This week’s d’var Torah on parashat Miketz, Taanit 11a, and celebrating Hanukkah in difficult times.
One of the occupational hazards of the rabbinate is that sometimes a piece of text chases you down and makes you preach about it, or, as Rashi says, it calls out Darsheini, “Interpret me!” (Rashi on Genesis 1:1).
A few weeks ago, my colleague Rabbi Julie Hilton Danan, told me that she’d referenced one of my sermons in an article on the daily Talmud page (daf yomi). The article was about Taanit 11a, the tractate on fast days, which were often declared in times of crisis. I’d mentioned it in one of my first High Holy Day sermons at Kol Ami, about how we show up in the world, even in distressing times.
The passage I quoted said that, “When the community is immersed in suffering, a person may not say: I will go to my home and eat and drink and peace be upon you, my soul” (Taanit 11a). The rabbis go on to say that one who doesn’t stand in solidarity with the community during bad times, won’t get to celebrate with the community during good times. The rabbis give Moses as an example, who held his arms up for the entirety of the battle against Amalek, saying:
“Since the Jewish people are immersed in suffering, I too will be with them in suffering, as much as I am able, although I am not participating in the fighting. … [the rabbis add that] anyone who is distressed together with the community will merit seeing the consolation of the community.
Rabbi Danan explains that the text “hints that if one isn’t willing to make sacrifices for the greater good, divine punishment may ensue. On a psychological level, this might suggest that one who doesn’t make sacrifices for the community in its hour of need will not be able to truly rejoice with the community when things improve.”
Through this text, we are taught the value of sticking with our community—however we define community—even in the most difficult times, even when it involves hard work, pain, or personal sacrifice.
But this was not the last I heard from this text. This week, I discovered that a quote from our Torah portion, Miketz, also appears on this page of Talmud, referring to Joseph’s behavior during the famine in Egypt.
“Reish Lakish said: It is prohibited for a person to have conjugal relations in years of famine, (so that children are not born during these difficult years). As it is stated: “And to Joseph were born two sons before the year of famine came.” (Genesis 41:50).
Reish Lakish’s prohibition is so harsh that the rabbis are quick to mitigate it: “Nevertheless, those without children may have marital relations in years of famine, as they must strive to fulfill the mitzva to be fruitful and multiply.” (Taanit 11a).
The rabbis, it seemed, had the same struggle I did when reading Reish Lakish’s argument. Yes, we need to stick with our community in difficult times. Maybe we even need to experience austerity and personal sacrifice as part of that communal solidarity. But, just like the ancient rabbis, we find ourselves living in “interesting times,” and we cannot put our lives—even the joyous parts of our lives—on hold indefinitely.
Because sometimes, we don’t know how long the famine is going to last. And because sometimes, most of the time, acknowledging and celebrating the joyous parts are what gets us through it.
During the darkest moments in our history, life went on, as did the celebrations of the Jewish community. Our people celebrated life-cycle events and holidays in war time and in exile, in ghettos and concentration camps.
And as for us, during these years of pandemic and political turmoil, we have still known joy, the kind that caught us by surprise and the kind we created for ourselves. B’nai mitzvah and confirmands were celebrated, couples married, babies were born (Reish Lakish be damned). And somehow, amidst the mess, we’ve also managed to find joy in the everyday, and in the rhythms of the Jewish year.
Now we are in the midst of the festival of Hanukkah, which means “rededication.” It is a time for us to rededicate ourselves to our faith and our community, as the Maccabees did in ancient Israel, and as the rabbis command we do during times of struggle. It is also a festival of kindling lights, and acknowledging miracles, even, and especially, during the darkest season of the year.
Continuing to live our lives, and experiencing joy, during difficult times is not the exception to the rule. It is the rule. We don’t just show up for our community by making sacrifices. We show up for our community by coming together to celebrate.
This week I heard a beautiful teaching from my colleague Rabbi Rebecca Reice, who quotes Rabbi Sharon Brous, who quotes Rabbi David Hartman:
“There was enough oil found for one night, but it somehow instead miraculously burned for eight. It must have been extraordinary – even worthy of a holiday celebration – to see the light burn for the last seven nights even though, by all accounts, it should not have. But why then isn’t our holiday seven nights long? What miracle happened on the first night? The miracle of the first night, Hartman teaches, “was expressed in the community’s willingness to light a small cruse of oil without [any] reasonable assurance that their efforts would be sufficient to complete the rededication of the Temple.””
Rabbi Reice concludes that “the miracle of this season is that we keep the practice going, that we keep lighting. That in these darkest, shortest days of the year, we fry up some hope and that oil of our best intentions hangs in the air for days…
And each night, Jewish people all over the world –including people who do not fully activate their Jewish lives—still, somehow stand alone or with loved ones and watch their self-made miracle light up the night.
With God’s help, life will go on.
With human hope and dreams and loving kindness and nurture and friendship and Jewish learning, that life will be imbued with meaning and that, too, is a miracle in our hands and in our mouths and in our minds. Blessed are the ones who try, who keep trying, who keep the light going with just a hope and a prayer.”
Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz