the persecution of Muslims, Uyghurs in China, and so much more, I couldn’t help but reflect too on the still ongoing separation of immigrant children from their parents here in the United States, which exists within the larger system of mass detention, and then had to look up how many of our people were incarcerated this year — the number is 2.12 million people, more than any other country in the world. In comparison, China, which obviously has a much larger population, incarcerated an estimated 1.7 million people in 2020.

I often feel helpless when facing such a litany. I am guessing that you do too. It’s overwhelming. And I feel like I have less capacity for it now than ever. Already we sit at the end of month nine of a global pandemic in which we have endured vast loss and aching, numbing isolation and harrowing stress, at the end of the fourth year of a cruel and capricious regime, and at the beginning of a winter that is likely to be darker than all of the previous nine months.

We are in that dark dungeon with Joseph. We’re in that last year of the Maccabean revolt, when we’re already exhausted, when reserves are wearing thin, and it’s hard to imagine how we’re going to make it through the next few months.

And here’s where the Torah and the Hanukkah story bring us exactly what we need. I find that there are three most beautiful things about this parasha. The first is that Joseph’s light simply cannot be extinguished. It doesn’t matter how low he is flung or how dark his surroundings. His light is inextinguishable. The second is that it is precisely at the very bottom, in the deepest, darkest place, that his light begins to shine. The third is that the turning point is witness, the pivotal act is seeing.

And as we know, the way Joseph’s light emerges is through dreams. Think of it, when we talk about dreams, we use language about descent: down into the subconscious we go. We imagine that entering the realm of dreams is entering a deep, dark place. But from there dreams glow with light and color, creativity and imagination. They are projected brilliance told through image, story, and vibrant illumination. That’s what happens in the dark. That’s what happens in the depths.

Hanukkah is about dreams. Hanukkah is about inextinguishable light. The Maccabees, the Hasmoneans, stood in the shadow of an overwhelming, obliterating force. The Syrian Greeks, representing the Greek Empire in its global might, sought to erase the Jewish people. They outlawed the practices of Judaism and forced our assimilation. They dominated us militarily, conquered and possessed our holy sites, persecuted observances of even the most private mitzvot, and encouraged apostasy. The goal was disappearance, non-existence, extinguishment. It could have been that in the second century before the Common Era, Judaism and the Jewish people ceased to exist.

But that is not what happened. The light didn’t go out. That one cruse of oil outlasted all reasonable predictions. The guerilla fighters in the Judean hills could not be starved out, could not be outlasted. The people persisted, as did our God.

I want to remind you that Joseph was never without a witness. Even in the deepest darkest dungeon, even when he may have felt utterly alone and unseen, God was watching Joseph. The text tells us explicitly that God was witnessing all of it. Further, the turning point for Joseph in that dark dungeon was in seeing the distress of others, witnessing the affliction of his fellow prisoners. If you remember, Pharaoh’s baker and cupbearer were imprisoned with Joseph, and one night they both dreamed dreams. Joseph, seeing their disquiet the next morning, the text tells us, asked them, “Why are you so downcast?” It was precisely in this gesture of witness that his redemption began. Because he saw them in their distress, he listened to their dreams, he interpreted their dreams, and one of them would eventually tell Pharaoh of his gift, which would lead to his ascent. Witness is the first act of redemption.

So, when we feel overwhelmed and defeated by the state of our world, at grievous human rights abuses, at nihilistic misuse of power, at a seemingly interminable plague, let us remember that witness is the first act of redemption. All we have to do right now is to continue to see others.

The very same passage of the Talmud that talks about the 20 cubit depth of the pit tells us that when we put our menorah in our doorway in sight of the public, the menorah shouldn’t be more than 20 cubits above ground, because that would be out of the line of sight of the people at street level, and we need everyone to witness the light.

So here we have three stories: Joseph, Hanukkah, and us. All of them are about suffering and redemption. All of them are about dreams, all of them are about endurance. And here’s what’s also true about all of them. The light is always there, even when it is not obvious, even when it is hidden to us. The light is in everything. The light is in the match. The light is in the sulfur. It is in the wax and the wick. It is in the motion and the friction. It is in the brain and the nerves and the muscles and the bones. Kindling is simply revealing.

The light is in everything. Even in the deepest depths. Even in the darkest winter. Even after nine months of pandemic lock down. Even in the obscurity of the distanced night. Ours is to see light even there, to find it, to reveal it, to witness it, to use it to illuminate others, to put it in the doorway for all to see. Ours is to dream in the dark. Because we know that dawn is coming. We know that the darkest night comes just before the dawn.