The story of Joseph, which is spread over four parashos in the book of Genesis, is always read at the time we celebrate the Festival of Hanukkah. The themes of that festival are Light, Providence, Dedication and Miracles. The story of Joseph does not relate closely to the theme of Light and yet, in way, it is all about Light: the Light of the Tzaddik or “Righteous One” which is a beacon to those who would follow the path of righteousness..Though the sages disagree about whether Joseph’s youthful vanity and insensitive pride were due to naiveté or just to downright nastiness, they all agree that Joseph’s subsequent behaviour makes him Ha Tzaddik, and a model for all who would be “righteous”. His particular flame is one which burns to show us that miracles are happening all the time if only we would open our eyes to see them, and that behind all the efforts of man is the gift of God in Providence (Hashgachah Pratis). As we read in Psalm 85:
“The Lord will provide what is good...Righteousness (tzedek) will walk before HimAnd He will set his footsteps on the path.”Psalm 85 13-14
In parshas Vayigash, Joseph reminds his brothers that:
“It was not you who sent me here, but God”.Genesis 45:8
Even the call to live a life of prayer as a dedicated contemplative is a summons and not something we have truly initiated ourselves... and anything that happens thereafter is something that God does and not something anyone, however righteous, could ever attain by themselves. Joseph knew this and the rabbis who described the re-dedication of the Temple as a miracle knew it too.
In the Joseph narrative we are given a model to follow.
It is not an accident that Joseph is called “The” tzaddik.
On the path of those who would be “righteous” his story is a beacon.
Deveykus: Becoming the Light which is “all Prayer”
The story of Joseph is a story about escaping from the confinement of spiritual captivity.
I have been considering the story of Joseph in the light of the Psalm text:
“In return for my love they accuse me,But I am all prayer”Psalm 109:4
In Parshas Vayeshev, Joseph is cast into a waterless pit and then sold as a slave by his own brothers;
He is wrongly accused of attempted rape by his master’s wife and ends up in the dank dungeon of Pharaoh;
He is then used as a counsellor and dream-interpreter by his jail-mates, one of whom (the chief butler) does nothing to assist the captive Joseph once he himself is freed.
In return for his love they accused him.
But there is no record of any complaint here, nor of revenge, nor of any resultant lack of faith in the heart of Joseph the righteous one.
Because, as the psalm puts it: “He is all prayer”.
One who cleaves to God does so through all the aspects of their life and not solely in their contemplation and meditation.
Joseph did not lose his trust in God’s Providence even when circumstances turned from good to bad.
Because he knew already that “interpretations belong to God” (Genesis 40:8)
He knew that ultimately none of us can see the details of the Divine Plan accurately and that consequently it is foolish to question Divine Wisdom- even when this plan seems far darker and more painful than humans would themselves wish. Creation is not always explicable and some events only make sense to us in retrospect.
Joseph was sorely tried by the people he came into contact with domestically and socially- both at home and at work. It is not always our families or our friends or our colleagues who can appear to be sent to try us- though that surely happens. Sometimes the “accusers” are our very own thoughts.
At times, we may be too hard on ourselves in self-criticism. At times we may feel that we are talentless or just plain lost in the world of contemplative action and feel that we are achieving little or nothing at all. If this worries us, it is because we have not freed ourselves from expectation...and it should humble us by offering us a clear proof that that we are still attached to the effects of our prayer-lives on ourselves or on others.
God Himself seems to accept our failings, as we read:
“He frequently withdraws His anger, and does not arouse all His rage.And He remembered that they were but fleshA passing wind that does not return.”(Psalm 78: 38-39)
yet in our pride and desire for self importance or in our senseless perfectionism we set ourselves above Him and His Judgment.
In doing these things we imprison ourselves. Our only hope in making our way out of that captivity, our only sure escape route out of our own “waterless pit” or “dank dungeon”- is to make our own lives “all prayer”. When we are completely engaged in doing that, we lose self-observation, and when we leave the outcomes of prayer and its effects on us to God then our failings are no longer perceived as obstacles- but can simply be accepted as character weaknesses we are aware of, are working on, but which we defuse so that they can no longer block our progress.
