Rabbi Michael Bernstein is the spiritual leader of Congregation Gesher L’Torah in Alpharetta, Ga. Michael received his ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1999 and is an alumni of the Rabbis Without Borders second cohort.
This week on the Jewish calendar both great darkness and great light intersect as we read in the Torah the story of Joseph being subjected by his brothers to the bottom of a pit, and prepare to once more kindle the lights of Chanukah. In the Talmud, there are two different teachings by Rabbi Tanhum that are presented one after the other, even though they seem to have little to do with each other. The first is the law that the Chanukah candles must not be placed so high that a passerby's eyes would not naturally be able to see them. The second deals with Joseph and the fact that the pit into which he is tossed is described as being "empty and having no water." It had no water, but, according to this teaching, the pit did have snakes and scorpions!
I have always found it meaningful to think about the juxtaposition of these two teachings as saying something about Joseph's fate and the role we play in bringing dignity and security for those who suffer injustice. Just as the menorah must be lit in a place where it can be seen, the danger to Joseph came when he was forced into a dark place outside of anyone's eyesight and their concern. Once the brothers ignored him as a human being, it didn't matter whether he was at the bottom of a pit, drowning in water or being bitten by poisonous creatures. If the menorah shows the importance of not losing sight of the light, than the pit shows us the danger that lurks in the darkness of neglect.
This neglect is at the heart of what is at stake in finding a path forward in Israel and Palestine. When those who suffer remain beneath our sight they are abandoned to the pit that not only has no sustenance, but is rife with the violence of snakes and scorpions. The heavy shadow of hopelessness casts fear into those who might be most able to light a candle.
Those who are doing the difficult work of building peace in the shadow of real pain and suffering are few compared to those who see only a path deeper into the pit. But the light that shines from their perseverance teaches us that darkness can be overcome.
The light of Chanukah is no ordinary light that simply illuminates. Instead, as we say when the Chanukah candles are lit, this light exists solely to remind us of the miraculous, to help us remember that nothing is impossible, to inspire us to never be afraid and never give in to darkness.
For all the strength displayed by the Macabbees against their enemies, when we celebrate Chanukah, we are called to live by the words of the prophet Zechariah, "not by might, not by power, but only with spirit" shall we triumph.
May we summon the strength to live by the spirit, to use power for good, not evil, and lift from the pit those who suffer in darkness.