At the start of this week’s parsha, Vayeshev, Joseph tells his brothers about his dreams. In one dream, their sheaves of wheat bow down to his. In another, the stars and the sun and moon (maybe a representation of the siblings and the parents) bow down to him. In both dreams, Joseph’s light is shining brightly.
His brothers respond by casting him into a pit and selling him into slavery.
Sit with that for a minute. Does it sound over-the-top? Sure. But I’ll bet every one of us here has had an experience of feeling attacked, or cut-down, or cast away, because we were letting our light shine too brightly for someone else’s comfort.
Reading this parsha this year, I’m struck by the contrast between the brightness of Joseph’s internal light, and the dark pit into which his brothers throw him. Joseph’s brothers resent his light. They want to remove him from their family system because they resist and resent his light.
I don’t like to think in terms of people manifesting darkness or light — it’s so binary. I want to say that we can or should seek out the spark of goodness even in people who seem to be evil. And yet we all know that darkness is real, and that it can cause harm.
It is the nature of darkness to resist and resent light — to blame light for shining. But we have to let our light shine.
The Hasidic rabbi known as the Slonimer, writing on this week’s parsha, cites a midrash that says that Jacob is fire and Joseph is flame. And fire and flame are what can burn away the forces of negativity and darkness.
He goes on to say that we each need to kindle our own inner flame. He says we do that with Torah study, and with service (service of God, service of our fellow human beings), and with holiness. Because if we keep our inner fires burning, we can counter our own yetzer ha-ra, our own evil inclination… and we can counter the forces of darkness outside of us, too.
When we enflame ourselves with Torah — when our hearts are on fire with love of God and love of justice and love of truth — then our fires will burn brightly no matter who wants to quench our flame. And then even if others respond to our light with negativity, as Joseph’s brothers did, we’ll have the inner resources to make goodness (or find goodness) even in the times when life feels dark or constricted.
It’s our job to keep our inner fires burning and to shine as brightly as we can. That’s what Jewish life and practice ask of us. That’s what authentic spiritual life asks of us. That’s what this season asks of us.
On Sunday night we’ll kindle the first candle of Chanukah. We begin that festival with one tiny light in the darkness that surrounds us. But Chanukah comes to remind us that from one light will grow another, and another, and another. And when we let our light shine, we make it safe for others to let their light shine, too.
As the days grow darker, may we enflame our hearts with love of all that is good and holy, ethical and right. And may we be strengthened in our readiness to let our light shine.
This is the d’varling that Rabbi Rachel offered at CBI this morning. (Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)