A Light Unto Nations

This past Shabbat I was privileged to be at a lesson about this past week’s torah portion, Vayashev. Although the Parsha starts out talking about Yakov, Dr. Lynn Rothstein spoke primarily about the relationship between Yosef and his brothers. The problems in their relationship started with favoritism on Yakov’s part, but continued with repeated misunderstandings which in turn led to the tragedy of the brothers’ selling Yosef into slavery. Of course, this was ‘letova’, ‘for the best,’ as we would find out later. But although they felt they were right at that time, how could the brothers feel anything but guilt at Yosef’s question (what I feel to be one of the saddest questions in the Torah), “Haod Avi Chai?”- Ïs my father still alive?” They had taken from him 22 years which he could have spent with the father who loved him, and if they would have let themselves admit it, they had taken away this love from their father, by sending away his favorite son and reporting him as dead.

Dr. Rothstein’s review focused more on where the relationship went wrong, with a misread on Yosef’s part about whether or not his brothers were properly following the laws as taught by their father, and a lack of Dan Lekaf Zechut (judging others favorably) when the brothers were incensed by Yosef’s spouting prophecy, not realizing that if Hashem graces you with a prophecy, you don’t have a choice but to tell it to the intended subjects.

One of the more depressing themes in the Torah is the regularity with which close relationships are torn apart, and the chance for love and support is ruined by jealousy and baser instincts to win. Starting with Cain and Hevel, when Cain killed how own brother and the responded to G-d’s asking where he was with “Am I my brother’s keeper?”, down to Isaac and Ishmael, Esav and Yakov, and now Yosef and his brothers, the mere frequency of relationships breaking down is distressing. More often than being good role models for us, the Torah seems to highlight how easy it is to break up a family, showing us how simple it is to become a bad example instead.

This past summer I felt the world turning against us, the Jewish people. One outcome of this was how much more united we became in the face of all this animosity. We are always scrutinized, our every action as a nation put under a microscope. But while I was incredulously reading condemnations, I felt proud to be part of a country that warns before it attacks, and tries as much as possible to avoid civilian casualties. Yet this is exactly what we stand accused of by the world, regardless of atrocities being committed elsewhere: did we really do enough to minimize damage? The Jewish people were meant to be a ‘light unto the nations’—to be a good example, not a horrible warning. I think we are doing our best. But what is going on now in our government—what does this say about us? Not even half a year has elapsed since we stood together to face physical and existential threats to our country and people—which are ongoing, as evidenced by the news—and we can’t find it in ourselves to put aside our bickering and figure out what would be best for our nation.

Towards the end of the class Dr. Rothstein brought up the connection with Chanukah. If someone has enough oil to light either the Shabbat candles or the Chanukah candles, which takes precedence? The answer is the Shabbat candles. Why? Because they Shabbat candles symbolize Shalom Bayit—peace in the home. And while a miracle comes from Hashem, it takes our own hard work to create and sustain peace in the home, which is a blessing. As Dr. Rothstein pointed out, the Chanukah lights are lit within but they need to shine out, just like we need to start making peace at home and work our way outward. We have miles to go in this area, but I hope we keep trying and don’t give up.

Wishing you all a holiday of peace, blessings and miracles.

About the Author
Mori Sokal is a FIFTEEN year veteran of Aliyah, mother of three wonderful children (with her wonderful husband) and is an English teacher in both elementary and high school in the Gush Etzion-Jerusalem area. She has a Masters’ degree in teaching, is a copy editor, and has published articles in Building Blocks, the Jewish Press magazine.