The natural world at this time of year grows dark, cold and bare. Some find this to be a time for reflection, while others feel weighed down by the increasing darkness.
These dueling impulses are played out in the themes of the Joseph cycle, which begins in this week's portion, Vayeshev. The tension between dark and light is enacted at this time of year through the ritual of lighting Chanukah candles.
Vayeshev begins the story of Joseph's difficult relationship with his brothers, who resent him for being his father's favorite son, and for rubbing in his superiority by sharing his dreams of becoming master over the brothers. The brothers conspire to put Joseph in a dark pit, where nothing nurturing reaches him –"there was no water in it."
He is then sold into slavery in Egypt, rising up in service to Potiphar, only to be cast down into yet another dark place, this time a dungeon prison, for a crime that he did not commit. What does it take for Joseph to emerge from these dark places?
Dreams. Joseph is a dreamer and an interpreter of dreams. Dreams are the silver lining of darkness, the creative subconscious that is able to come out when we close our eyes and surrender to the sensory deprivation of winter, of sleep and of darkness.
Joseph's dreams of mastering his brothers are part of what gets him in trouble in the first place, but they also may be what keep him going through his trial of being sold into slavery. He has a sense of destiny from his dreams, of a greater purpose for his life.
Later, when he is in the prison, his ability to listen to and take seriously the dreams of his prison mates allow him, with the help of God, to interpret their dreams, eventually leading him out of prison. Joseph stays true to his dreams and his purpose. He does not let himself be distracted by Potiphar's wife when she tries to seduce him, nor is he seduced by his ego in the prison. He clearly tells his fellow prisoners that God is the one interpreting the dreams.
For us, dreaming — the acute listening in to what arises when we surrender to the quiet and darkness of winter — and a willingness to interpret what we hear in relationship to our lives can also be positive things that illuminate the darkness of this time of year. Our dream interpretations mostly happen internally; the holiday of Chanukah provides us with the chance to act out bringing light to the darkness.
Chanukah, which begins Tuesday evening and comes during the darkest time of year — on the cusp of the winter solstice and during the waning of the moon — is the time when we must bring light into the natural world through our actions. On each night, we light one more candle, increasing the light even as the days get shorter and the nights darker.
The Chanukah candles act as an outward reminder to us, a sign that there are dreams hidden within the dark of winter, waiting to come to light. The portion ends on a note of forgetting — the cupbearer does not remember to mention Joseph to Pharaoh in this portion.
This reminds us of how easily dreams and their connection to our waking life can be indistinct and then forgotten. The Chanukah candles remind us that we have the ability to bring those dreams to light.
Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College. Email her at: [email protected]