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Mikketz 5782 - Finding and Preserving Light

December 4, 2021 - 30 Kislev, 5782

On Tuesday evening, my yoga teacher came into the room and sighed, “Why in the world do we have this season of celebration when it gets cold and dark so early? It’s so depressing!” Jewish author Anita Diamant has the perfect answer to my teacher: “This is the season,” she writes, “when people of all faiths and cultures are pushing back against the planetary darkness. We string bulbs, ignite bonfires, and light candles. And we sing.” In Shreveport today, the skies were an ominous grey, and tonight was one of the earliest sunsets of our year. And yet, tonight, we have indulged in food, laughter, and song, with a much bigger crowd than we usually see on a Friday night. We celebrate tonight and every Hanukah because we know we need the light at this time of bitter cold - at least, bitter cold in some areas of the world. In our literally and figuratively darkest moments, we need that reminder that we have experienced light, we will experience light, and chances are, there is some light to hold onto right now.

Every year, I find something new in Joseph’s story that feeds into the wisdom of our Festival of Lights. This year, I was taken by Pharaoh’s dreams at the very beginning of Parshat Miketz. Our parashah begins with Pharaoh asking a formerly imprisoned Joseph to interpret two dreams for him. The best summary of these dreams, I think, comes from Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, in a song sung by a Pharaoh dressed as Elvis:

Well I was wandering along by the banks of the river

When seven fat cows came up out of the Nile, uh-huh

And right behind these fine healthy animals came

Seven other cows, skinny and vile, uh-huh 

Well the thin cows ate the fat cows which I

Thought would do them good, uh-huh

But it didn't make them fatter like I thought

A monster supper should 

 

Well the thin cows were as thin

As they had ever, ever, ever been

Well this dream has got me baffled

Hey, Joseph, won't you tell me what it means? 

 

The Pharaoh’s second dream is similar but involves two sets of seven ears of corn, one healthy set and one that’s not doing so great. Just like with the cows, the unhealthy set eats the healthy. Joseph, then, interprets these dreams to mean that Egypt will experience seven years of plenty, followed by seven years of famine.

According to the medieval French commentator Rashi, that act of the fat eating the thin is a sign that the years of plenty will not just be left behind, but consumed, entirely forgotten. Through Pharaoh’s dream, Joseph interprets, God warns Pharaoh of not only the risk of starvation, but also, the risk of communal despair, of discarded memories.

Each winter and each time we experience a period of sadness in our lives, we also run that risk of forgetting our years of plenty. Each and every one of us, no matter how much pain we have experienced, has also experienced at least some bit of good onto which we can grasp for hope and support. We have people whom we love and people who love us, people who can act as that inspiration for us to keep going. We have memories that can provide us with enough laughter to distract us, maybe even memories we can strive to re-enact in days to come. We may even have concrete bits of good like objects, hobbies, or interests that are left over from those times of plenty. 

On Hanukah, each light represents some iota of happiness that we know we can bring into even our darkest spaces, to make even the hardest days just a little bit more manageable. When we feel like we have hit the breaking point, we can call those people we know will lift us up, watch that movie we can’t sit through without laughing ourselves silly, or listen to that music that hits just the right emotional tone. We all experience sadness, fear, anger, and sometimes even great despair; joy is often not what we need at a particular moment in time. And yet, forgetting joy is one of our greatest dangers. During this season and really, any time of the year, we cannot let go of our memories of the good; those memories hold the great potential to revive us.

When we experience times of great plenty, then, we must preserve our light for those times we will need it in the future. These times of joy are the times we must work our hardest to preserve the relationships we know will inspire us, both now and in times to come. We go that extra mile for the people we love because we know they will be there for us when life inevitably gets more difficult. We go on all of the adventures that we can, or for those of us who are a little more reserved, we spend every moment we can on the couch with Netflix and pajamas, so that we can relish in our present fortune. We take lots of pictures and write everything down, and of course, we recognize each blessing with a thank you to God and to the people who brought us here. Ultimately, we make our moments of joy so powerful, so lasting that no thin cow or tattered sheaf can erase their memory.

Each night of Hanukah, we remind ourselves both to search for the light we think we cannot see and to preserve the light we know we have right now. At this time of year, I often reflect back on a quote I’ve shared here before from Jenny Lawson’s Furiously Happy, a book about the author’s experience with mental illness: 

Without dark there isn’t light. Without the pain there is no relief. And I remind myself that I’m lucky to feel such great sorrow, and also such great happiness. I can grab onto each moment of joy and live in those moments because I have seen the bright contrast from dark to light and back again. I am privileged to be able to recognize that the sound of laughter is a blessing and a song, and to realize that the bright hours spent with my family and friends are extraordinary treasures to be saved, because those same moments are a medicine, a balm…

Tonight, I bless us that we hold onto this memory of delicious food and community, of a child just learning to run down the aisles. In our last hours of Hanukah, I challenge us to make new memories to hold, and I challenge us to dig deep to find those memories we can carry with us to light any darkness we may encounter. And like our shamash does with all of its companions, we look for the opportunity to be the helper candle, the purveyor of light, to all who need it. Shabbat Shalom, Hodesh Tov, and Hag Sameah!

Sat, May 28 2022 27 Iyyar 5782