In this week’s Torah portion, we read the story of Joseph, who was suffered the trauma of being abducted by his own brothers and sold into slavery. He was taken to a foreign environment (Egypt) and imprisoned there. How did he retain his sanity and not lose hope? What was the secret of his resilience?
Firstly, we need to know what his brothers did immediately after they cast him into the pit.
Then they sat down to a meal. Looking up, they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, their camels bearing spices, balsam, and fragrances to be taken to Egypt.” (Genesis 37:25)
The Midrash wonders about this cargo of fragrant spices and perfumes:
Desert Bedouins generally carry cargoes of hides, tar, and other foul smelling substances. Observe the favor that The Holy One, Blessed Be He did for Joseph. He made sure that in his journey into captivity, Joseph would be accompanied by fine fragrance and not by foul odor. (Yalkut Shimoni, 142)
This Midrash is astonishing. Here is a seventeen-year-old boy about to descend into the depths of a decadent society. What does he have to look forward to? At best a life of servitude but it is more probable that he will become a slave. What difference does it make whether the ride there is with sweet smelling spices or foul smelling tar? In the end, he will most probably be a slave.
This question is posed by Rav Chaim Shmulevitz, the dean of the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem (1902-1979). It is significant that he deals with this topic because he personally lead the Yeshiva during its exile from Poland to-Shanghi, China from the beginning of WWII until 1947. He says that in moments of great darkness and despair, one requires some ray of hope, some small reminder of Divine Providence, some indication that all is not lost. For Joseph, that ray of hope came in the form of his memory of the pleasant fragrances that escorted him to his desperate circumstances in Egypt. He was isolated, wrongly accused of adultery and consequently put in a dungeon with criminals. His solace came from the recollection of the fragrant spices. He could contemplate that just as G-d did not abandon him even in his journey into captivity, but rather sent him a sign of His grace in the form of sweet smelling spices. That was an indication to Joseph that he was not alone.
This is all he needed to remain resilient. He could anticipate the words of one heroic Holocaust survivor who, when taunted by a Nazi guard who told him that G-d had abandoned him, responded: “Not totally, and not forever.”
This explanation helps us to develop a methodology that will cultivate resilience. It is the ability to retain hope by being connected to something. For some it is family, for others it is the hope of the life he or she will have after the period of darkness ends. The best hope is found in one whose hope is in G-d. People and institutions can let us down but the same G-d that Joseph hoped to, is the One the Jewish people had hope in when they were in Egypt and even thousands of years later in the Holocaust. Joseph’s recollection of the unusual circumstances that allowed him to be surrounded by fragrances when he was being lead into captivity were what he was able to hold onto in the darkest times. Some soldiers say that the thought of a someone who loved them back home is what helped them in the bleakest of days in the trenches. For Joseph, the thought of G-d being with him throughout his captivity was how he was able to remain sane and resilient.
There are two lessons here. One is to learn to cope with despair by recalling memories that are links to a significant past and allow one to have the courage to endure the present. The other lesson is to learn to give others the love, encouragement, or even an object that will help them to realize that this dark time does not have to be the defining period of their life.
This week’s Parsha (Vayeishev) usually precedes the holiday of Chanukah. Chanukah celebrates a military victory of the few against the mighty. While we express our gratitude to the Almighty for this victory with appropriate prayers, the central symbol of Chanukah is the Menorah.
In no way does the Menorah symbolize the wondrous military victory that restored our religious freedom. Rather, it recalls the miraculous event of a lamp with oil sufficient to burn for only one night, which lasted for eight. Whereas the victory over our persecutors was the plot, the miracle of the oil was but a subplot.
If the victory was high drama, the oil was the Almighty’s way of giving us a warm embrace, an encouraging smile, a loving kiss.
It was His way of providing us with a simple but unforgettable image to foster our resilience.
We pray that during this Chanukah, we will all be able to illuminate our private, communal, and national darkness by remembering the symbol of the Menorah, which is nothing less than a call by the Almighty Himself to resilience in the face of challenge.
Chanukah Samayach/Happy Chanukah