During Chanukah as Jews all over the world gather around the Menorah and light an additional candle each night, we take it for granted that it could have been different.
In the Talmud in the Tractate of Shabbat (page 21b), we find a discussion of how one ought to light the Chanukah candles. In the text there we find a debate between the famous Jewish legal combatants Hillel and Shammai. According to Shammai, we are to light eight candles the first night and light one less each successive night, corresponding with the nights which remain. Hillel suggests starting with one candle and working our way up each night corresponding with the nights that have passed. As we all well know, we follow the custom of Hillel and the reason given in the Talmud in support of this custom is the phrase, ma'alin b'kodesh v'ain moridin. This means “We go up in matters of holiness and not down.”
I have always found this teaching inspiring. We are instructed to ascend in matters of holiness and not to descend. We can understand this saying to mean that throughout our days, we must constantly strive to increase the amount of holiness our lives contain.
I originally imagined this continuum of personal holiness to look something like an incline, starting low as we begin our spiritual journey's and we work our way ever onwards and upwards in our lives. However, most of our lives paths don't look like inclines; they probably look more like roller coasters. We climb, we plunge, and every now and then we are even thrown for a loop. If that is the case how can we live out the idea of ever increasing in holiness? If we look at this weeks Torah portion Miketz, and last week’s Vayeshev, we can see a boy who in becoming a man, go through ups and downs, but manages to climb the ladder of holiness.
That character is Joseph. He begins his life the beloved son of the wealthy and powerful Jacob. Joseph's life is good; he is even the best-dressed kid in town, since his father made him a fancy coat. However after a pair of self-centered dreams the next thing he knows Joseph has gone from the top to the bottom as he winds up in a pit when his brothers decided to sell him into slavery.
Joseph becomes the servant of one of Pharaoh's courtiers, Potiphar. Things go well for Joseph and he becomes the most trusted servant in the household. Things take a turn when his master's wife becomes attracted to Joseph and her jealous husband sends Joseph to prison.
It is in prison that Joseph meets and interprets dreams for the wine steward and the baker of Pharaoh. This chance meeting will have lasting consequences since it is the success of his dream interpretation which eventually gets him out of prison and into the palace when Pharaoh himself needs some dreams interpreted.
Joseph's life though hopefully more extreme than most of ours, is certainly a rollercoaster ride. Yet upon closer examination, we can see the idea of ever increasing holiness come through in his actions. A few years back in an article in Nehardeah a magazine of the Hebrew University Professor Avigdor Shinan does a close reading of the Joseph narratives. In the article we find that with each set of dreams that Joseph encounters, Joseph becomes more aware of God. When we read of Joseph's own two dreams there is no mention of God. However, when Joseph is in prison and encounters the wine steward and the baker he says "Surely God can interpret you dreams." Finally in this week's portion Miketz we read that when Joseph is summoned before the Pharaoh, that he claims to be acting on God's behalf and he mentions God about five times in this incident. In fact the most telling moment is Joseph’s answer to Pharaoh’s request for the interpretation of his dream. In Genesis 41:16 we read “Joseph answered Pharaoh, saying, ‘Not I! God will see to Pharaoh’s welfare.” Rashi explains that in that moment Joseph confesses that the wisdom is not his own but rather the words of God.
We can see that despite Joseph's ups and downs, he maintains faith and allows God into his life and ultimately Joseph considers it his mission to carry out God's will. In this way we too can be “m'alin b'kodesh,” even if we go up and down we can try to allow holiness into our lives. We can do this through prayer, through study and through the performance of mitzvot which allow us to act on God's behalf in our world. If we allow ourselves to rise in holiness our lives can be like the Menorah, ever increasing in light.
Prepared by David Levy, rabbi and advisor of the Colgate University Jewish Union.
Additional commentaries and text studies on Parshat Miketz at MyJewishLearning.com.