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What Happens the Day After a Great Miracle?

December 13, 2007 By:
Rabbi Joshua Waxman
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Vayigash, Genesis 44:18-47:27

Chanukah is much anticipated in my house, as in so many other homes -- the gathering of family, lighting the candles with prayers and songs and, of course, telling the ancient story of the miracle of Chanukah. This story reassures us with its promise of light in the face of darkness, but it also raises a challenge for us. The oil burns eight days, and we mark the miracle with eight days of light. But then the oil burns out, and the holiday comes to an end. What happens afterward?

In this week's portion, Jacob's sons have a miraculous experience of their own -- the reunion with the brother they thought long gone, sold into slavery by their own hands. In dramatic fashion, the text relates the way Joseph -- who has kept his identity secret in order to test his brothers -- finally reveals himself: "Joseph said to his brothers, 'I am Joseph. Is my father still well?' But his brothers could not answer him, so dumbfounded were they... ."

We can imagine the tearful family reunion these 13 years later, the telling of stories and looks of disbelief. When the initial shock has worn off, Joseph reassures his brothers that he is not angry and tells them to return home to bring their father to Egypt to complete the reunion. And then, as the brothers are preparing to leave, Joseph gives them one additional and enigmatic instruction: "Do not be quarrelsome on the way."

What an odd detail to relate, and what a strange warning to give. Why was Joseph so concerned that his brothers would quibble on their return trip?

Rashi believes that Joseph was concerned that his brothers would engage in recriminations, blaming one another for selling him into slavery. They would arrive home bitter and divided, rather than in a spirit of unity more fit for the good news they were bringing.

But I think Joseph's advice to his brothers may have carried an even deeper insight into human nature. In the immediate aftermath of Joseph's revelation, naturally, everyone was carried along by the excitement of the moment, galvanized by this miraculous reappearance.

Yet now, the brothers had to travel back to the land of Israel, and gather their father and their families in preparation for the return trip to Egypt.

They had to deal with all of the mundane arrangements of packing their belongings, tending to their flocks and gathering provisions for the journey that lay ahead. In short, they had to cope with the emotional letdown of re-engaging with daily life in the aftermath of a miracle.

This is no easy task: The high spirits engendered by the miracle can be so strong that we desire to dwell in the afterglow of the experience, rather than return to and confront the everyday. In fact, commenting on this very human desire, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov says that Moses is punished for wishing to remain in God's presence on top of Mount Sinai, rather than return to the world below (and all of its demands). The miracle can hold us in its grip in a way that prevents us from moving forward -- that focuses on the past and nostalgia, rather than on the future and the tasks that await.

The brothers, fresh off their miraculous reunion, were elated, and yet, Joseph knew from his own experience that these moments are fragile -- that if the brothers were truly to be buoyed rather than burdened by their overwhelming experience, they needed to be very conscious as they went on their way. Otherwise, the gap between the ideal and the real would be too great, and they would feel let down.

With Chanukah's ending, it's important for us to be mindful of how the joy of the celebration and the hope of the story can infuse our lives. Chanukah may be a high, but we can carry its message with us, so our way will not become quarrelsome.

Rabbi Joshua Waxman is the religious leader of Or Hadash: A Reconstructionist Congregation in Fort Washington.

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