By Rabbi Jon Cutler
This week’s Torah portion is Miketz. Oddly enough, this parshah is always read on Shabbat Chanukah. So, there are a lot of lessons that connect the two.
This is the story of Pharaoh’s dream with the lean cows, the healthy cows, the thin stalks of wheat and the strong ones. Pharaoh had no idea what the dreams meant. His newly liberated cup bearer told him about a young Jewish man in the dungeon who can interpret dreams. Since none of Pharaoh’s soothsayers could figure the dream out, Pharaoh sent for Joseph.
Joseph interpreted the dream as requested by Pharaoh. Joseph, standing before the most powerful ruler of the most powerful nation in the world at the time, did the unthinkable! He opened his mouth and said, “Now let Pharaoh do this — seek out a man, discreet and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt. And let Pharaoh do this — let him appoint overseers over the land and take up a fifth part of the land of Egypt during the seven years of plenty.” He then goes on, for the next few verses, to outline a plan that will keep Egypt fed during the seven years of famine that were to come.
I will never forget what one of my commanding officers said when I was in the Navy: “Hope is not a word describing an operation.” He went on to to say: “There are those who make things happen, there are those who watch things happen, and there are those who suddenly look up and ask, ‘What just happened?’”
Many times, to get things to happen, we need to take risks. It’s a solid principle of management. It goes back to Joseph in Egypt.
Remember, Joseph is standing in front of the most powerful man at that time in history. The Pharaoh could have ordered Joseph to be executed. Joseph is offering unsolicited advice to a man who is assumed by himself and those around him to be a god! But Joseph had a good idea, and God was with him. Joseph believed in himself and knew that he was qualified to offer the advice. He had enough confidence in himself and God that he knew that his plan would work. It made logical sense. What did he have to lose? He would die in the dungeon anyway.
So why not take the risk, speak up and offer the plan. He had no idea that he would be rewarded so greatly. He ended up saving Egypt and reuniting with his family. He took the risk to speak out because of his faith in himself and God. He was not relying on hope as his only means, but he took the initiative to act when the opportunity came.
Just like the Maccabees, they took the initiative to act when the opportunity came. Joseph and the Maccabees were successful because of their ability to make things happen and not just to rely on hope. They were actors in the world, not participants. How else could a little group of Kohanim living up in the northern part of Israel muster the troops to drive out the entire Syrian Greek army!
We kindle the Chanukah candles to proclaim the miracles performed for our ancestors in days gone by. There is the legendary miracle of the one jar of consecrated oil that lasted for eight days until a fresh batch could be made for future use. There is the miracle of the successful Jewish resistance against the Syrian Greeks when the few overcame the many and those faithful to the Lord against those perceived as idolaters. Each additional candle affirms the intense and extended celebration of God’s presence in the affairs of the community and celebrates the miracle of acting within this world.
Chanukah candles have but one function: to proclaim the miracle associated with the festival. The tradition is very clear that these candles may not to be used for any purpose other than proclaiming the miracles. The miracle is the ability to seize the opportunity when presented and with God’s help.
This is a reminder that Joseph rose to power because of his ability to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams and to suggest a course of action to protect Egypt during the forthcoming famine. It was Joseph who took the initiative to bring Jacob and the family to Egypt and he saved them and the entire future of the Jewish people.
We see countless examples throughout Jewish history that families, groups or just one person changed Jewish history because they acted and seized the opportunity at the right moment.
The Zionist movement is the best example of this in the 20th century. The concept started out as an idea; it became a dream but instead of remaining a dream or a hope, action was taken, and opportunity was seized at every turn. Because there were those who made things happen, we have the State of Israel.
But this happens only when someone does all in his or her capacity “to do” and then that person merits siyata dishmaya — Aramaic for “the help of Heaven.” In Daat Shlomo, it states: “If one doesn’t use the full extant of his ability, how can one expect to receive help from Heaven which is beyond his ability?”
This applies to so many things in life in our everyday world or to the extraordinary events of our lives. As we take the shamash candle in hand to light the Chanukah candles, may we be gifted to make things happen, not to stand on the sidelines but to be actors in this world and not lose those opportunities when they are presented to us as individuals or as a people. And may we be blessed with the courage to recognize when a situation beckons us to.
Rabbi Jon Cutler is the rabbi at Beth Israel Congregation of Chester County. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.