The True Power of Children of Israel

Why does the Torah tell us at such great length of the dysfunctional relationship of Joseph and his brothers? We have three separate Torah readings to cover this entire story! That is a lot of focus, and the question is why.

The details of the story are known far and wide. I wish to probe Joseph's behavior towards his brothers when they came to Egypt to purchase food. Joseph was the second in command, and it was his job to oversee the food distribution during the years of famine. When the brothers, with the exception of Benjamin, stood before him, he recognized them quickly. They, however, did not recognize him. The Torah tells us that, "And Joseph remembered the dreams he had dreamed to them, and now he became estranged to them and spoke harshly to them."

Joseph chooses to run his brothers through the wringer. He accuses them of being spies, requires them to bring their youngest brother Benjamin to Egypt the next time they come. Until then, he will incarcerate Simon. At that moment, the brothers discuss among themselves their guilt in selling Joseph. "When our brother cried to us and begged us, we did not listen. Now his blood is being sought." Reuben responds with, "Did I not tell you not to sin against the boy?"

Joseph is moved by this discussion, and must leave the room in order to cry. What moved him so? And if so, why did he continue the charade of accusing them of spying? Isn't their contrition clear? Why not reunite the family already?

The Torah gives us a hint by mentioning that Joseph's memory of the dreams was the catalyst for his behavior. Some commentaries see on Joseph's part an attempt to force the fulfillment of his dreams. 10 of his brothers have already bowed down to him. He still needs Benjamin to do so, and he needs the sun and moon, representing his father and mother, to do so as well. Since Rachel has already passed away, the commentaries say this refers to her maidservant, Bilhah. The problem I have with this approach is that Jacob did not bow down to Joseph when he arrived in Egypt. In fact, he only did it far after the fact, as he was on his deathbed. Joseph never seems to force that issue.

The commentary of rabbi Solomon Sorotzkin points out that the brothers expressed their guilt to each other when Simon was going to be locked up. They saw in this Divine retribution, where nine brothers consigned the 10th to slavery and incarceration. They were nine in number when they sold Joseph, and now nine of them would return to the land of Canaan, while the 10th would go to jail in Egypt. This indicated divine punishment for their parallel offense.

I believe that it was Reuben's comment that he had warned the brothers at the time not to harm Joseph that moved Joseph to tears. He probably hadn't known that not all of the brothers wanted to do away with them. Nonetheless, this contrition was not enough. It was the contrition of a thief who gets caught, no more than that. Joseph had a more rigorous goal for his brothers: to accept with joy his leadership. To become part of the mission, part of the team.

Joseph's dream about the brothers bowing to him was misunderstood by the brothers. To them, it is the vanquished that bows to the victor. For them, it was a zero sum game. If Joseph won, they lost. What was missing was the possibility that they were all on the same team.

That is what Joseph interpreted the dreams to mean. To him, bowing indicates submission to the mission. Subjects bow to a king in a gesture of willingness to join together in the national interest. There must be one leader, and bowing acknowledges that leader. Nonetheless, all are on the same team. And, in the case of Joseph and his brothers, what is this team called?

It is called a family. Family is the key to the Jewish people's mission. In a normal family, each individual is committed to the welfare of the others and of the whole. The family of Jacob have a mission, and everybody needs to be on board with it. Joseph sought, by this whole performance, to bring the brothers to the point of recognizing that he is the best leader for the family mission. When they reconcile at the end, he keeps stressing that they're selling them to slavery enabled him to save countless lives and entire nations.

Now, however, that the must be understood to have been a tragedy. The brothers must be brought to the same situation, where they face the same exact choice. Benjamin is the new Joseph, he is Jacob's new favorite son. Jacob is probably even more protective of Benjamin than he was of Joseph! So Joseph needs to see that the brothers are now going to stand up for each other, and become a true family. He is going to test them. He does it now with Simon, and they pass. He will do it with Benjamin, and when they pass that test, he can reveal himself.

How many families craft a mission statement? Individuals do it. Businesses do it. Families should as well. A family is the greatest possible team, and can accomplish the greatest feats. The family of Israel, even in the first generations, transformed the world.

Chanukah is a festival of family. The lighting of the candles is incumbent upon each household, not each individual. In theory, a person could fulfill the Mitzvah of candle lighting without touching a match and without seeing a flame. As long as the menorah is lit in the home, every member of that household has fulfilled their obligation.