We do this by remembering that the key to our spiritual liberation is not to shout at the dark but to light a candle. This is a message which is very appropriate to the current festival of Hanukkah but it is applicable throughout the year.
Prayer may seem a decidedly blunt weapon against the “accusers”...but it isn’t. As many have observed, a small flame can fill a very large dark space with light.
I read last week that (in deepest darkness, far away from artificial light) a small candle flame can be seen by the human eye from a distance of up to five miles.
The flame of prayer is a bright reminder of the Original Light. Just because something is hidden does not mean that it is not powerful. It is by the light of the kind of prayer we call deveykus that Joseph was able to interpret dreams, for the light of contemplative prayer is a guiding lamp on the path towards the near-prophetic state of Ruach ha-Kodesh.
Deveykus means “cleaving to God” in utterly devoted thought and action. When we pray and live in deveykus we can become “God’s intimate friends” (to use Avraham ben Maimon’s term). In that state we may sometimes become channels for the Light. Not as “directly” a prophet does—but “reflectively” through receptive contemplative prayer.
The small light of Prayer is only “small” in the way that a laser beam is small. In other words, its size belies its enormous power.... for the light of contemplative prayer is drawn from the Light of God Himself:
“For with You is the source of life,and in Your light we shall see light.Extend Your kindness to those who know youAnd your righteousness to the upright of heart.”(Psalm 36: 10:11)
It is no accident that a hierarchy is present in those verses. They describe a process:
- God originates Light.
- He makes this Light our point of connection with His Presence and our guiding beacon.
- When we are “living in intimate relation” to those two statements -in contemplative prayer- we can become potential channels of that Light ourselves.
In other words: Our act of prayer itself is sometimes the means by which the Divine Chesed is “extended” to others. Nor is it just our prayer that can become such a channel -our whole life can become suffused with this Light, at least potentially. As members of the Jewish People, each one of us has made covenant with the God of Israel and each one of us lives a life of dedication in His service. Whether we are engaged in prayer or washing the dishes, davening the liturgy or caring for our sick relatives, studying the Parshah or busy in our “secular” employment... we all have the potential to be “all prayer” as that little light of inestimable power can enter through the tiniest of cracks.
Hishtavus: Allowing the Sons of the Tzaddik to Light the Way
In Parshas Mikkeitz, Joseph names his sons Menashe and Efrayim.
They are “God has enabled me to forget my sufferings”
And “Fruitfulness in the midst of my affliction”.
We are all Joseph.
The name Joseph means “God increases”.
We are all Joseph , for our spiritual progeny, our “increase” is like these two “sons”.
In our journey through this life we are presented with situations, relationships, challenges, and trials which often require us to make decisions and choices in order to progress through the gates along the way.
Our reactions and decisions and the consequences of our choices are the fruitfulness (Efrayim) which follows the “first-born” experiences of awakened-equanimity (hishtavus) and a positive assimilation of whatever has happened to us in life previously (Menashe). It is by conquering our regrets about the past, or the difficulties which challenge us, or the obstacles which are placed in our path that we produce Menashe and it is by the creativity of our resolution-making that we bring ourselves into the inheritance of Efrayim. We cut our ties with the pain and failure of yesterday when we rise up with a plan for a more devoted and productive today and tomorrow.
Again, I’ll consider Joseph’s life in the light of a psalm text:
“For you freed my soul from death.My eye from tears,And my foot from stumbling.I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living.”Psalm 116: 8-9
He was “freed from death” when he emerged from the waterless pit in the desert and when he was vindicated before Pharaoh after his incarceration. His “tears were dried” when ( at the end of the Joseph narrative in Parshas Vayigash) he is re-united with his brothers in forgiveness and peace. He was able to avoid “stumbling” when he refused to respond to the seduction of his mistress and also when he chose not to punish his brothers in revenge or hateful retribution but, instead, chose to give them a hard but compassionate lesson in brotherly-love. A lesson which could lead not to destruction but to further creation.
