Vayeshev — 5771 — Faith in Action

21/12/2010 at 11:40 Leave a comment

“Faith in Action”

Shabbat Vayeshev

27 November 2010

In this Shabbat before Hanukah, we learn that in order to work towards something of substance, in order to dedicate our lives to something of value, we must be willing to endure inconvenience and even hardship in our pursuits.  In our last week’s portion, the Torah describes Ya’akov as shaleim – which means intact, or whole or complete – it comes from the same root as shalom which means equanimity or satisfaction.  Even as his family frayed apart in disagreement and jealousy, and his family endured an ultimately painful exile into Egypt, our sages maintain that Ya’akov always accepted God’s will with perfect faith.

 

Our tradition grapples intensely with this question of good and evil in the context of Yosef’s brothers selling him into slavery.  The Talmud teaches that when people are good, God rewards them by making them agents who consistently perform good deeds – and when people are inherently bad, God causes them to be the agents who deliver harm.

 

We must recognize too that the most obvious layers in the story of Hanukah has us remember the calumny of other nations against us – yet just underneath this we recall as well as the internecine conflict between Jews.  And like the sons did with their father, we too tell each other narratives that contain partial truths to mollify and redirect, shifting responsibility and masking true intentions.  We are to think of the miracle of the lasting oil, not as some freak happenstance, rather as the power of faith to lead us past the inducements and the expediencies of bad behavior.

 

Coupling the themes of this week’s Torah portion and the beginning of Hanukah, we ask ourselves, what do we stand for?  How deep are our convictions?  It is telling that the Torah chooses to closely follow Yosef in Egypt, accompanying Yosef into Potiphar’s home and even revealing an uncomfortable situation of Potiphar’s wife attempting to seduce Yosef, day after day, not hearing his demurring and his refusals.  It is easy to cast Yosef as a champion of faith – one who was moved not at all by the hunger and lust of his master’s wife.  It is easy to put Yosef on a higher level than we are – assigning his superhuman discipline, control and restraint.

 

However, Rashi, a great commentator muddies the waters a bit writing that once Yosef found that he had a bit of influence in his master’s home, he became preoccupied with his appearance and he began to curl his hair and concentrating on his appearance – thus, the attention of Potiphar’s wife was a God-given test of Yosef’s core issues of vanity and self-involvement.  He needed to master his shortcomings at this point, for him to be able to continue to develop and grow.  His progress was day by day – nothing too dramatic – likened to lighting one candle at a time, illuminating his progress as he went.

 

So each candle represents a light in the darkness – our Zohar compares this incident involving Yosef to the battle against the yetzer hara – the impulse to go astray  — and it makes the comment that the righteous are destined to see the yetzer hara in the shape of a huge mountain.  Astounded, they will say, “how are we able to overturn such a huge, soaring mountain?”  The wicked are destined to see the yetzer hara as thin as a single hair.  Astounded, they will say, “How could we fail to overcome this thin thread of hair?”  Both the righteous and the wicked will weep.

 

As we make the time to light our candles on Hanukah, let us reflect that they represent the daily miracle of first recognizing and then standing up to our main flaws of character.  The candles also represent an opportunity for us to assess our faith and to determine how much we trust, recognizing how little we can truly control.  Like Ya’akov, can we keep shaleim at our center, while our world seems to crumble around us?  Like Yosef can we recognize our failings that keep us back and take steps to diminish their influence?  Whether we see the yetzer hara as a mountain or a molehill can it not be dealt with, one moment at a time?

 

Let us know too that ultimately, good and evil are human constructs – yet in our relationships with each other and out in the world, these are the gauges that we have.  As Ya’akov and Yosef live distantly from each other – one in the land and one in exile – we too know that we are living simultaneously as they do – both at home and in exile.

 

Let our commitments turn to knowing what we are capable of, guided by our Torah and our traditions.  As we explore ritual and meaning, let us hold fast to the complexities and the relevant life lessons that are disclosed in our stories.  And whether we live, at times feeling at home or feeling distant from some sort of center, let us explore faith, emunah, bitachon, as a basic principle — something that we don’t laugh at or put down rather something that we nourish without self-consciousness, day by day, candle by candle as it serves to strengthen us and fill us with the miracle of sustaining light.

 

Shabbat Shalom.

 

 

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