Rabbi Hugo Gryn famously told a story of his father in the winter of 1944, while they were together in a concentration camp called Lieberose. Having announced that it was the eve of Chanukah, he took a homemade clay bowl and lit a wick immersed in is precious, now melted ration of margarine. Before he could recite the blessing, Hugo looked at his father and protested “we need the food – we can’t afford to waste it on a candle” his father looked at Hugo then His father looked at Hugo-and then at the lamp—and responded, “You and I have seen that it is impossible to live up to three weeks without food. We once lived almost three days without water; but you can’t live at all without hope.”
Rabbi Moshe Prager told the story of a young boy in Auschwitz whose Barmitzvah fell on the first day of Chanukah. He too painstakingly collected scraps of oil to craft a makeshift candle and invited a small group to celebrate with him late at night in his ‘bunk’. In the blackness of the night in Auschwitz, a small band of hungry and frightened Jews huddled together to watch the Barmitzvah light the candle and intone the blessings when a Nazi guard entered the hut and shouted at the lad at the centre of the activity to put out the candle. The Barmitzvah looked at the Nazi and said “we Jews do not extinguish light, we make light”
What both the stories have in common is the importance of retaining identity, and that in holding on to who we essentially are, we keep alive not only ourselves and our hope, but also God’s place in our world.
At the very beginning of creation God commands y’hee or – let there be light. Long before the sun and moon have been created, even before night and day have been differentiated, even before the division into light and darkness, the command booms out in the Universe – y’hee or. God, who commands us to walk in God’s way and emulate God’s actions as best we can, enters the tohu va’vohu, the confusion and blackness of the deep and brings light. It is a command for us to do the same.
In the sidra Mikketz, which is always read on Shabbat Chanukah, Joseph, the arrogant young boy who had been sold into slavery by his brothers and who had, by his own efforts, survived Egyptian imprisonment and become a noted interpreter of dreams, seems to shed his own Hebrew identity and becomes an officer of Pharaoh’s court. His name is changed to an Egyptian one – Zaphenat Parnea, he marries an Egyptian woman Asenat, the daughter of an Egyptian priest and wears the clothing of Egyptian nobility.
Nachum Sarna explains the etymology of the new name – Zaphenat Parnea in this way:
“Traditional exegesis connects the name with Joseph’s penchant for interpreting dreams, seeing in the first element a derivation from the Hebrew stem ts-f-n to hide, and rendering the second contextually as “to elucidate”. The name would thus mean “The revealer of hidden things”. However an Egyptian origin is evident and a widely held view regards it as the transcription “God speaks; he lives” … In choosing this name, Pharaoh finds a title for Joseph as the one in whom God speaks, and the people live
So even Joseph, the assimilated one, the one who leaves home and family and chooses never to go back; even Joseph, who marries out and whose children are adopted back into the family as half-tribes; Joseph who gives his sons Hebrew names even while describing them as the ones who will help him forget his own past; with all of this, even Joseph retains his essential identity, keeping alive hope, keeping alive God’s place in the world, bringing light into the world through his management of resources and his conduit to God’s speaking.
We always read Mikketz in Chanukah. We always read of the name change on a day we will be lighting the candles of witnessing to God’s continuing care for us. We always face the tensions embedded in Jewish identity, in Jewish historical experience at this time. We read about Pharaoh’s description of the most assimilated of our ancestors as “a man in whom there is the spirit of God”. The story reminds us – as do the two Chanukah stories of the holocaust with which I began – that no matter how dark, how distressing our world, God is not really hidden far away. Maybe hidden, but not far away, and we can bring forth light for ourselves and so reveal the divine that is all around us.