Out of affliction came fruitfulness.
In remembering God we can forget our failings.
These two are the sons of Joseph sent to light our way.
Hegyon ha-Lev: Meditating in The Light of the Torah
And there is another way in which we can see something of the light which guided Joseph and make its illumination the key to our escape from confinement:- Biblical Prophecy itself can also act as a beacon.
We may not see the details of the Divine Plan, but there is one way to come close. In the Haftarah of Vayeshev we read:
“For the Lord will do nothing without first revealing His plan to His servants the Prophets”Amos 3:7
God speaks to each one of us in our hearts but he also speaks to us through the scriptures and his servants the prophets have given us texts through which we can glimpse some of the depths of that Divine Plan even if it we do not quite understand the half of it ourselves. The words of the Torah and the Prophets are channels of that Original Light in a way which can open the gates of our constricted consciousness to show us glimpses not just of the path to be taken but also something of the Expansive Realm of God Himself.
By reading the words of our scriptures prayerfully in Hegyon ha-Lev (Lectio Divina) we may find that we ourselves are able to receive a form of revelation ourselves. It may not be “prophetic revelation”, but it is related to prophecy in its directness.
Our “study which is prayer” and our “prayer which is study” are the dual guides on the road out of spiritual captivity by our personal small-mindedness. They are like twin angels, keruvim of light, which show us the way to the Merchav-Yah, the wide open consciousness of the World of Thought- and their names are Observe (shamor) and Remember (zachor).
Bitachon: Seeing through God’s Eyes
The key to being a tzaddik after the fashion of Joseph is to see that though we are called upon to “walk before God” in righteousness...we should also be the first to see that even our efforts to do this are themselves gifts from God, because God enabled Joseph and enables us to overcome obstacles and become fruitful. If Joseph had not had explicit faith and trust in the Providence of God he would not have been able to endure his captivity so lightly- and perhaps he would not have been so charitable towards his fellow prisoners and to his offending brothers. His faith (composed of emunah/hishtavus/bitachon -each in good measure) was rooted in the knowledge that God Himself is the only true “force” for growth and for good.
This is the message of the Mikkeitz Haftarah text in Zechariah 4:6....and one of the key messages of the festival of Hanukkah which we are about to celebrate.
The text reads:
“Not by might and not by Power,But by My Spirit, says the Lord of Hosts”Zechariah 4:6
Not by might
- through our own efforts and ambitions to make spiritual progress
Nor by power
- through an attempt to coerce God to do our will rather than His
But by the breath of God
-An effortless caress of the will of God given to us (or not) according to His desire
This breath is the inspiration of Adonai Tzevaot,
(the all powerful Lord of Armies)
And so it defeats all our enemies for us
Blowing away the cloying debris of our past lives,
And clearing the path before us.
God Himself replaces the regrets of our past failings and the paralising fear of the future with the trust and hopeful creativity of the “sons” of Joseph. If we let Him.
If Joseph’s life is a beacon for us in our own journey out of spiritual captivity.... It reminds us that Trust in God (bitachon) is the mark of a tzaddik (and the mark of one who would become a tzaddik).
- When we accept that God has a Plan which is often not immediately comprehensible to us--we are following the Light which Joseph followed.
- When we allow the Mercy of God to temper our own rage,frustration,envy or cold-heartedness- we are following the Path on which Joseph walked.
- When we make our lives an act of positive and outflowing Creation in partnership with the Eternally Present One-we are becoming like the “Sons” of Joseph.
With God’s help, we can maintain our trust in Providence even when things are tough, and without expecting the world to be turned upside down for our own benefit..... then we might find, like Joseph, that God has been with us in the “darkness” of our captivity all along.
As we say each morning in the blessing Yotzeir Or:
“Blessed are You Lordwho makes lightYet creates darkness”.
Both light and darkness are His servants.
When we see by that lamp of insight --so are we.
Nov 29 2010
(The photo which heads this article is of Hanukkah in my hermitage-- taken in 2008)