The Talmud gives different levels of observance of this Mitzvah. The basic one is to have one candle for each household. The higher level is to have the amount of candles depend on the amount of members of the family. Thus, a family of four with light for candles every night Chanukah. The highest level is to light one additional candle with each night. That is the way we do it.

This emphasis on the family is not by accident. It was one family that brought about the entire miracle of Chanukah! The Macabbees were the sons of one man, Matityahu. This family chose a mission of national importance, and immediately attracted an army capable of defeating the powerful Greeks! That is how important a family mission is! Families create a team like nothing else. Thus, we fulfill the Mitzvah of Chanukah with an emphasis on the family.

On this Festival of Lights, let's kindle the light of family, and let's sit down as a family and write a mission statement. What a wonderful transformation this can bring! It is the secret of the power and eternity of the Jewish people.

Hanukkah: How to Be Eternal

What is the basic requirement of Hanukkah? Just one candle per household. Thus says the Talmud. In the same section, we learn that the "Mehadrin", those who wish to do it in better style, will light one candle for each member of the family. They will do so each night. Then we meet the "Mehadrin min Hamehadrin", those who wish to do it in even greater fashion. They will light one candle more for each night of Hanukkah. Yes, today everyone does it like the Mehadrin min Hamehadrin. We all light one on the first night, two on the second and so forth.

There is a debate among the commentaries if the Mehadrin and the Mehadrin min Hamehadrin are exclusive or inclusive. In other words, do the Mehadrin min Hamehadrin light just one menorah and follow the days, or do they build on the Mehadrin and light for the whole family, and double that on the second night, triple it on the third and so forth. If a family of three is Mehadrin min Hamehadrin, do they light 1-2-3 .. or 3-6-9...?

I have a more basic question: If the lighting of the candles is to recall the Menora from the Temple, why don't we light seven candles every night? There is a practical answer, that the Bible forbids making a seven branched candelabra, as the one in the Temple needed to be a unique one. So maybe we should light 8 each night? Perhaps so, but the sages generally try to minimize the expenses of the citizenry, so they wouldn't make such an expensive requirement. As it is, the 36 candles required by the Mehadrin min Hamehadrin is enough expense.

I will suggest a different explanation as to what the candles symbolize, and it is NOT the candelabra in the Temple. It is, instead, the root cause of the Jewish victory, and of Jewish persistence and survival. There are a number of elements, but the most basic is the family. "Ner ish uvaito = a candle for each man and his home." The Jewish family is the bedrock of our survival. We teach traditions, we share holidays and every-days. It is a place of nurturing, of warmth, of eternity.

Thus, our first obligation on Hanukkah to ensure the continued existence of our people is to strengthen our families. Our homes should be bastions of Torah and Jewish tradition. There is no room for a Hanukkah bush or a Christmas tree. There is room for candles, for the singing of Maoz Tzur, for the telling of the story of the miracle of the candles. I find it inspiring that even the most assimilated Jews have Hanukkah in their homes.

What about the Mehadrins and the Mehadrin min Hamehadrins? Hillel, the Mishnaic sage, said the famous teaching, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself only, what am I? And if not now, when?"

This is how I explain the three levels of lighting, each with its message. "If I am not for me.." is one candle. It's the family unit. "If I am for myself only.." implies living for others. This is the Mehadrin, who lights for all the members of the family. Thus, our concern for each other is expressed, and our cohesiveness as a nation is strengthened.

"If not now, when?" Here we move, perhaps to the most powerful aspect. Growth! This is the basic difference between the Jewish nation and the rest of the world. Jews are obsessively future-oriented. Tomorrow is everything, today is just a way to get there. What we do today must be geared towards strengthening tomorrow. Hence, if not now, when will I prepare for tomorrow? It must be today.

By lighting an additional candle each day, instead of 8 every night, we express the centrality of growth in our faith. Each day must certainly have it's glow, it's accomplishments, but those accomplishments are not in a vacuum. They must lead to tomorrow. Each day builds on the previous. We are always building a greater future.

Therefore, the way we light candles, by including all the elements, expresses Hillel's dictum beautifully. Further, it is the essence of our survival: Our families, our concern for each other, and our constant building up to the future.

Happy Hanukkah!