Miketz and Chanukah: letting your light shine

Here’s the d’var Torah I offered at CBI this morning. (Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)


The first thing Joseph does, when summoned from Pharaoh’s dungeon, is shave and change his clothes. Presumably he does this because it’s not appropriate to appear before the ruler of the land in rags… but given the importance of clothing in the Joseph story, I see something deeper.

Remember his coat of many colors. Remember the garment which he relinquished to Potiphar’s wife in escaping from her clutches. Remember Tamar, who disguises herself in a cloak in order to orchestrate justice. Clothing in this story is symbolic of internal reality.

As a child I learned from my mother that how we dress gives us an opportunity to show respect for others. We dress nicely because that’s a way of showing the people we meet that they matter. Surely that’s part of what Joseph is doing at this moment in his story.

I also learned from my mother that how we dress can impact how we feel inside. When I’m not feeling great, sometimes brushing my hair and putting on lipstick can help me perk up and feel ready to face the world. That may have been part of what Joseph was doing, too.

And another thing he may have been doing is adjusting his outer appearance so that it matches what he knows about himself inside. A number of Hasidic teachers speak about the tension between pnimiut, what’s hidden deep inside, and chitzoniut, the external face one presents to the world. We each carry a divine spark inside. That spark connects us with the Holy One of Blessing.

That spark is the source of our light; as we read in psalms, “the soul of a person is the candle of God.” As we kindle candles, God kindles souls. If we’re willing to be kindled, we can carry divine light into the world. But we each get to choose whether and how to reveal that light.

For me, one of the challenges of spiritual life is trying to ensure that my external face matches my internal light. Deep down, I’m always connected with God. But can I manifest that reality in the face I show to the world? Am I willing to risk letting my inner light shine?

Because it does feel like a risk sometimes. This world doesn’t always reward those who let their light shine. I could be laughed at. I could be sneered at. I could be told that I am delusional, or naive. Someone could lash out at me because they don’t like my light.

One of the primary mitzvot of Chanukah is pirsumei nes, publicizing the miracle. This is the origin of the custom of putting a chanukiyah in the window or in a public place — because we’re not supposed to keep it hidden, we’re supposed to let the light of Chanukah shine.

As we’re supposed to let the light of our souls shine. Whatever clothing we wear, whatever persona we adopt, it’s our job in this world to be human candles. To shed light in the darkness, wherever we go.

When do you feel most able to let the light of your soul shine through?

Who are the people who help you cultivate that feeling?

Where are the places, what are the practices, which help you shine the most?

This Chanukah, will you rededicate yourself to letting your light shine?

 

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