Miketz: An End to Darkness

Typically, this week's Torah portion, Parshat Miketz (Genesis 41:1-44:17), is read during Chanukah. This year is an exception. This Shabbat, we read Miketz on the day after Chanukah.

Since my early childhood, I've associated the day after Chanukah with sad feelings, feelings of loss. After all, for eight consecutive days, we celebrated with hallel v'hodaah, with praise and thanksgiving, with special foods and songs, and gifts.

We lit candles every night, culminating in the night before last when we lit eight candles. Then, suddenly, abruptly, we cease all celebration—no more candles!

I recall the first time I was conscious of these sad post-Chanukah emotions. I was five years old, old enough to have heard the Chanukah story and to have learned Chanukah songs. My uncle Yossel, one of my father's younger brothers, had just returned from serving in the United States Army during World War II. He returned with military souvenirs, including helmets and flags. To me, he was more than just a war hero. He was the embodiment of Judah the Maccabee.

It was a special holiday for our family, and we celebrated accordingly. I had my own little menorah and still remember my mother's words of caution as I lit the last candle on the eighth night.

But the next night, I felt deprived and experienced what I now realize was a sense of anti-climactic loss.

I remember another Chanukah, about ten years later, in my early teenage years. Earlier that year, just before Rosh Hashanah, I had been contacted by a rabbi in another neighborhood, who was assembling a small group of selected yeshiva high school students to join him in a special "club for spiritual advancement." That rabbi, now long gone, eventually became, and remains, quite famous and influential. I refer to the late Rabbi Avigdor Miller, whom I consider one of my first mentors.

There were about ten or twelve young boys in the group, and we would assemble in his synagogue, the Young Israel of Rugby in Brooklyn, once every three weeks. We would briefly study a classic work of Jewish ethics, or mussar, and were given an assignment designed to foster our spiritual development. We returned three weeks later to report about our progress.

Several weeks before Chanukah, we were introduced to what is now referred to as "mindfulness meditation." We were asked to spend some time in front of the lit menorah, gazing at the candles and monitoring the thoughts that came to mind and the emotions we were feeling.

On the "ninth day," we were to sit before the unlit menorah and again reflect upon our thoughts and feelings while sitting in utter darkness.

That experience made a lifelong impression upon me, and I well recall that cold winter evening, sitting in the darkness, and sobbing in sadness.

Fast forward some thirty years to Chanukah 1984, when my wife's late uncle came to visit the city of Baltimore, where we were his hosts. My wife's uncle was a Hasidic Rebbe, the Modzitzer Rebbe, Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu Taub, of blessed memory, who had settled in Israel before the Holocaust.

That Chanukah, he was visiting the United States and spent the seventh and eighth day of Chanukah in our home. There, throngs of local Jews came to consult him and heard his inspiring words of Torah and charming melodies.

He departed on the morning of the "ninth day," which was sad in itself.

Sadder, however, was the fact that soon after he returned to Israel, on the fourth day of Iyar, not long after Passover, he passed away. My wife and I were never to see him again.

And so, from a very personal perspective, you can understand the sadness that I associate with the day after Chanukah.

This year, however, the day after Chanukah falls on a Shabbat, this Shabbat. This is a special blessing for me, and for all who feel somewhat let down after the Chanukah holiday. The Shabbat day thankfully dispels whatever sadness we might otherwise be feeling.

Upon further reflection, it dawned upon me that it is not only the Shabbat itself that dispels the "darkness" that we feel post-Chanukah. Rather, dispelling darkness is the very theme of this week's Torah portion.

Last week's parsha, Parshat Vayeshev, ended on a very dark note. Joseph was interred in a deep and dark dungeon. His desperate, and only, hope was that his once fellow prisoner, Pharaoh's chief cupbearer, would remember his plea: "But think of me when all is well with you again, and do me the kindness of mentioning me to Pharaoh, so as to free me from this place." (Genesis 40:14)

But the discouraging final verse of last week's Torah reading still rings in our ears: "Yet the chief cupbearer did not think of Joseph; he forgot him!" (Ibid. verse 23)

This week, our parsha begins with the very next verse: "At the end, Miketz, of two years’ time, Pharaoh dreamed..." We gradually come to know the details of Pharaoh's dreams. We become aware that they dramatically lead not only to Joseph's freedom from the dungeon, but to his elevation to the position of viceroy, the second most powerful man in all of Egypt.

The word ketz means "the end." Thus, the Midrash links our verse to the words of Job: “Ketz sum lachoshech, He sets an end to darkness; to every limit that man probes, to rocks in deepest darkness." (Job 28:3) 

The Midrash continues, "The Almighty assigns limits to times of darkness," to which the commentaries suggest that even times of darkness have a purpose. Thus, Joseph’s imprisonment, dark as it was, was the setting for his encounter with the royal cupbearer, which eventually led not only to his freedom but to his rise to power. We can begin to understand the purpose of darkness only when the darkness is finally lifted.

I hasten to add that this lesson is intrinsic to the very procedure of Chanukah candle lighting. We follow the custom of the great Hillel. His custom was opposed to that of Shammai, whose school kindled eight lights on the first night of the holiday, and then kindled one less light each night until they were left with but one candle on the final night. With one candle left, there is nowhere to go except to zero. Hillel on the other hand began with but one candle and increased the number of candles each night until there were eight. He was, as the Talmud puts it, mosif v'holech, always increasing the number of candles, always increasing the amount of light.

His lesson is clear. When one encounters the darkness of the ninth day, he must continue to increase the amount of light. He must, figuratively of course, light a "ninth candle." He dare not succumb to darkness or despair. He must continue on the path of mosif v’holech, constantly moving forward.

Ketz sum lachoshech. An end to darkness. An apt prayer for our current circumstances.