"Mattathias Appealing to Jewish Refugees" by Gustav Doré, 1866
"Mattathias Appealing to Jewish Refugees" by Gustav Doré, 1866

This week’s dark Torah portion prepares us for ascent into the light

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The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.

Genesis 41:1–44:17

At the start of Miketz, this week’s Torah portion, the patriarch Jacob is arguably at the darkest point in his life. In the preceding parashah, his jealous sons had cast Joseph —their father’s favorite — into a pit and planned to kill him and then sell him to a passing caravan of traders.

We can only imagine Jacob’s anguish at the loss of his son, his distress in light of his family’s deep dysfunctionality and his angst regarding the uncertainty about his son’s fate.

This is also the darkest point in our calendar, with the winter solstice usually occurring around the time of year we read this Biblical narrative. Which means that Miketz is often read during Hanukkah, a holiday in which darkness plays a prominent role.

The darkness related to Hanukkah is the oppression of the Seleucid occupiers over the Jewish people in Israel. Antiochus and his officials and soldiers prohibit Jewish worship, desecrate the Temple and engender all manner of idolatrous practices.

A small band of Jews — led by the priest Mattathias and his sons, who became known as the Maccabees — refuse to submit to this oppression.

Their rebellion begins as unconventional, guerrilla fighting in the Judean countryside, where the Maccabees raid towns and terrorize Syrian-Greek officials. But eventually the rebels form a proper army, led by the Maccabees, capable of attacking fortified Seleucid cities.

In 164 BCE, the Maccabees capture Jerusalem and rededicate the Temple.

In later rabbinic literature, we are told that the Maccabees found only enough oil for the Temple’s menorah to last a single day, but that God created a miracle that allowed it to stay lit for eight full days. A commingling of these two stories has led to the observance of Hanukkah that most of us know today.

The tale of Hanukkah is a tale of triumph of freedom and independence over oppression and tyranny. It is also a testimony to God’s redemptive power. As such, Hanukkah marks both a political-military victory of the Jewish people and a spiritual celebration of monotheism over idolatry.

In either aspect, Hanukkah is ultimately a holiday about finding light in the aftermath of darkness.

Kabbalistic thought has a concept, known as yeridah, of having to descend before being able to ascend. For the mystics, a journey into the abyss, into darkness, can be a sacred rite of passage through which souls are forged and transformed.

Descent is only the preparation for the ascent. Moses leaves Egypt for Mount Sinai and the Promised Land. The Prophet Jonah struggles in the belly of a great fish before he is spit out onto dry land and completes his divine mission. Daniel survives a lion’s den and finds God.

Sometimes a descent into darkness is the only way to become who we were meant to be.

But it does not always work out perfectly. The Maccabees, while heroic in many ways, in the end became corrupted as the new rulers of Israel. While they initially led the Jewish people to freedom and independence, their successors, the kingdoms of the Hasmoneans, collapsed under the weight of their errors and excesses.

On Hanukkah, we learn about the victories of the Maccabees, along with the triumph of God. In the next Torah portion, we read about how Joseph reconciles with his brothers and how their father, Jacob, finally finds renewal and peace.

Life, especially for the Jewish people, can often seem bleak and at times dark. But our tradition teaches us that there is always the possibility of a better, brighter future.

Whether it is this week’s Torah portion or the story of Hanukkah, this message is reaffirmed over and over for us. But as we know from history and from our own experience, nothing is ever completely one thing, nothing is totally pure. Even in the light, there are always traces of darkness.

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein
Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa Valley and the founding rabbi of the New Shul in New York City. He is also the author or editor of several books including "Gonzo Judaism" and "God at the Edge."