At the end of one’s endurance, a light in the darkness

Senior Rabbi Dale Schreiber is Jewish Care Coordinator and Oncology Chaplain at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, and a  member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.

By Rabbi Dale Schreiber

We are coming to a close in the epic stories of Genesis, highlighting incredible family dynamics and how the children of Israel descend into Egypt. This week’s Torah portion begins mid-way through the Joseph odyssey with the Hebrew word Miketz. Onkelos (1st Century) translated or interpreted the word as meaning ‘at the end of’ a certain period of time.  

There is a great deal of drama in the Joseph story. Joseph is twice enslaved; first abandoned by his brothers to be sold into servitude and later cast into an Egyptian prison. His father, Jacob, is devastated by grief over the perceived death of a favored son designated as his care-provider in his old age. Given the suffering described in this week’s portion, Miketz can really mean to be at the end or depth of one’s endurance.

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Miketz begins with Joseph languishing in prison at the end of his endurance, a dreamer who is lost to himself.  Pharaoh is also at the depth of his endurance, as his recurrent dreams of healthy crops and cattle consumed by decimated ones plague his sense of well being.  

In the course of this week’s story, the ancient Mesopotamian world is plagued by a severe drought, and, at the end of their endurance, Jacob’s sons must travel to Egypt to escape starvation.  To be at the depth of one’s endurance is to be in a place of darkness.  Hanukkah, too, is about depth and endurance.  It is also about improbable possibilities and suffering great adversity.  These shared themes are one of the reasons this portion is so closely aligned with the lights of the holiday.  

Joseph’s story and Hanukkah are both about improbable possibilities.  To achieve an improbable possibility feels miraculous to me whenever it happens.  In the Hanukkah story, it is about rekindling the spiritual fire of a sustainable Judaism. In our parashah this week Joseph wakes as a prisoner and goes to sleep as viceroy of all Egypt, using his power and influence for the greater good.  From Joseph’s perspective, it must have felt miraculous!  

We all like happy endings.  Certainly as I lit the first light of the holiday with our children and their children, I felt what I always feel — a sense of the miraculous that we are still here creating and sharing light and digging deeply into the wisdom of Torah.  The happy ending for Joseph and in the Hanukkah story happened after a period of great suffering and adversity.  What is the wisdom that Judaism offers for the hardships, the struggle, the times we are enslaved to despair?  

Torah actually has a lot to say about suffering. One brilliant truth from our prophetic works, the Book of Job, and midrash is that there is a limit to the darkness. Darkness and light dance through time. The S’fat Emet (Rabbi Yehuda Lieb Alter, 1847-1905) writes that Miketz instructs us to use the light-filled moments of our lives to sustain us during the darkest of times. This teaching reminds us to make a conscious choice to find the possible within the improbable. We can use the miraculous in our own lives to counter the steady diet of darkness we are fed.  

We can, as expressed by the Lubavitcher Rebbe z”l, look for an opportunity to help, to inspire, to lend support in each and every encounter that life be filled with light and love.  

May your dreams be filled with hopes for improbable peace during this season of light!  

Chag sameach – Happy Holiday!