Rav Yisrael Krengel
Former Rosh Kollel Johannesburg (2002-3)
The ups and downs of life affect us all, both on an individual level and a national one. We all know how to respond to the ups, the question is how we approach and respond to the downs. We can glean some insight on this topic by looking at how Yosef dealt with his downs, the stories of which always happen to fall out during Channukah.
The theme of the pit (the downs) appears at two different stages in Yosef’s life; when he is sold by his brothers and when he is thrown into prison. The brothers could not decide if they should kill him or not, but one thing was agreed upon by all – he would have to be thrown into the pit, because dead or alive he deserved to be degraded. “And they took him and cast him into the pit” (Bereishit 37:24). This was both a physical and metaphoric statement. The brothers wanted to make him lowly not just physically but also in stature.
This dark pit is a foreshadowing of things to come for Yosef in Egypt. The Gemara (Shabbat 21B) states that: “The pit was empty, there was no water (continuation of the verse above) – is it not obvious if it was empty that there was no water? We learn that there may not have been water, but there were scorpions and snakes.” I think this is not only referring to what was, but also what will be. This alludes to the fact that Yosef in Egypt would have to contend both with the fact that there was no Torah (water) and with the evil around him (snakes and scorpions). However, even though Yosef was down and out, he manages to rise from the ashes and become a powerful force in Potiphar’s house.
But then, he is thrown into the pit (prison) again, as he puts it: “I have done nothing, for which they have put me into the dungeon (the Hebrew word is ‘Bor’ – literally pit).” He sits rotting in this pit for two whole years, until suddenly he is remembered and mentioned by the chief cupbearer following Par’oh’s dreams: “So Par’oh sent and called Yosef, and they rushed him from the dungeon (pit)” (Bereishit 41:14). In one split second, Yosef is saved and uplifted from the pit to become the ruler of Egypt.
Midrash Tanchuma (Parshat Mikeitz 3) remarks: “Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi said: From confinement comes vastness (this also can read; from suffering comes relief); from darkness comes light; from the degradation of the righteous comes their elevation.” The Midrash is saying that the difficulties make us grow if we use them correctly. The continuation of the Midrash emphasizes this point: “And Par’oh said to Yosef, ‘I have dreamed a dream and there is no interpreter for it, but I have heard it said of you that you understand a dream, to interpret it.’ And Yosef replied to Par’oh, saying, ‘Not I; God will give an answer that will bring peace to Pharaoh’ (Bereishit 41:15-16) – Yosef attributed greatness to its owner. God thus said: “Because you did not want to take greatness for yourself, I will raise you up to great heights and royalty.” Because Yosef was downtrodden, he was able to nullify his ego, rise up and attribute all of the events in his life to God.
This is why we read Yosef’s story on Channukah. The Channukah story has a similar theme. We were downtrodden, in the pit of the Greek decrees and reign of terror. The Midrash Rabbah (Bereishit 2:4) equates the Greek rule with darkness, because the Greeks tried to darken our spirit with their decrees. It was from the depths of despair which had fallen upon the Jewish people that the Chashmonaim rose up and declared that Hashem will be the one to make them victorious; just as Yosef had attributed his salvation to Hashem. This is why we celebrate Channukah with Hallel and Hoda’ah – praise and thanksgiving, to Hashem, for He alone is the one who saved us.
It is interesting to note that the song ‘Maoz Tsur’ focuses on all the low points in Jewish history (not just the Greeks); Egypt, Babylonia, Persia, Greece and Edom. As we light the candles, we remember our difficulties and how we were redeemed from them, and this causes us to give thanks to God. This is how we bring light to darkness and is the key to Jewish survival; our ability to turn to God and know that He can and will raise us up.
Although the situation at present in our homeland is filled with grief and terror, we need to turn to God and ask Him to once more turn suffering into relief, degradation into elevation, darkness into light and exile into redemption. May it come speedily in our days, Amen.