Yom Shabbat, 17 Tammuz 5779
Saturday, 20 July 2019
Parashat Vayeishev 2014

Parashat Vayeishev (Chanukah) 5775
10th December 2014 - Rabbi Charley Baginsky

I was finally forced this week to switch my autumn coat for my winter one, to put away my heels which require wearing no socks and reach for the more practical boots, to dig out my scarves and gloves and accept that winter is really upon us. It is no coincidence that so many faiths look at this time of year to a festival that involves light and comfort food. As the dark nights and mornings engulf us the need to turn inwards and hibernate can be overwhelming. A festival that brings light into our homes reminds us that even in dark times we have a responsibility to bring light to others.

Liberal Judaism has proudly led the Citizens UK campaign to make sure that the UK is a place of sanctuary, calling on the government to increase the number of refugees resettled in the UK from 750 to 1500 per annum through a resettlement scheme funded by the EU. It began with several successful actions during ‘Sanctuary Sukkot’ and continues as we enter Chanukah. This year as we light our Chanukah candles I encourage us all to think of the 3.2 million Syrian refugees (half of which are children) suffering during the winter in UN camps. However, more than remembering we also need to commit ourselves to not standing idly by, but rather to draw inspiration from the Chanukah candles to work for change.

This week’s portion is Vayeshev and means ‘he dwelt’, referring to Jacob and his family who were living in the land of Caanan.· Jacob has sent his son, Joseph, his favourite son off towards Shechem to visit his brothers who are tending to sheep to bring them water and return with a report of how they are progressing. Joseph is not too popular with his brothers, not only do they resent his favoured status with their father, but he has got into a habit of telling them dreams of his impending glory and their consequential bowing down to him. At the beginning of the section we have a strange incident:

Israel said to Joseph, “Surely your brothers are tending the flock at Shechem [by now]. Come, let me send you to them.” He answered, “Here I am!” Israel then said to him, “Pray go see how your brothers are, and how the flock is doing, and bring me back word.” So he sent him from the valley of Hebron and he came to Shechem. [There] a man happened on him as he was wandering in the countryside. The man asked him: What are you looking for? He said, “I’m looking for my brothers. Can you tell me please where they are tending the flock?” The man said, “They left this place; yes, I heard them say, Let’s go to Dothan.” So Joseph went after his brothers and found them at Dothan. (Genesis 37:13–17)

It is a fascinating passage. Out of nowhere a man appears, he is without name and a stranger and yet for a lost Joseph, in more ways than one, he provides direction. He points Joseph towards Dothan, a small habitation that seems unimportant in the course of Jewish history. In that one tiny exchange the man changes the entire course of Jewish history and Dothan suddenly becomes very important. From a couple of days excursion to visit his brothers, Joseph begins a journey for the Jewish people that lasts 400 years, from slavery into redemption.

Dothan is mention twice in the Tanach, the other concerns the prophet Elisha. Elisha is the protégé of Elijah and he is in Dothan when the Arameans attack Israel. Elisha leads the people from Dothan with divine visions and encouragement. From these two stories, we see that Dothan is not just a small village out in the desert. Instead, we see it take on the character of a place of revelation. Both Elisha and the·man who points Joseph toward Dothan seem to be imbued with the gift of prophecy.

Genesis 37:15 also contains the word ish, man, twice – first it tells us that a man happened on him and later, the man asked him. According to the sages when a word is a doubled in a text there is a deeper meaning. One commentator suggests that rather than the man that encounters Joseph being an angel as others have suggested that he is simply a man, but at that moment in history he is positioned strategically to guide Joseph to the place where he will be captured by his brothers, sold into slavery, and begin the Egyptian sojourn and servitude that ultimately lead to redemption.

It is, as we all know, remarkable how one chance meeting, one questioned asked, one sentence uttered at the right moment can change the course of our lives. Most of us can remember one person who inspired us and caused us to change direction. Usually we can only recognise it long after the event has passed, but when we do we see and understand its significance.

Teachers, parents and even rabbis are expected to be these angels of change but in reality most true angels neither see themselves as such or are even aware of their own impact.

So many of us have stories of immigration, how strangers we may never have really known provided for us welcome and sanctuary in this country. We too have the opportunity to continue that legacy. Every moment can present us with an opportunity to lend assistance, like the man who directs Joseph towards Dothan. Showing kindness in an unfortunate situation, smiling when there is only sadness and offering the gift of hope when there is so much despair are acts that show what it means to live a life of righteousness.

In the Talmud in the commentary on Chanukah, the rabbis ask if one candle can be used to light another, or will it diminish the other candle’s light? The rabbis answer that the opposite is true for sharing the light can only build on the light, so too when we share our passion to fight injustice it can inspire others and bring new light to the world. So this year as you light your candles, take a picture of your synagogue’s Chanukah lighting while holding a sign with #LightInDarkness and #Sancturyfor1500. Send it with a large letter signed by your members along with a small candle or chanukiah to your local council asking them to resettle 50 refugees in your area.