Our weekly Torah portion mostly deals with the story of Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers. We read, aghast, as the unthinkable happens. The family of Israel is torn apart by the brothers' inability, or unwillingness, to see that Joseph's uniqueness is in fact a blessing, and not a curse.
Jacob himself is inconsolable, as he believes the brothers' lie that Joseph is dead and he therefore cannot help but view the historic mission of the Jewish people as doomed to failure.
For Jacob, it seems axiomatic that each and every member of the Jewish family is entirely necessary for the success of the people. If even one of us is missing, there is no way we can ultimately prevail in our task to bring peace and wholeness (shalom) to the world.
As soon as Joseph is sold into slavery, and we learn of Jacob's refusal to be comforted for his loss, the text abruptly interrupts the narrative around Joseph. The Torah's camera pans suddenly to an apparently unrelated story, wherein Judah marries a Canaanite woman.
According to the Midrash, Reuben and Jacob are busy with “sackcloth and fasting”, meaning that they are fully engaged in grieving what has happened – or what they think has happened – to Joseph (Midrash Genesis Rabbah 85:1). Judah is said to be busy taking a wife, while God was busy “creating the light of the Messiah”.
Judah, according to the Torah itself, “descended” and appears to be preoccupied with his own needs. However, the midrash concludes that one character in this drama was not consumed with either grief or self-interest – God.
The Infinite One, who transcends time and space, and knows how the story ends, is “busy creating the light of the Messiah” – that is, the light of universal peace and justice. This midrash is offered at a moment when the situation seems dire, and the ugly conflict between the brothers has exacted a terrible cost. Jacob, Reuben and Joseph himself are all in the grip of despair.
Judah has abandoned his family and his core values, and is trying his best to escape, or perhaps lose, himself.
The midrash is telling us that from this very dark point in our people's story, a terrifying nadir where we were almost completely extinguished, the light of global redemption sprouts.
Our mystics teach that the light of the Chanukah candles is this very same light. It is a light that shines brightest precisely when the dark seems at its strongest, a light that fills the entire world with hope, love, justice, peace and wholeness.
Rabbi Silverstein runs the website Applied Jewish Spirituality