Dreams are a dominant theme of this week’s Torah reading. As Andrew Lloyd Weber put it, “Strange as it seems, there’s been a run of crazy dreams.” In the darkness of the night, Joseph, the butler, the baker – and next week Pharoah – are visited by semi-prophetic visions while they slumber.
Joseph’s second dream has always perplexed me. What did the vision look like? How can he see the sun, the moon and the stars all at the same time? The presence of the sun in the sky outshines the stars. What did the vision look like? What does it look like for heavenly bodies to bow down to Joseph? I can’t picture the vision in my head. Jacob interprets the dream to be speaking of himself, Joseph’s mother, and the 11 brothers. Yet Joseph’s mother is already dead at this point, and she certainly never makes it to Egypt to fulfill the dream/prophecy. So what does the moon represent? Leah? Did she ever make it to Egypt? The text is silent. Was Joseph’s dream a prophecy at all?
Living on our mountain, I can see more stars than I used to see in Raanana, where the city lights interfered with seeing all but the brightest. I have also noticed what an enormous difference a moon in the sky makes. On a recent walk during a full moon, the dark areas of the kibbutz were as bright as those with street lights.
This week there is no moon, except in the wee hours of the morning when a small waning moon rises and then disappears in the brightness of the sun. The night is dark, stars only visible when the clouds break. The days are short, as we approach the solstice in a few weeks. Between the short days and no moon, it is the darkest time of the year – the week of the new moon closest to the shortest day of the year.
In the face of this darkness, surrounding and enveloping us, Jews around the world will light candles starting Saturday night for eight nights. Just when all seems lost, when we are at our lowest and darkest place, it is the small light of the menorah that brings us hope and light. Starting small, but growing, as per Hillel’s instruction, from night to night. It will get us through the worst of the darkness. After the holiday, the moon will begin to grow again, lighting our nights, and then before the next new moon, the days will start to grow longer again.
In Joseph’s dark times, in a dungeon in Egypt, forgotten and alone, I imagine him lighting a small candle to help him through the night. He dreamed as a young man of the stars and moon and sun. Did the dreams seem like cruel illusions, or were they a comfort as he fought the darkness of the dungeon that seeped slowly into his soul? I like to think that Joseph created his own pre-Hasmonean Hannukah, lighting a candle against the darkness of his plight.
At the deepest, primal level, Hannukah is not an historical holiday. It is a holiday of the small light fighting off the encompassing darkness. The story of the Maccabees is but one instantiation in history. The children’s song captures it best:
באנו חשך לגרש
בידינו אור ואש
כל אחד הוא אור קטן
וכלנו אור איתן
סורה מפני האור!
We have come to chase away the darkness
In our hands light and fire
Each one is a small light
All together we are a mighty flame
Begone before the light!
Shabbat Shalom and Hannukah Sameach!