Parshat Vayeshev: Filling in the Blanks

     For the few television shows I enjoy, the season-ending cliffhanger is not my cup of tea.  There is enough mystery and anxiety in real life; who needs agita from fantasy?  I prefer a nice and neat resolution; whether happy or sad.
     As we know, life can certainly be a mystery. There are events and circumstances in our personal lives, which cannot be easily explained.  Sometimes, the best we can do is to fill in the blanks
     In the Joseph story we begin this Shabbat (Portion of Vayeshev), there are a number of unexplained mysteries.  As Joseph’s brothers are off doing pasturing in a distant locale, Jacob sends Joseph to look after them.  In the course of the journey, a man suddenly appears to Joseph from out of nowhere, and asks Joseph for whom he is looking.  Who is this unidentified man?  How did he know Joseph was looking for anyone? The man points Joseph in the proper direction (leading to Joseph’s fateful encounter with his siblings) and then permanently disappears.  Mystery unsolved…
     When the brothers throw Joseph into the pit, the Torah makes no mention of Joseph’s reaction. Why doesn’t he scream(only in the next Torah portion do we learn about Joseph’s cry from the pit)?Mystery unsolved…
  Also:  The Torah describes the pit as having no water. As our Torah commentary explains, such pits were generally dug to store water. Again, mystery unsolved…
   The Torah leaves the above mysteries to our imagination and interpretation; as the possibilities are numerous.  Perhaps the Joseph story is intended to mirror our lives: Reflecting how sometimes all we can do is to fill in the blanks when it comes to life’s mysteries?  In the end, the sequence of events described above led to Joseph’s being sold into Egypt and then emerging as the #2 leader; second only to Pharaoh himself.  By virtue of his status, Joseph became the saviour of his family during the years when famine jeopardized the family’s existence in Canaan.  However we fill in the blanks to the Joseph mysteries, we conclude that Joseph enabled his family to survive, to relocate and to flourish in the land of Goshen.
       In a sense, the Hanukkah story is also a mystery.  First of all, since the first written account of Hanukkah dates to a work (First Book of Maccabees) produced decades after the Maccabee victory, we do not have any historical record closer to the event itself.  Second, subsequent accounts of Hanukkah offer various reasons for its celebration-not referring anywhere to a miracle of oil.  Third, we know that in part, the Maccabees were fighting against the Hellenistic culture; a culture which threatened the future of Jewish tradition.  Yet, by creating the festival of Hanukkah, the Maccabees instituted a holiday not ordained by the Bible. The notion of a community initiating its own holidays was a Hellenistic practice; the kind of practice against which the Maccabees were fighting! For all of these mysteries, many reasons have been offered over the centuries.
     Eventually, hundreds of years following the Maccabee victory, Hanukkah became associated with the miracle of oil. Perhaps the miracle story filled in the blank at a time when Hanukkah could have become a defunct celebration?  A little more than a century after the Maccabee victory, Israel was invaded and conquered by Rome.  Long before Hanukkah became the story about a Hanukkah miracle, Israel was no longer independent. Thereafter, what joy could there be in celebrating the Maccabee’s military victory in a nation which no longer enjoyed the freedom the Maccabee had temporarily achieved?
     Over time, our tradition filled in the blanks.  Recalling the Maccabee victory meant little for Jews living in exile; but celebrating the miracle of Hanukkah oil had great meaning.  Wherever Jews lived, the Hanukkah menorah represented the light of hope and Jewish survival.  As long as the light in our individual homes flickered; the passion of the Maccabees was alive and well.  Hanukkah could become a holiday for us to celebrate the victory of Jewish spirit; even if that celebration would no longer take place in a Jewish homeland.  At a time when the survival of Judaism and Jewish observance was in doubt; at a time when our future was more about mystery and uncertainty, we filled in the blanks with a miracle story, which still resonates with us today.
As today, the future of American Judaism remains a mystery; I hope that we always find a way to fill in the blanks by creating new meanings, traditions and observances which will enable us to celebrate Hanukkah and the entire Jewish calendar for centuries to come.
Shabbat Shalom
Hag Orim Sameach (Happy Festival of Light),
Rabbi Klayman